Introspections At Sixty-Nine
Attempting a ‘state of the nation’ report for a nation entering its seventies, which could be considered a small (though momentous) period in its democratic and republican (which came seventeen months later) journey, is more than attempting how a PM has performed in a year. These essentials of Indian politics, party system are needed for an honest appraisal of the politics that is shaping up in India. For, India of the second decade of the twenty-first century is still looking for its political bearings since the Congress system and one-leader-for-the-nation scenario was demolished in 1989
On August 15, 2015 Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi would be unfurling the national flag for the second time since his momentous electoral victory in May 2014, bringing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in New Delhi on its own, first time for a party other than the Indian National Congress since the general elections began in 1952. As India completes sixty-nine years of freedom from the British colonial rule and enters the seventh decade of independence, society, politics and economy have undergone fundamental transformation. In his first speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, a dream for any national leader, Modi thoughtfully stressed continuity by complimenting the leaders and the flag-bearers of the national movement, his predecessor PMs and state leaders before he laid out the changes by announcing new and revamped policies for the poor and scrapping of the Planning Commission, definitely the most radical change in his first step.
His second speech would be watched keenly and would be commented upon intensively for two reasons. First, he is unlikely to speak about continuity with the past any longer, leaving his one critical flank indefensible, even while he speaks (if at all) of his policies since last year, he would have to face disappointments, if not sharp attacks, from some of his faithfuls, let alone critics not reconciled to his election. Second, while speaking of more change, he would need to sound credible in presenting self-audit of his achievements given promises he made and aspirations he stirred.
The speeches from the state capitals are no less important. Particularly, because the states have emerged as fulcrums of political activity.
But attempting a ‘state of the nation’ report for a nation entering its seventies, which could be considered a small (though momentous) period in its democratic and republican (which came seventeen months later) journey, is more than attempting how a PM has performed in a year. After all the country has had fourteen PMs till now, of which six from the Congress have governed for fifty-five years, three of them for a decade or more and two for a complete term. Of the eight non-Congress PMs, six had had their grooming in politics in the Congress. Of the only two real non-Congress PMs, Atal Bihari Vajpayee alone completed a full five year term, while Narendra Modi began his tenure a year ago as the only leader after Vajpayee to have received a five year mandate, but the only one since Rajiv Gandhi with absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. These essentials of Indian politics, party system are needed for an honest appraisal of the politics that is shaping up in India. For, India of the second decade of the twenty-first century is still looking for its political bearings since the Congress system and one-leader-for-the-nation scenario was demolished in 1989.
Political Parties and the Party System
Political parties and the party system have changed drastically since the sixteenth general election in 2014. Though a binodal federalised system coceptualised since the beginning of the millennium does not hold true, a reversal to the one-party-dominant system too has not taken place, for the BJP victory due to the geographically concentrated nature of the BJP’s northern, central, and western base and the extraordinary success rate that the party was (and is) able to compile there, has been concentrated. Obviously, though a ‘national’ party, it is still not a pan-India party. Even as the current multi-party competition is theorised, where regional and state-based players continue to hold sway in certain parts, a panoramic view is needed to comprehend the seven decade journey and its current status.
As the Indian National Congress began to lose its sheen and edge following the 1967 general election, first one without a star leader following the demise of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri in a space of eighteen months, an alternative party system in the country had not taken shape. The Congress satraps, with a weak second line in states, took charge, not to claim the national space, but as the king makers. Other political parties in the country, with the socialists and communists as the main political force, were far behind. The political right led by the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) was neither a credible force, nor a reach and political acceptance. No wonder, Indira Gandhi with the Nehruvian political legacy appeared a credible national alternative, splitting the Congress between the have-beens and a younger team led by her eager to transform India, giving the new Congress an unprecedented majority in 1971 amidst growing tensions on its eastern borders. The handling of the crisis and liberation war for Bangladesh gave the party and its leadership added vigour and credibility. However, that was lost in economic crisis and mounting protests half way through the term.
The next tenures of the Congress 1980-89 and 1991-96, despite overwhelming majority (two-thirds for its alliance) in 1980, a three fourths majority in 1984 and, in retrospect, a good government under politial and economic crisis in 1991 despite a minority government, displayed institutional, political, economic and moral vulnerabilities. The party organisation was weakened, making it dependent on Indira Gandhi as the supreme leader and making the state leadership subordinate, institutionalism was destroyed. The signs of collapse were visible in 1989-90 that picked up in fits and starts in 1991, only for the party to disintegrate since 1996 and decimated in 2014. As the organisational structure in states, districts and below were ignored, the party looked up only at the national leadership and the family and the lack of leadership space made it moribund.
