There was a report recently of a chance meeting between Rahul Gandhi and L.K. Advani. As the story goes, the gracious Congress leader walked up to the octogenarian BJP chief at the VIP lounge of the Delhi airport and was given a brief tutorial on why mainstream parties should see each other as “political adversaries and not enemies,” implying that they must function on a common political paradigm.
Advani is right. Across South Asia we can see what is happening when moderate and mainstream forces get locked in a no-holds-barred war with each other — the extreme ends of the political spectrum, whether held by chauvinist and caste-based parties, or by those with a revolutionary programme, begin expanding inwards. In Nepal, the never-ending feuds of the palace and the mainstream parties have allowed the Maoists to emerge as a major political force. In Bangladesh, the war of the Begums has led to military rule, anarchy and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. The story is the same in Pakistan where the corrupt and inept Benazir Bhutto’s battle with the incompetent and corrupt Nawaz Sharif weakened the civil establishment and allowed the army to re-enter the political structure.
Advani’s prescience is part of his Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. He is the man who has passionately argued that good governance needs to become the main agenda for the political class in the country. But as Mr Hyde, he has, through his Ram Mandir agitation, been the person responsible for the creation of post-independence India’s most dangerous political divide, that between Hindus and Muslims.
It is all right for Mr. Advani to speak of mainstream parties having a common vision of what the country is all about and where it is going. But surely he knows that at present they do not share such a view. The basic values of the country, which are enshrined in the Constitution of the republic are sovereignty, socialism, democracy, and secularism. It is not enough to invoke the neologism pseudo-secularism to escape from the fact that secularism, even of the Indian variety, is a necessary condition of our nationhood. While there is agreement in most mainstream parties over the first three requirements (never mind what Indian socialism means), the BJP sharply differs on the last named. Despite its failure in UP, the party is unable to get rid of its anti-Muslim phobia. In such circumstances, any BJP political project will remain divisive. It has already led to the emergence of a shadowy pan-Indian terrorist network which feeds off the fears of sections of the Muslim population which has been battered by repeated violence directed against their community. Accentuating it, as the RSS wants the BJP to do, by putting the ideology of Hindutva to the fore, is to add fuel to that fire.
What does Rahul stand for?
We already know a great deal about Advani’s politics and policies; but we know little of what Rahul Gandhi stands for. The political clock has begun ticking for the next elections and it is almost certain that they will take place in the coming year. If the party wins, it may persist with Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, but the good doctor is running out of steam. Rahul’s call to assume his family responsibility is likely to come sooner, rather than later.
The advantage of being Rahul, just as it was Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi before him, is that he can sharply change the party’s perspective in a manner that no other leader can. Rajiv, for example, set the stage for liberalisation by decisively breaking from his mother and grandfather’s world view. He did so because he was simply unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the world of non-alignment and faux-socialism.
The new young Gandhi scion is 37, older than his uncle Sanjay who began running the country through the Emergency at the age of 29, faced persecution at the age of 31 when the Janata Party came to power, and won a general election thereafter. What we see in Rahul is that gleam-in-the-eye suggesting that the Big Idea is about to burst forth. It hasn’t happened. Rahul as the party custodian of UP has been a failure, he has been an indifferent member of Parliament and his views as expressed through his speeches are nothing to write home about. He remains an earnest learner rather than a shaper of policies and programmes.
While Mr. Advani pontificates and Rahul hesitates, the country’s economy is growing at a frenetic pace, but its polity seems to be going under. You don’t have to talk about the swathes of territory in Naxalite control to make that point. All you have to do is to look at the political antics of Gowda père et fils, the incipient caste wars of Rajasthan, the craven Akali Dal allowing Bhindranwale’s portrait to be unveiled in the Golden Temple, to understand that India’s political system is not at all healthy. When the BJP is in power, the Congress opposes everything it does or proposes tooth and nail. The Congress is repaid in the same coin when the BJP is in the opposition. The opposition is meant to oppose. But on a rational basis. Currently it does so in a knee-jerk fashion that has prevented consensual policy from being articulated even where a consensus actually exists.
So we are left with governments, commissions, plans and projects. But nothing gets implemented the way it should. The main reason is that this requires a common direction and sense of purpose which is absent in the current polity. It is no secret that Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have little or no time for the leader of the Opposition. Advani’s legitimate political barbs on “weak prime minister” and “Bofors” have miffed them to the point where there is virtually no working relationship between the country’s mainstream parties.
You do not have to support the BJP’s Hindutva politics to see that there is considerable advantage in a working relationship between the government and the leading opposition party. By knocking the BJP off the equation, the Congress has got itself into an uncomfortable embrace with the Left, to the detriment of its reform agenda and more recently, its initiative on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, on the other hand, had impeccable relations with Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the 1991-96 period and this went a long way in pushing through the first phase of reforms.
Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani are, in a sense, already history. Their best achievement — the former’s stewardship of the economy in the 1990s and the latter’s building of today’s BJP — was in the last century. Both carry burdens of the past. Purely from the point of view of age, the challenge of shaping the new India rests in the hands of Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, and a clutch of younger leaders of various parties. Their challenge is much more complex. The new generation of leaders cannot afford to function like squabbling village-level politicians. India’s globalised economy needs sophisticated management; the country’s better-educated and self-aware population needs more than platitudes — they need jobs, public health networks, educational facilities and a polity that services their aspirations.
These leaders must have a better plan for India’s future. After all, can we live in a country where the Gujarat-type pogrom can occur, or where 38 per cent of the people are illiterate, or where Dalits must be confined to a separate hostel in the country’s premier medical institute? Twentieth century policies, whether they are poverty alleviation strategies based on distribution, or social control tactics based on violence against minorities and Dalits, will not work now. There is need for a new pragmatic consensus, but before that there must be basic agreement on the values that shape this nation.
This article was printed in Mail Today December 20, 2007