Politics on a hot tin roof


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THE spectre of anarchy is haunting the whole Indian subcontinent. Or at least that appears to be the consensus among media anchors and their esteemed panellists. Till recently, India appeared to be the only country in South Asia that was managing its contradictions in a creative way. Indeed, it was proud to be described as a ‘functioning anarchy’, when the others were perceived as ‘non-functioning’ if not ‘failed states’. But finally, according to the Intellectual Fifth Column, India too has caught up with all its neighbours.

But what does anarchy mean in its manifestation? In the extreme scenario, it could mean disintegration of the country. It could also mean another Indo-Pakistan war, causing havoc within and in the whole subcontinent. It could also result in nation-wide Hindu-Muslim riots, breaking down not only law and order but also the political process. The trigger could be implosion in Kashmir or internecine, violent conflict in the North East. But these are darker scenarios. The lighter version of anarchy could be just an unstable central government or frequent changes in governments with constantly shifting alliances, fronts and splintered parties, leading to administrative paralysis. This is something we are familiar with. France and Italy survived such forms of anarchy in the fifties and sixties of the last century. There can be a meltdown of the economy like in Argentina or Iceland. This could lead to crime, collapse of social order and mindless rioting. The mildest form of anarchy, which we can live with, would be somewhat like the political situation that existed in 1996.

The year 1996 began with the defeat of the Narasimha Rao government. In the power vacuum that developed, we saw the 13-day government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee. The BJP had only three allies and failed to muster the support of 273 members of Parliament. That was followed by a massive competition for the post of prime minister in which numerous names figured, from Jyoti Basu to Lalu Prasad Yadav. V.P. Singh was the main talent hunter on behalf of the non-Congress and non-BJP parties that loosely described itself as the Third Front. Finally a consensus was arrived at and the then chief minister of Karnataka, Deve Gowda, emerged as the chosen one. P. Chidambaram was finance minister in the Gowda cabinet, as well as in the Inder Kumar Gujral government that replaced Deve Gowda’s. It is only after that government collapsed that elections were announced as the 11th Lok Sabha (1996-97) failed to produce a fourth government in three years.


In 1998, the BJP succeeded in building an 18-party National Democratic Alliance. It was a major achievement as they had only three parties in the 13-day government, just two years earlier. But even that Vajpayee government lasted only 13 months, though from 13 days to 13 months was a big leap forward for the BJP, just as it was a quantum jump to 180 seats from a mere two seats in 1985. Yet, when the Vajpayee government, formed in 1998, lost by just one vote, elections followed in 1999. The Kargil war interregnum provided the BJP a ‘patriotic’ canvass which helped them mobilize the support of as many as 24 parties. So between 1996 and 1999, four governments were formed in four years. However, the country survived that form of governmental anarchy as did parliamentary democracy. A repeat performance by the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP in 1999, with the same number of seats in the Lok Sabha, gave a huge ego boost to the party. The government almost completed its full term and made the BJP a possible alternative, challenging the supposed monopoly of the Congress.

In 1998, Sonia Gandhi entered active politics amidst turbulent weather, having steadfastly refused to join from 1991 to 1998. Whether one admires her or not, all agree today that her arrival on the scene not only changed the political discourse in India, but also the internal dynamics of the Congress party. Suffering ridicule and insult, she stayed the course and by building a strategic alliance brought the UPA to power in 2004. By renouncing the post of prime minister, she baffled not only Uma Bharti and Sushma Swaraj, but awed and shocked the whole world.

The second victory of the UPA in 2009, with Congress winning 206 seats, provided an even greater surprise to the party itself. And now it has completed a full circle. The year 2014 could be the parliamentary equivalent of 1996, witness to a kind of governmental anarchy. The question that seems to be bothering most political parties, and even the media, is who will be the next prime minister. It could have been a 64 million rupee question, but for the past four years all the scams have been in the range of 100 million rupees, so this question should be priced at Rs 200 million!


Let us now try to visualize the 2014 scenario. The BJP seems confident that it would match the figure it reached in 1999, that is around 180. If that were to happen, the BJP-led NDA would be in power. But for that to happen the party would require the support of over 90 additional members of the Lok Sabha which is not an easy task. This would also depend on whom the BJP selects for the top job. If it is Narendra Modi, the current ‘favourite’, then there would be little possibility of forming a third NDA. But the strident supporters of Narendra Modi and his huge NRI constituency feel that the BJP under Modi can actually win around 220 seats. Then, of course, Narendra Modi would be the PM. With those kinds of numbers in the bag, it will be easy to attract another 60 MPs. But let us ignore this self-fulfilling dream of NaMo. If the BJP indeed is to get 180 seats, then the prime ministerial candidate could be Lal Krishna Advani, simply because he is the most senior and apparently has the support of Mulayam Singh and Nitish Kumar. Other contenders will no doubt emerge.


