Politics of reordering chaos


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IN the last week of November 2000 that wonderful heretic, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, former prime minister, issued a public statement. After making the obligatory references to the need for a Third Front, this marvellous practitioner of ‘politics of chaos’ excused himself from involvement with any such enterprise. He then added: ‘I believe while political parties are important in their own area, there is a greater need of issue based people’s action. Experience, world over, has shown that whatever the political party in power, a dichotomy between the government and the people does develop over a period of time. There is a perpetual need to bridge this gap to make democracy a living experience to the people. Democracy should be a daily experience rather than merely a five-year "mela". This is possible only when people live democracy by their organized action. It is the best way to keep political parties on track. Peoples action on an ongoing basis is very much needed beyond elections and beyond governments. Whatever governments we may make, democracy will not work unless people make it work themselves.’

Predictably, V.P. Singh was mostly ignored by the ‘mainstream’ media. Of those who took note of him, chose to focus on his views on the workability of a Third Front. Most missed his diagnosis of the growing dysfunctionality of traditional politics as the mediating agency between an increasingly restive citizenry and an incrementally shrinking Indian state, otherwise omnipotent and omnipresent all these decades. Unconcerned and undeterred, Singh proceeded to Chennai where he led a symbolic farmers’ protest at the Madras Port, trying to block the unloading of highly subsidized agricultural products from other countries, an import obligation mandated by the new WTO-based international economic regime.



The contradictions – and pains – are just beginning to be felt. This protest was merely a tip of the iceberg of the countrywide unrest among various farming communities – in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh. And the farmers are not the only ones feeling the impact of the new globalized order. The politically correct expression is ‘globalization anxiety’.

In the first week of December came the soul-lifting news of Priyanka Chopra being crowned the world’s most beautiful woman at the annual Miss World beauty carnival in London. This cheerful news was, predictably enough, front-paged, back-paged, in-paged, supplemented and otherwise celebrated as the final evidence of India’s superpower status in information technology and female beauty. What a moment of national satisfaction it was made out to be! Chopra’s triumph was a beautiful distraction from farmers’ suicides, killings in Kashmir, ethnic violence in Assam, excesses of an ivory-poacher in Karnataka/Tamilnadu, and the ravages of floods and drought in this or that part of the country.

The almost wilful downplaying of the farming community’s plight all these months, and the determined serenading of beauty queens, points to a new creeping disequilibrium among forces, perceptions and reflexes in the Indian polity. The crux of the problem can be simply stated. The old and dated political technologies and rhetoric of egalitarian social dreams continue to be deployed by antagonists and adversaries pursuing traditional agendas, while new economic transactions and newer information exchange opportunities have overwhelmed and, increasingly bypassed the existing institutions and institutional managers of the Indian state.

In sharp contrast to the sense of stability and adequacy that was attributed to the post-economic reforms era of the 1990s, there is an all round awareness of new uncorked anxieties and pressures on our collective arrangements. It seems it was only a few years ago that judgments were being made about the ‘ruralization of the power structure’ in which the invincibility of the farming community’s clout was considered irreversible.1



Also, judgments were made about the space carved out for themselves by the newer, assertive under-classes at the high table.2 Suddenly it seems that the liberalization/globalization processes have brought in their wake rewards and penalties which facilitate setting up a different – higher – table, with or without the state’s cooperation. A small section is even confident of taking on the global challenges.3

The problem, then, becomes one of how to reinforce the institutional efficacy, efficiency and decency of the Indian state so as to meet, competently and adequately, the external demands intrinsic to the era of globalization, and internal turmoil inherent in the never-ending struggle over reallocation and misallocation of resources among contending classes and groups.4 New and potential hegemonies are questioning and challenging the entrenched economic, intellectual and cultural orthodoxies.

In other words, the central task the Indian polity finds itself having to undertake is one of meditating the mix of old and new disputes without the state having either the earlier resources, the mandate or an unadulterated legitimacy. The matrix of chaos and order is being reworked; the challenge before the governing class is to calibrate change so as to ensure that order does not degenerate into chaos.



