Thursday, July 24, 2008

The reshaping of Indian politics: Two articles

Debate is about low politics and high drama

(This was written as the debate got underway on Monday 21st July)

At one level the debate in the Lok Sabha over the trust motion moved by the United Progressive Alliance government is pure theatre, at another it is, as all of us know, low politics. When the government so laudably insisted on moving a trust motion to prove its majority after the Left withdrew support, we expected that the process would provide the necessary political clearance to a contentious political issue — the Indo-US nuclear deal. But the first day’s debate has shown that the issue has been submerged in the din of partisan contention. After a couple of weeks of wheeling and dealing, buying and selling, backstabbing and bludgeoning each other, our politicians are standing up in the floor of the House and mouthing principle, lamenting failed alliances, and espousing the interests of the aam admi (common man). Yet a great deal of this is a charade aimed at camouflaging a basic lust for power.

There are parliaments that can transcend the society that elects them and provide it the leadership it needs in times of anarchy and uncertainty. Such was the assembly that presided over India’s independence and gave us our Constitution. Unfortunately for India, the parliament of today is a regression from those times. It is still trying to fight its way out of the divisions of caste, creed and ethnicity, and failed ideologies, and unable to give the country the leadership it desperately needs. Yet for a variety of reasons, the debate currently under way could mark a movement towards a clarification of Indian politics and show us a way out of the dead-end we have been consigned to since Mandir foundered on the shoals of Mandal. Will the lotus bloom from this muck and overcome its self-destructive opportunism? Can the Congress succeed in reviving the party that has been battered to near-extinction by the Mandal and Mandir wave? Will the Left’s Leninist politics finally catch up with its Soviet economics and go into oblivion? Beyond the defeat and victory of the trust motion are larger issues related to the political dynamics of the country. Events such as this do not by themselves shape national politics, but they do act as a catalyst to hasten trends that have already been in motion. When change occurs, as it often does after an election or an event similar to the one we are witnessing today, it appears to be a paradigmatic one. But the reality is that our still fluid politics is constantly changing and is yet to reach a state of steady equilibrium where parties debate issues honestly and provide substantive answers to the challenges of the day.


The BJP is unlikely to gain much from the current developments. While things have been going well for the party in state-level elections such as those of Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Karnataka, its stand on the Indo-US nuclear deal reveals its immaturity and lack of strategic foresight. The nuclear deal is a logical conclusion of the discussions that Mr. Jaswant Singh held with Strobe Talbott, the US Undersecretary of State in the wake of the Pokhran tests. Yet the party chooses to oppose it on a number of specious points which have no basis in fact. Mr Advani’s claim that a government led by his party would renegotiate the deal is moonshine, considering that India has, by any objective measure, gained more than it could ever have from the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency. And that powerful forces opposing the deal are likely to gain in the coming US elections. The estrangement of the Left and the Congress has been on the works for some time. It has, since Mrs Indira Gandhi’s victory in the 1980 election, been an unnatural relationship. From that period onwards it has been clear that the Congress no longer subscribed to the proto-socialist policies of Garibi Hatao (remove poverty) enunciated by the party in the 1971 elections. As Dani Rodrik and Arvind Subramnian have argued, India’s economic growth began in this period in the 1980s when Indira Gandhi’s attitude towards the private sector changed for the better and she abandoned her rhetoric about socialism. This change was also reflected in the sustained efforts of Indira, and her successor Rajiv Gandhi, to work out a rapprochement with the west and the United States in particular.