However, if the BJP were to get less than 150 seats, it would then require another 125 MPs. That looks extremely difficult, despite the Congress being in miserable shape. But were the BJP itself to put forward the name of Nitish Kumar, as a loyalist of the NDA, it would provide a window of opportunity. But this is easier said than done, because with such a large number (150) of BJP seats, the party would take a hawkish stand in ministry formation, making Nitish Kumar a lame duck PM from day one. So even this remains a hypothetical and imaginary scenario.

Therefore, were the BJP to get more seats than the Congress, but in the range of 150, it is unlikely that Advani, Modi or any other BJP leader would be able to muster enough support in the house. The party cannot win any seats on its own strength in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, making South India out of bounds. In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Odisha, the party has a very limited base. In Bengal and the North East too, the party will score a duck. So, the BJP can win seats only in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and a few in Punjab, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi. All together, that number is unlikely to cross 150, even if one were to be generous. Hence, a BJP-led or even supported front has little chance in getting to the top.

How many seats can the Congress be expected to win? The party has clearly lost the confidence and even passion to rule. The entire media is literally up in arms against Manmohan Singh, and Sonia Gandhi appears to have lost the magical ‘Nehru-Gandhi’ wand. Rahul’s plane remains grounded due to a technical snag, as of now. The party’s third and fourth ranks feel disoriented and leaderless. The party has no moorings either in ideology or idealism. So there is little that drives the party faithfuls. Indeed, there is an acute paranoia in the party. In this situation the party cannot hope to cross the 150 seat figure. In 1977, the Congress lost, but had won the South handsomely, managing 153 seats. Today, neither the South, nor the North is with the party. So the party can be somewhere between its 1996 and 1998/1999 performance, that is around 120 and 140. Naturally, a Congress PM can be ruled out. But Congress can still support a front, either from outside or by joining it to form a government. The Congress may even offer a bait to Nitish Kumar (and even Sharad Pawar can throw his hat in the ring).


If the Congress and the BJP together get less than 300 seats, then we are back to the same scenario as in 1996. So the game is open for all the dark horses, including the so-called Third Front, Fourth Front or even a Fifth Front. But such a government is unlikely to last, and we would perhaps be facing yet another election rather soon. If the Congress shows maturity, it could help stabilize a new government formed in such circumstances. However, failing such expectations, an election in 2016 could bring a Narendra Modi-led BJP to power.

So even as we worry about this possible disorder, it is not necessary to go into panic mode. In fact, despite a wobbly government and fractured Parliament, the country has managed to muddle through for the past three years. Our system and people have shown enough resilience during 1996-1999 and even earlier, during 1989-1991. So we can survive on the trapeze and the circus can go on. Perhaps calling it a circus is a bit cynical, but the term circus can also be seen in a positive way, as a ‘ functioning anarchy’, which we have been for the past 65 years.


Management students in elite institutions are offered a course on how to thrive in chaos. Indeed, there are theorists in those management schools who claim that chaos (or anarchy) is actually a natural condition. And unless one masters the art of thriving in such situations, like surfing on huge tidal waves, it would not be possible to creatively survive. So either we learn to thrive on chaos or get swept away by anarchic tidal waves. The electronic media and its shrill anchors would have us believe that a total meltdown is now inevitable. With a violent and utterly unstable Pakistan as a neighbour, and the US set to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, it could be the beginning of a descent into chaos. And yet, the post-independence experience shows that while so-called ‘governance’ is likely to be jeopardized, the fear of a meltdown may just prove to be paranoia of the media.

Today’s buzzword, ‘governance’, was not in vogue in the Nehruvian era, but the country continued to progress even without recourse to that word. From Bhakra Nangal to Bhilai and from IITs to ISRO, from atomic energy to ONGC, umpteen futuristic institutions were built laying down the foundations of modern India. The BJP, and particularly Narendra Modi, pretend as if they coined the word ‘governance’ for Oxford scholars to use in the dictionary. Just as Modi has begun to rewrite India’s history in the Christian calendar format, Before Christ (BC) and After Christ – Anno Domini (AD which means in the year of our Lord-Christ’s birth). If indeed he becomes prime minister, a most unlikely situation, then the students might well learn Indian history as Before Modi and Anno Modini (BM and AM)!

The metropolitan elite, driven by a corporate managerial chatterati, is convinced that there is a total collapse of governance. The urban middle class, particularly the sections that borrow their ‘Idea of India’ from the NRI Americans, have literally gone to town shouting from their farmhouse rooftops or 3-BHK balconies that the Nehru-Gandhi’s have ruined the country and destroyed its glorious (Hindu!) culture. It is ironic that the beneficiaries of the post-1991 new economy are the loudest in their melodramatic screams.


