Governance and politics


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December 9, 2005. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address to the 40th Indian Labour Conference: ‘I sincerely believe that if we make the business of doing business in India less intimidating, less cumbersome, less bureaucratic, there will in fact be more investment and more employment... A more flexible and transparent regime of laws, including labour laws, will in fact contribute to increased employment. Appropriate and relevant labour legislation are, therefore, in the interests of labour and in the interests of the nation as a whole...’

September 18, 2005. Lal Krishna Advani’s concluding statement at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national executive meet in Chennai: ‘ a democratic, multi party polity, an ideologically-driven party like the BJP has to function in a manner that enables it to keep its basic ideological stances intact and at the same time expand itself to reach the large sections of the people outside the layers of all ideology...’

December 9, 2005. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s speech at a seminar at the AKG Study and Research Centre at Thiruvananthapuram (as reported in Indian Express): ‘Why should we oppose foreign companies if they bring in jobs? Why should we oppose shopping malls from MNCs if they provide employment to our jobless youth?’


THREE leaders from three different political formations. Yet, a common thread runs through the thoughts of Manmohan Singh, Lal Krishna Advani and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. It cannot be – it dare not be – ideology that bonds Centrist Singh, Hindutva Advani and Communist Bhattacharjee. What is evident here is quite the opposite – a certain impatience with ideology; an urge to break free of dogma and rigid party politics and move with the times. Singh and Bhattacharjee run governments whereas Advani was in government until May 2004 and would be happy to return to South Block, circumstances permitting.

At one level, this shared outlook speaks to the increasing divergence between the governing impulse (those pushing for economic reforms, integration with the world, dilution of ideology etc) and the populist impulse (those prompted by constituency and grassroot concerns). At another level, it signals the rightward shift of governance across the board. Official India would appear to be moving towards a consensus for de-politicisation and market-centred pragmatism which was never the case earlier, and which sits uncomfortably with the ideological moorings of the party system.

Are we witnessing a government-party disconnect here? If so, how sustainable is this division? Through the years he was in government, Advani campaigned for governance to be separated from ideology. In fact, in 1998, borrowing from Tony Blair’s remodelled ‘New Labour’, he proposed the idea of a ‘New BJP’, which he said, ‘will be guided not by the issues of yesterday but by the agenda of tomorrow.’ Advani added that large areas of governance had little to do with ideology, any ideology: ‘Good governance in most spheres of national life becomes possible only when they are de-ideologised and de-politicised.’ Narendra Modi demolished this theory. Modi returned to government not on any futuristic agenda but on the strength of a demonic pogrom against Muslims. This was not governance divorced from ideology; this was ideology masquerading as governance – draconian, virulent ideology. To those who voted for Modi, the distinction between governance and ideology made no sense in a context where the violent aftermath of Godhra was perceived as the essence of good governance.

Ironically, Advani backed Modi to the hilt in this project. Said a BJP resolution passed soon after Modi’s triumph: ‘We are confident that the Gujarat election will prove to be a turning point in India’s history, and the ideology of cultural nationalism propagated by the BJP will find wide-scale acceptability all over the country.’


The Bharatiya Janata Party returned to the good governance formula with bijli, paani, sadak in the November 2003 assembly elections. Yet, after the spectacular failure of the BJP’s 2004 ‘India Shining’ campaign, Advani was himself to concede the futility of separating governance and ideology. Speaking at the BJP’s National Council meeting on 6 April 2005, he said: ‘No single reason was responsible for our electoral setback. However, if I have to mention one of the important reasons on this occasion, a reason that will remain valid for long years to come, it is this: We must continually nurse our own ideological and organizational constituency. Just as every MP or MLA has to nurse his constituency well in order to be able to get re-elected, every political party also has to nurse its core constituency of ideological supporters and organizational workers in order to be able to win a renewed mandate. During the NDA government’s six years in office, we focused so much on issues of development and governance that we somehow neglected to pay proper attention to this core constituency of ours. We did not remain adequately in contact with those who support us and work for us because of our ideology.’


By this time, governance minus ideology had resurfaced as a fresh idea in another camp – the Congress. Manmohan Singh’s appointment as Prime Minister with Sonia Gandhi as Congress President and Chairperson of the National Advisory Council was thought to have formalised a division whereby the head of government and head of party would focus on the executive and party affairs respectively. Analysts hailed this ‘division of labour’ which they felt would give each an exclusive area to manage. Singh would concentrate on the business of governance while Sonia separately engaged with the electorate.

The hypothesis was still fully to be tested when Advani underwent another change of heart – this time in Pakistan, where, clearly overwhelmed by the reception he got, he not only dropped his hostility towards a neighbour demonised by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayam Sangh, but went on to praise Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the ultimate hate figure in the parivar pantheon. Advani had questioned the very premise of the Sangh’s existence.