A number of tasks demand our collective attention. First, it appears that the basic concept of ‘public purpose’ needs to be redefined and renegotiated. At the core of the Nehruvian consensus was the dream of an egalitarian order (eradication of poverty, social equality, elimination of caste barriers, empowerment of women, minorities, and the dalits). This promise of an egalitarian order became the raison d’etre of the legitimacy of the Indian state, which in turn demanded – and got – obedience, allegiance and taxes from one and all. The fact that the Nehruvian consensus has been pronounced to have dissipated itself only means that the elites – political, bureaucratic, economic, business, media – no longer subscribe to the desirability of the idea of an egalitarian order.

While no ‘mainstream’ voice has been raised against the old public purpose, enough arguments have been advanced to suggest the irrelevance of that concept. The BJP is perhaps the first organized voice demanding a redefinition of national public purpose. In its Chennai Declaration (29 December 1999), the BJP talked of a new public purpose: ‘21st Century, India’s Century’. It argued: ‘The only mantra that will transform this vision into reality is the Mantra of Development – faster development, equitable development and development of every aspect of life. This demands a change of mindset in the party, in the government and among the people.’ This insistence on the need for a change of mindset is essentially a plea for abandoning old concerns and commitments.



Related to the overall question of national public purpose is the matter of political competition and party activity in an age of shrinking state power and patronage. If in the immediate post-Independence decades of Congress dominance, the political class was motivated enough to want to experience the joy and ecstasy of building a new India, in the later years it had the satisfaction of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement from the activities of an ever expanding state committed to a welfare agenda. But, now, if the new liberalized/globalized order will insist on a corruption-free and transparent ways of letting the market function according to its own laws and vagaries, how will the vast army of political cadres/activists motivate itself to ‘serve’ the ‘public’?

As it is, the best and the brightest have kept away from the ‘public’ domain for sometime now; but, if the state is being asked to mend its wasteful and near parasitical ways, what mix of motives and desires would impel an otherwise employable young man to make a profession of public life? Does this not mean that the political cadres would be drawn from lumpenised, marginalised groups, otherwise unfit for the job market; simultaneously, political ‘leadership’ slots could also be filled by the super-affluent, who would use their perch in public life to multiply assets.



Political life, in other words, is increasingly becoming a site for the crook, the criminal and the compromised. Normative dilemmas apart, such a political ‘elite’ would neither have the backbone nor competence to think its way through conflicting temptations and vulnerabilities in an increasingly inter-connected and inter-dependent world. The Americans are forever patting themselves on the back for making the Chinese sign ‘a comprehensive market-opening agreement covering virtually every part of China’s economy.’5

The BJP, in a way, took note of the emerging problem. Its Chennai Declaration talked of the ‘ideal BJP worker’. It stated: ‘Our party must also strengthen unity and discipline at all levels. Senior functionaries have a greater responsibility to quickly correct lapses in this regard. Constant inner-party consultations, both formal and informal, in the framework of internal democracy, promotion of the spirit of camaraderie and cooperation, self-initiatives to take up difficult tasks, readiness to do mass work and take up people’s causes at all levels, and shunning any instinct to place oneself above the organization – these are the hallmarks of a true BJP worker. Individualism, groupism, factional fights, neglect of teamwork, power lust and jostling for positions are totally alien to both our political philosophy and our proud organizational tradition. Sadly, developments in recent years involving some leading functionaries of the party in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh have shown that our party is not immune to these pathogenic political influences.’ The BJP is trying, perhaps futilely, to escape the fate that has befallen the Congress, a party now firmly in the grip of parasitical ‘cadres’.



It is against these twin processes – of declining nobility of public purpose and the declining quality of political cadres – that the task of reinforcing the political capacities of the Indian state has to be undertaken. The marked deterioration in party loyalties and discipline has eroded the efficacy of leaders to carry their parties with them; the leaders in turn have learnt the inevitability of sharing power with colleagues (in sharp contrast to the Supreme Leader model practiced by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, a model that contributed enormously to the irreversible decline in the party’s electoral and political fortunes). These processes have hastened fragmentation of the party system, and have now put a premium on fragmentation in this age of coalitions.