What changed in the 1990s was the need for the party to check the BJP’s rise. But the Left-Congress relationship was never really comfortable. It became worse in 2004 when the Left came up with its best showing electorally with some 60 plus MPs. The alliance between the Congress-led UPA and the Left was put into the form of an agreement known as the Common Minimum Programme. But the Left decided that the effete Congress needed stronger “guidance” and began interfering in issues beyond the CMP. This is what led to the clash over the nuclear deal. Mark, between July 2005 when the deal was enunciated, and through all of 2006, and most of 2007, the Left did not oppose the deal to the point of withdrawing support from the UPA; they struck only when they realised that the UPA government had defied all odds and actually succeeded in extracting a very good deal (from the Indian point of view) from the Americans. For a variety of reasons, including the Left’s obsessive anti-Americanism, and its latent anti-Congressism, the deal has served as the anvil on which the separation has been hammered out. The larger politics of the country, and its geopolitical needs require the Congress party to get back to the path that had been set by Indira and Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s. Even more portentous than the decision of the Left to abandon the Congress, is Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s decision to join the UPA. Since the other Yadav chieftain, Lalu Prasad, is already a member of the alliance, Mulayam’s step marks the end of a particular brand of caste-oriented politics that was unleashed by the Mandal decision. Ms Mayawati had already seen the writing on the wall and shifted tracks by reaching out to castes outside the Dalit fold and turning the old Congress Upper Caste-Dalit alliance on its head. By reorienting Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan Samaj towards a Sarvajan Samaj (all community) polity she has reaped its benefits by sweeping the UP assembly elections last year. Ms Mayawati’s political footing has been faultless and the rapidity with which she has come close to the centre stage of Indian politics is a tribute to her leadership skills. But she remains a tactical thinker. Her view of India is a limited one and does not do justice to the country’s need for a leader who not only provides us leadership, but one who represents all classes of people and all sectors of the country’s complex economy. Her remarks on Monday morning that the Indo-US nuclear deal would lead to war on Iran would be amusing, if they were not made by a leader of her stature. She clearly had an eye on the state’s significant Shia community which is pro-Iran and on her need to attract the Sunni-dominated Deobandi clergy which is anti- American.


There is nothing inherently wrong with her stand. In democracies, foreign policy is often made on the basis of lobbying and electoral interests. But this must be done with care and foresight. In the early 1980s, Indira Gandhi decided to support Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka with an eye on the politics of Tamil Nadu. The country had to pay a heavy price for permitting such sectional interests to override national ones. Being theatre, the trust debate has been more of sound and noise than substance. Yet, it marks a real turning point in Indian politics. Winning and losing the trust motion will, in retrospect, hopefully, be an episode in a development that could result in a more stable and ideologically coherent polity. For the moment, however, our parties and politicians would be well advised to heed Sun Tzu’s dictum that “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Mail Today July 22, 2008


Congress must see crisis as opportunity for change

Dr Manmohan Singh has managed to be in the eye of two major political storms that have hit the country in the past two decades. He became the finance minister in the wake of the 1991 election that saw the assassination of Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi, an event that came shortly after Indian gold reserves had to be shipped to London, because lenders were not sure of our national solvency. India was compelled to undertake a programme of liberalisation and delicensing, and the consequences were the unshackling of the Indian giant. Today, he is the prime minister when an angry group of Leftists who were allied to the United Progressive Alliance government have charged him with betraying the mandate of the 2004 elections and steering the country towards a close alliance with the United States of America and so have set in motion a process to bring down his government. Though the Singh government has brought the country unprecedented economic growth, the challenge comes at a time when inflation is at a 13-year high and there seems to be no stopping the surge in international oil prices. Notwithstanding this, the political crisis of today presents the Congress party a historical opportunity to align its politics closer to its own beliefs, rather than remain under the diktat of orthodox communist parties which have blocked all attempts at introducing second generation reforms so desperately needed by the Indian system. After the chaos and confusion of the past decades, the dynamic now seeks to move towards establishing two major political formations in India — one led by the Congress with a left-of-centre alignment, and the other by the BJP with a right-of-centre approach. What drives the process is, to state in Marxist terms, the need for a political superstructure that will be in tune with the new economic realities of the country.

The needs of the India of 2008 are very different from those of mid-1991, yet our political rhetoric has remained trapped in a period that saw the rise of Mandal and the Mandir. India's young population requires meaningful education and occupations that will give them a life-style to which they aspire. The rural population needs to get out of the rut of illiteracy, backwardness and stagnation. India needs to reorient itself to cope with the opportunities it has discovered in the globalised world which is itself in the throes of enormous change.