The visceral pathology of this elite can be traced back 65 years, blaming Pandit Nehru and even Mahatma Gandhi for all the perceived contemporary problems from corruption to rape. Today, of course, the villains are Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, and hence the legacy (in their lexicon, dynasty) of the Nehru’s. The all pervading electronic media has spread the hate virus through an eyeballs causing political conjunctivitis across the new middle class. Since this elite defines the parameters of political discourse in India, they have ‘unanimously’ proclaimed that the country is on the verge of catastrophic chaos.

But this is not the first time such apocalyptic visions are being spread. India was supposed to disintegrate and Balkanize soon after independence. The religious and linguistic divisions were too sharp and totally irreconcilable, thought the Churchillian elite in England as well as in India. What is more, Indians do not know how to govern and the whole project is doomed to failure. When their apprehensions and expectations did not come true in the first decade after independence, they visualized the collapse of the Nehruvian ‘Idea of India’ soon after Panditji’s death. When even that did not happen, these pundits looked forward to doomsday during the Indira Gandhi regime. The split in the Congress party convinced them of the correctness of their dire prediction.


The current political discourse is actually about the rise of regional forces. There are commentators who claim that the rise of regional parties will weaken the unity of the country. Another refrain is that coalition politics has come to stay, that the era of monolithic Congress rule or any single party rule is over. This formulation is both true and false – true because we are witnessing it; false because it is not a new phenomenon. The rise of regional parties first threatened single party monopoly in 1967, when the Congress was defeated in as many eight states. The DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu, a communist front ruled Kerala, anti-Congress fronts controlled Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Congress lost in Punjab and Bengal. (I recall that Seminar debated this issue in the late sixties).

To counter the decline of the party, Indira Gandhi evolved a New Deal of sorts. She nationalized the leading banks, abolished the privy purses of the erstwhile rajas, and encouraged land reforms. These policies met with sharp resistance from the Old Guard, which was committed to the status quo. The party split down the middle following the dismissal of the then finance minister Morarji Desai, and later as Indira Gandhi openly come out in support of V.V. Giri against the official Congress candidate Sanjeeva Reddy for the election of the Rashtrapati. The Old Guard, popularly described as the Syndicate, led by S. Nijalingappa, removed Indira from the party. The Indira government of 1969 then became the first minority government, supported from outside by the communists and socialists.

Intellectuals have a short memory. They had called Indira Gandhi a ‘dumb doll’. But within three years, i.e., after the split in the party, the same intellectuals saw a ‘dictatorial’ streak in the ‘goongi gudiya’. How and why that transformation took place in her personality has not been explained by these pundits. The bias against Indira was so strong in this class that they did not remember the fact that Jayaprakash Narayan had recommended a ‘Ayub Khan-style guided democracy’ as a systemic alternative for India. Most of the media in the early seventies (thankfully there were no TV channels in those days) was with the nebulous and anarchic JP movement, masquerading as a ‘total revolution’. One cannot really understand the imposition of the Emergency without taking into account the disruption and chaos wrought by that so called ‘total revolution’ or the then celebrated second freedom movement. It is not necessary to be apologetic about the Emergency or to defend the bureaucratic excesses or wild antics of Sanjay Gandhi. But it is necessary to see all these issues in political perspective, particularly since the events are now nearly four decades old.


What happened during the Emergency is an altogether different issue. What has not been adequately analyzed by the media and liberal intelligentsia are the reasons that drove Indira Gandhi to take such a desperate step. The simplistic explanations that the Allahabad judgement forced her to go on the defensive and she began to think in terms of retaining power by hook or by crook, or that she always wanted to be a dictator because of her so-called personality trait with an authoritarian streak, have little evidence in actual history. Psychoanalytical reductionism that she always played with dolls in her childhood and was lonely in life and that made her a somewhat disconnected person which led to this autocratic trait, are infantile interpretations that do not deserve serious refutation.


Such facile psychological discoveries do not explain the fact as to why she decided to call for elections in 1977, when she had the right and opportunity to continue in power till 1978 (because of the extension granted to Parliament). She faced electoral defeat with equanimity despite inspired rumours that she would flee the country as all dictators do! And all political commentators, Left or Right, were convinced that the Indira chapter was over once and for all. Few in 1977/78 thought that she had the potential to stage a come back. It is, of course, true that the bankruptcy of the Janata Party and its hydra-headed government paved the way for her to stage a sensational comeback. But why did the pundits fail to see both the collapse of the overrated Janata experiment and the overly glamourized leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan? And why did they write-off Indira so quickly? Clearly, it was not a matter of either glorifying her leadership qualities or eulogizing her role. It was a question of understanding extremely complex Indian politics, which cannot be comprehended by rather simplistic definitions of political feudalism and the so-called dynastic succession.