It then follows that, sooner or later, collective attention must focus on how to minimize the unproductive cost of political disputes and competition. If the political class is to retrieve its lost moral authority and popular acceptability, it would have to recognize and address the issue of ‘too much politics’.

During the last winter session, Parliament did not function for seven days because the opposition parties vied with one another to capture the ‘secular’ space. While the very notion of a democratic arrangement entitles everyone to demand attention for his/her cause, grievance, fears, aspirations and dreams, after five decades of uncompromising competitive politics there is expectation that political leaders and parties observe a semblance of sincerity and transparency in their observable conduct and professed commitments. Only an austere and honest political class can command the requisite legitimacy and moral authority to state, define and articulate ‘national’ interests and public purpose.



Thus, the central task is to reorient the rites and rituals of the Indian polity to meet the twin processes of liberalization/globalization. Outsiders have noted the curious, almost surreptitious ways in which reforms have been ‘sold’ to the Indian people: ‘...more than nine years in this process of economic liberalization, the political establishment as a whole is still in a mood of more or less acceptance rather than outright support. Reform has still to become a rallying flag. There have been many comparisons between China and India as they go through the same type of process, but there is one key aspect that is not mentioned enough. It is that where China has succeeded – and where India has still a long way to go – is in making economic growth and the achievement of prosperity a national obsession.’6

Again, it is the BJP that has realized that the old order is truly over, and is preparing itself for the new arrangement. Its Chennai Declaration noted: ‘Mindful of its new role and responsibilities as a governing party, the BJP shall inculcate among all its activists and members an attitude of finding solutions, rather than merely focusing on problems. When new initiatives and hard decisions are needed – and they will be needed if India has to break free from the accumulated legacy of malgovernance by the Congress and take to the path of rapid and balanced growth – the party shall redouble its efforts to mobilize popular support for them. There is a need for both the government, the party and our allies in the NDA to effectively communicate to the people that today’s temporary hardships will pave the way for a better tomorrow.’

Needless to add, large chunks of the BJP constituency remain far from convinced that ‘temporary hardships’ would bring ‘a better tomorrow’. A leading ideologue, K. Govindacharya, has already gone out, on ‘study leave’, and has since spoken out against the demands of globalization. Also, the NDA arrangement ensures that avowed ‘populists’ like Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav preside over the corporatisation/privatization of their respective economic backyards.



On its part, the Congress Party found itself having to renegotiate the agenda of economic reforms in the context of globalization. It has concluded a three-month ‘introspection’ exercise and has, more or less, endorsed the path its government chose to travel in 1991. Indeed, for all their pronounced reservations, the left parties too were happy – and will be happy again – to be part of the United Front arrangement that allowed P. Chidambaram to carry on the liberalization/privatization agenda.

In the months to come the Indian polity will find itself subjected to much greater turbulence than it experienced in the Mandir/Masjid/Mandal phase. The political leadership, across party lines, would be called up to reinforce the efficacy of the Indian state so as to re-energize the governing institutions.




1. Ashutosh Varshney, Democracy, Development and the Countryside: Urban-Rural Struggles in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

2. Zoya Hasan, ‘The Political Career of the State in Independent India’, in Zoya Hasan (ed.), Politics and the State in India. New Delhi: Sage, 2000.

3. At the annual congregation of corporate India, under the World Economic Forum, Anil Ambani, scion of our most successful industrial house, expressed the up-beat mood: ‘In a globalised and borderless environment today, talent is footloose and seeks out the best opportunities and quality of life, worldwide. All corporations – Indian or international – are faced with the challenge of attracting the best talent from the global pool. Cross-border mobility will be the norm – India, and Indian corporations, need to position themselves as attractive destinations, for domestic and international talent, if they have to compete in the global markets.’

4. There is now a vicious circle between low performing state governments and their ability to attract investements. See, Montek S. Ahluwalia, ‘Economic Performance of States in Post-Reforms Period’, Economic and Political Weekly 35(19), 6 May 2000.

5. Charlene Barshefsky, U.S. Trade Representative, at National Press Club, 19 October 2000 (text: USIS).

6. Claude Smadja, Facing the New Bench-marking: Challenge For India, India Economic Summit 2000, in New Delhi, 27 November 2000.