How Advani paid for this ‘sacrilege’ is too well known to bear repetition. Suffice it to say that the post-Jinnah Advani is the epitome of moderation, advocate of inclusion, one who would, if necessary, read the riot act to extremist elements: ‘...lately an impression has gained ground that no political or organizational decision can be taken without the consent of the RSS functionaries. This perception, we hold, will do no good either to the party or to the RSS. The RSS too must be concerned that such a perception will dwarf its greater mission of man making and nation building. Both the RSS and the BJP must consciously exert to dispel this impression.’ It was in the course of this speech that Advani advised the BJP to reach out to those outside ‘the layers of all ideology’ (quoted in the beginning).


No doubt, this wisdom emanated from an outgoing party president, not a head of government. Nonetheless, in hitting out at the RSS and in championing an inclusive charter for the BJP, Advani was moved more by the governing impulse than the party impulse. Though Advani is widely thought to have single-handedly built the BJP, he found the highest elected office barred to him because of the image he was stuck with. He was the charioteer of the rath that brought death and destruction. He was the intolerant face of Hindutva. To this was added a subsequent label: He was Narendra Modi’s patron-in-chief. Just what harm such an image could do was brought home starkly when the United States government denied a visa to Modi. Advani would not be treated with the same contempt, but it was unlikely either that diplomatic circles would applaud his promotion to prime minister.

Pakistan provided the perfect setting for the image makeover. How much of this was planned and how much happened spontaneously is open to debate. But on a trip that was part emotional, part re-discovery, Advani found himself warming to a people and a country he had hated all his adult years. In one fell swoop, Pakistan-bashing, ever at the core of Hindutva, had been rendered irrelevant. It was as if the mist had lifted from a gargantuan, life-long misconception. Of course, the script could not quite take off in the hostile environment that was Delhi: Overnight, the BJP chief transformed from respected party elder to villain and betrayer. However, the reaction of party and parivar appeared to have only further convinced Advani that the way forward lay in moving away from ideology. That the BJP’s allies swung to his support bears out this reasoning. Advani would be acceptable as prime minister for the precise reason that he had become unacceptable to the parivar. A similar mismatch was Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s winning card.


Had the ‘pragmatism as policy’ consensus involved only the BJP and the Congress, there would have been little surprise. After all, the reform era was ushered in by the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh team, and fully backed by the BJP – at least till such time as ideology intervened in the form of a destroyed Babri Masjid. The left remained opposed to and outside the economic reform initiatives. Today, the left’s best-known chief minister speaks in a tongue that has the media and the marketwallahs rooting for him. Bhattacharjee’s Singapore trip earned him ecstatic media headlines. The Communist chief minister, breath-less reportage recounted, had called for a ‘change of mindset’, exhorted Bengal to ‘reform or perish’, asserted that ‘we are not fools’, further that ‘globalisation is a must’ and ‘no one can hold it back’. Bhattacharjee has since supplied regular fodder to the media – now promising a strike-free environment to the Information Technology sector, now inviting foreign consultants to help in airport modernisation. And then again, appearing to champion MNCs and shopping malls.


For all this show of exuberant expediency, the divide between governance and ideology/politics remains a problematic one. There are layers and nuances here which militate against any easy theorising. Whatever the compulsions of governance, government and party are not mutually exclusive. There is not just considerable mobility between the two centres of power, the party itself often carries varying strands. Those in government draw their mandates from and have to discharge their duty by the party. Government policy is shaped by party manifesto and is expected to factor in political feedback; and it is in populist mode that prime ministers and chief ministers seek votes.

Besides, whether it is Singh, Advani or Bhattarcharjee, each, by another coincidence, exists at the pleasure of a higher authority. Singh derives his power from Sonia Gandhi who has a clear social equity agenda. Advani’s prime ministerial ambitions stand checkmated by an RSS which is unwilling to give him the leeway it granted Vajpayee. And Bhattacharjee is answerable to a governing council which by definition is ‘pro-people’ and big business.

Secondly, while those at the helm undoubtedly feel constrained by the party system, it is not as if they have rejected the plank and philosophy of the party. His zeal for reform notwithstanding, Singh is a Congressman who is only too aware of his party’s larger schema, and the central place allotted to the ‘aam aadmi’. Advani’s conversion to moderation does not translate as negation of the BJP’s broader vision.

As for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), its supremacy vis-à-vis its chief ministers is beyond any dispute. The all-powerful Jyoti Basu had to defer to the politbureau when an offer to head the central government came his way. Bhattacharjee is far from being a rebel; he is a member of the politbureau, a place won through proven dedication and commitment to the party cause.