Coming back to the years between 1971 and 1975 which were violent, nationally as well as internationally, crisis and conflict ridden, it is hard to easily grasp its depth and gravity. The stunning victory of Indira Gandhi in March 1971, on the wave of the ‘garibi hatao’ slogan, and the mood of optimism generated by bank nationalization and abolition of privy purses, changed the parameters of power politics. The so-called Grand Alliance (Jan Sangh, Swatantra, Syndicate Congress and Socialists) was routed by Indira Gandhi almost single-handedly. Those were not the days of instant opinion polls and impromptu panel discussions. There was one poll though, conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion, and it had concluded that the Indira Congress would be routed. That was the consensus among self-styled intellectuals too.


But that victory soon got overshadowed because in the same month General Yahya Khan ordered military action in East Pakistan to suppress the uprising by the Bengali masses. The following eleven months saw the country enveloped by a growing crisis and tension in Pakistan. The massacre of Bengalis and rape of helpless women had made international headlines. The stream of refugees from Bengal was becoming a flood. It had already begun to burden India’s economy. Indira was personally in communication with world leaders and explained to them the gravity of the humanitarian crisis and explosive civil warlike situation that was evolving in the subcontinent.

The US, however, chose to remain blind and deaf, perhaps because at the same time the Nixon-Kissinger duo was working on a strategy to build bridges with China, using Pakistan as a conduit. For strategic reasons, as well as personal antipathy towards Indira Gandhi, the US supported Yahya Khan and in fact not only connived in the massacre and mayhem, but also armed the military regime in Pakistan. Europe too did not go much beyond lip sympathy with India.

The American policy towards the Indian subcontinent was not determined by the lofty ideals of democracy and freedom, but by the Cold War logic. In fact, nobody has seriously studied Indian politics in the context of the superpower struggle that shaped not only India’s foreign policy, but also its internal dynamics. Was it a coincidence that Bangladesh President Mujibur Rahman was assassinated (along with most of his family members) in 1975, that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup just two years later and hanged in 1979, and that Indira Gandhi was killed in 1984? Three heads of states in South Asia were killed in just nine years. All three were trying to build a peaceful Indian subcontinent after the map of the region was redrawn. And that after the Shimla agreement of 1972, which could have begun the process of a New Peace, was it a coincidence that the year Bhutto was hanged, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan and the Shah of Iran was overthrown in a Khomeini-led revolution? It is only after Zia established his full military authority that Pakistani forces began to directly help the Americans to counter the Soviets. It was in such a context that the Islamist fundamentalists began to receive military and financial support from the CIA. That was the beginning of New Terrorism. It is that terrorism that now threatens the stability of this subcontinent.


Today, those who glibly voice the collapse of governance, and seek ‘strong and decisive’ leadership like that of Narendra Modi, are the same persons and scholars who had condemned Indira Gandhi for the very same attributes. But a major difference was that her strength came from an inclusivist and secular approach, and not from exclusivist and communal appeal.

India has come a long way from Partition and fear of disintegration. Today, everybody from Members of Parliament to media and from capitalist dons to corporate honchos are advising Manmohan Singh to learn the tricks of governance. But the ‘Idea of India’ has taken root, notwithstanding the apprehensions of Balkanization. Let us not forget that it was Yugoslavia which splintered into its original Balkanized form and not India.

Pakistan was split into two, though it was carved out as one united nation based on Islam. The raison d’etre was religion, but that could not hold the country together. The Bengali identity clashed with the ruling class identity, which was predominantly Punjabi. Demographically speaking, both Pakistan and Bangladesh are smaller than Uttar Pradesh. Yet both countries are undergoing the pangs of divisive wars within. In Sri Lanka, a psychological partition has taken place, with both the Sinhalese and the Tamils leading an independent politico-cultural existence. In Nepal, with a population lower than that of metropolitan Mumbai, the countryside is up in arms against the so-called urban Nepal. Afghanistan is sitting on a volcano. Myanmar is imploding within, and Maldives cannot deal with itself.


In such a turbulent subcontinent, India even now appears as a stable, democratic, secular and liberal nation state. But that appearance of stability, or rather functioning anarchy, is rapidly evaporating and its faultlines have begun to reveal the tectonic shifts that are taking place, and nobody can say how far it will slide.

Will the Idea of India rise from the present crisis of confidence or collapse under the weight of its mounting contradictions? Having gone through the roller-coaster journey and survived, one can venture to say that the Indian nation is still evolving and will continue to do so. To re-paraphrase Pandit Nehru, the Rediscovery of India has begun and it is going to be a fascinating, even if at times frustrating, exploration.