There are superficial similarities between the two crises — principally that economic crises were intersected by political crisis as well. The 1991 crisis took place in the backdrop of a major global political development —the collapse of the Soviet Union and what it represented. India's political crisis of 2008 plays itself out in the background of another global crisis, but a purely economic one. The rise of commodity prices, especially of food, iron ore and steel, and oil is a consequence of global trends which have been compounded by the sub-prime crisis in the US, triggered by unsustainable banking practices. In the backdrop, as it were, is the political failure of the US to provide leadership to the world in confronting the issues of terrorism, rising commodity prices and climate change. In the twenty years of so since economic liberalisation was initiated, the Indian polity has witnessed great changes. After the 1991 elections, the election outcomes continued to display greater and greater fragmentation because even the rise of the BJP proved fitful. So distorted was the polity that at one stage a United Front government with communist participation (a 1930s throwback) actually took office. But the 1990s saw the high tide of the Mandal and Masjid confrontation. That tide has now receded. The Mandal movement which split with the foundation of the Samajwadi Party in UP in 1992 and Lalu's Rashtriya Janata Dal in 1997, has reached a state of equilibrium. The Bahujan Samaj Party, an autonomous Dalit-pride movement, has emerged as a strong force, but seems unable to grow out of UP. The BJP's Mandir rhetoric, too, has become sterile. Narendra Modi needs “Gujarati asmita (pride)” and economic performance to win the election, not Ram. The BJP’s victory in Karnataka owed itself as much to its good leadership and campaign, as to the Congress' poor management of its own campaign. The non-response to the Sethu Samudram issue indicates that the party will have to find another slogan in the next Lok Sabha election. What repeated elections have shown is that the BJP's tactic of building up a majority on the basis of anti-Muslim policies was the very one that was preventing it from establishing itself as a true all-India party. The BJP was most successful when it subsumed the Congress and its agenda, and least so when it put forward its Hindutva face. Vajpayee, and following him now Advani, have striven mightily to try and reach out to the Muslim minority, but are hampered by their own party's DNA.


The 1991 reform took place by stealth. P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh continued to extol the virtues of Nehruvian socialism, even while undermining it. Even while they were re-writing the rules of the Indian economy, they were careful to appear politically orthodox. The rise of the BJP, at the expense of the Congress in states like UP, led to the Left ending its historical policy of opposing the Congress and seeking to create a common platform on the basis of secularism. No matter what they may think of themselves today, they were not natural allies. In the post Emergency period in 1977, and again when the Bofors issue came up in 1987, the Left was clearly aligned to the BJP in attacking the Congress party. The Left seems set to reprise that role once again in the coming trust vote. The CPI(M)'s bottom line aim, even today, is a government in which it is a dominant partner. That formula is another version of the UF tactic, first evolved by Trotsky in 1917.


What is happening today is that the Congress, and indeed the political system at large, is facing the pressure of realigning the politics of the country on the basis of the economics that was put in place in the 1990s. This has two dimensions — one domestic and the other foreign. Within the country, there is need for a new set of policies on a range of issues like education, agriculture, manufacturing that reflect the free-market orientation of the country. Abroad, India needs to align itself with market-friendly countries, regardless of ideology. The appellation “socialist” inserted into the Constitution's preamble during the Emergency, has clearly become an anachronism. Even as the BJP stumbles towards that world, trying to shed its kamandal baggage, the unreconstructed Left remains a joker in the pack because it is seeking to establish a political reality that no longer has any practical basis in the new globalised world. No matter what happens in the trust vote in Parliament, it is clear that the present political developments are less of a crisis and more of the shifting of political plates which will eventually lead to the stabilisation of the Indian polity, rather than its collapse. It is important for the Congress party to see this for what it is. The revitalisation of the party cannot come on a status quo ante kind of a format leading it back to the mid-1980s. Rather it requires the party to adjust itself to the post-Mandal, post-Mandir politics, and shape political alliances based on its core ideology of secularism and liberalism. Above all it requires a modernisation of the party's leadership system. Family dominance is a fact in Indian politics, but it needs to be far more coherent and decisive than it has been in the case of the Congress party.
Mail Today July 16, 2008

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