So, in effect what we are witnessing is not so much a refutation of ideology as an attempt to reconcile the new with the old, a difficult task considering the opposing nature of the two: free market and protectionism in the case of the Congress and the left. Moderation and Hindutva in the case of the BJP. The tightrope walk is evident in the official language and speeches. The prime minister’s intervention in the debate in the Rajya Sabha on the Rural Employment Guarantee Bill started by saluting the egalitarian spirit of the bill and its drafters (the Sonia-led National Advisory Council). ‘It (the bill) represents a new beginning, a landmark in the regime of rights enjoyed by our people, a landmark in our efforts for social equity and justice through the provision of social safety nets. Sir, it is a path-breaking legislation that entitles our rural poor to a guaranteed employment for a defined number of days, a means of sustenance, a means to avert distress, a means to secure two square meals a day and a means to lift them out of the trap of poverty… History will remember Soniaji for this landmark legislation, an ideal venture, that if this government is to be remembered for a single law or policy, it will be this one.’

The politically correct bit over, Singh administered a hard reality check to the NAC: ‘...Also, Sir, if we have to implement these various programmes of rural regeneration, education, health-care and social assistance, then, the public finances of our governments, both at the Centre and in the states, have also to be in proper shape. Let me say that there can be a difference of opinion about the size of the fiscal deficit. But no country in the world that I know of has got rich merely by spending its way to prosperity... It is also necessary for us to recognise that the type of practices which have grown in our country are not conducive to good governance or to promoting the growth of our economy or even to promoting the cause of social justice.’


The tumultuous course of the bill (now an Act of Parliament) bears out the tensions between the government-led and party-led thought processes. The NAC’s draft was based on the twin principles of universality and self-selection. The rationale was that anyone willing to perform manual labour at the minimum wage would have to be in dire need. The draft also prescribed time-bound extension of employment guarantee to the whole of rural India.

The bill tabled in Parliament contained no promise of time-bound extension. It also restricted employment guarantee (and the unemployment allowance) to identifiable poor households. The dilution provoked outrage, and Jean Dreze, a member of the NAC, savaged it in an article titled ‘Unemployment guarantee bill’. If the bill went through substantially in its original form, it was thanks to the intervention of Sonia Gandhi. The Right to Information Act, which provides teeth to the Employment Guarantee Act, experienced a similar fate with the bureaucracy drastically narrowing the scope of the draft and the Sonia-led NAC once again fighting to have the cuts annulled.


None of this is to suggest that Singh and Sonia are at loggerheads. Far from it. They continue to be mutually supportive and understanding of each other’s needs. The conflict is between the respective agendas. One geared towards fiscal discipline and global integration and the other towards social welfare and expenditure. Both leaders know that the gap can be met and has to be met. Sonia’s support to many of the government’s decisions, including the controversial Indo-US nuclear agreement, and the government’s deference to the party in the two acts referred to above testify to this difficult but inevitable process of accommodation. However, such is the nature of the Sonia-Manmohan relationship, one elected and the other nominated, that the advantage has to rest with the party leader. To disturb this equation would be to undermine the mandate of a government that has positioned itself in opposition to its pro-rich predecessor. It could be costly to forget that power came to the United Progressive Alliance via Sonia’s social equity agenda.

A similar process of balancing two conflicting strands is visible in the left. Bhattacharjee elaborated on this in a recent interview: ‘On one side trade unions have a right to carry out trade union activity. We don’t want slave-labour, policies like hire and fire. Ours is a government with its responsibilities towards the poor. But at the same time I tell [trade union leaders] they must behave. If you do not behave companies will close, you will lose your jobs. In our party our chief ministers [we have two in the Politbureau] do not go beyond the line determined by the party leadership. I do not like to do otherwise.

‘We have our decision-making process – the Politbureau, the Central Committee. But, at the same time, I have to discharge my responsibilities as chief minister. So I take my decisions within the overall policy framework of my party. This is my position – sometimes difficult. We want FDI, a restructuring of certain undertakings; in such matters I have the full support of the Central Committee. In some other areas differences had arisen – whether we take financial assistance from international agencies like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank. We have discussed this and have clinched the issue.’


Advani’s problems with the RSS are more pronounced, though he did try to give the issue a saffron spin. He argued that the Qaid-e-Azam’s 1947 speech in fact exposed the lack of freedoms in today’s Pakistan. The RSS was unconvinced, and with the BJP refusing to back Advani, the space for compromise shrunk. Advani’s imminent exit looks set to place the BJP even more at the mercy of the RSS. Yet, the RSS is more pragmatic in its orientation than analysts give it credit. It is aware that a purist stance will alienate the BJP’s allies and isolate the party from global developments, reducing its chances of regaining power. Eventually, the BJP and the RSS have to find a common ground.

The point in all of this is that there can be no governance without politics. It is true that governance cannot be immune to external stimuli. Isolationism is an unaffordable choice in a rapidly integrating world. More acutely so when you are seen as an emerging power with the potential to bargain. Yet governments are first accountable to their own people. To argue for separation of governance and politics is to liberate the former from accountability and to undermine the interdependent nature of government and party.