The alternative space first emerged with the Left, left-of-centre and other such parties joining hands. But they squandered chances in 1977-80, 1989-91 and 1996-98 on leadership clashes. The satraps and state/regional parties filled in the void, playing king-makers in 1989 and 1996. Their roles sustained in the NDA (1998-2004) and the UPA (2004-10) periods. This coalition phase, also called federalisation of the party system, was more of a congregation of disparate interests bound by power opportunism. Their alliance with the BJP and the Congress during a sixteen year phase was also more expedient than ideological. Thus, a genuine federalisation did not happen; it remained a loose congregation brought together by political opportunism; even their common minimum programmes were ‘uncommon’. There were more leaders and political families than genuine political organisations. All such political organisations are facing either marginalisation or extinction since the sixteenth general election.
The BJS, transformed into BJP in 1980, arrived politically following the collapse of the Congress and inability of the left-of-centre and other such close groups between 1989 and 1996 on an aggressive Hindutva agenda, not as political right, but as the majoritarian Hindu right. Having ruled the country in coalition for six years (1998-2004) and having remained the principal opposition for a decade, it stabilised in states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Karnataka and developed strong presence in several other states. However, its close-knit organisation has susceptibilities of the shadow of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and oligarchic (not democratic) functioning. The familial leadership may not be predominant, but is not absent either. The party’s unexpected resurgence in the sixteenth general election (2014) with the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi displacing octogenarian Lal Krishna Advani and sidelining all the senior leaders hides several organisational weaknesses. The victory a year ago is less a victory of the BJP and more of Narendra Modi; the party may boast of several leaders, but none could have given this victory to the party. Should he weaken or fail, the alternation scenario is filled with speculations.
Political leadership has ‘contributed to the emergence of the most serious problems now confronting the peoples of the world and they are universally expected to contribute to their solutions’ has been India’s major strength and equally big weakness. Thus, ‘(we) need to know how they have contributed to economic injustice and what they can do to remove it…. And we need to know the same for problems affecting population limitations, famine coping, ecological vitality, cultural creativity, and other major human concerns’ (Glenn D. Paige). Yet, despite discussions on those who held prime ministerial, chief ministerial or party chairs, a discussion on decisive leadership was missing in India for nearly two decades, which the rise of Narendra Modi has brought back. Since his rise in Gujarat, controversies on 2002 riots notwithstanding, and eventual arrival on the Raisina Hill, Narendra Modi has been at the centre of discussions on political leadership in India.
Nehru, under academic and media microscope during his lifetime and after, has been appreciated for his institution building, but his economic policies have come under criticism. While his initiatives for Afro-Asian unity under the Non Aligned Movement has had a mixed review, his inability to gauge the Chinese mood has been the worst patch in his political career. Indira Gandhi did not show much respect for institutions and institutionlised the Nehruvian socialism as statism. Despite subordinating the party, she could win elections across the country on her personal charisma. Rajiv Gandhi flattered to deceive.
Narendra Modi is the first leader since Indira Gandhi to have won an election on his appeal, if not charisma. Though he has established a control over the party that no previous BJS/BJP leader has ever had, his pan Indian appeal is yet to be tested. Coming in a different age than Nehru, when his own party had undone much of the basics of his economic edifice, styling himself on Nehru, Modi has been attempting redesigning and retweaking of the liberalised and globalised Indian economy on sloganeering, still struggling on the substance. But his focus is very much on his own stamp on each measure that could end up at a dead-end. Modi certainly is not an institution builder, he pretty much works with the existing ones, centralising them, jury is out whether he respects them. The NITI Aayog could be credited as his contribution to the existing panoply of institutions, but by demolishing the Planning Commission, a symbol of the Nehruvian centralised economy; jury is still out on its utility and efficacy as it is still to be fully structured and functional. A demagogue, he has been criticised as a communal polariser, a charge he has aggressively denied. The scams common during the UPA II are not reported any longer. The economy is stable; however whether the economic initiatives would fast track India’s growth is still being speculated. The corporate world that supported his journey to the Lutyen’s Delhi appears confused regarding the signals emanating from the government. Each and every initiative of Narendra Modi is prefixed with a slogan, which comes before substance and indicative of a hurry to capture popular imagination; whether these would sustain when the substance come would be keenly watched. However, the most commonly asked unanswered question is the influence of the RSS and how much room he is yielding to them.
The NDA II under Narendra Modi has a gone a step ahead of Indira Gandhi to make the PMO, an extra-constitutional body first created and expanded by her, as the hub of the most governmental activities. A visit to the PMO site indicates an obsession with the one-and-the-only-one syndrome of the PM. The Cabinet Secretariat, that is the statutory body to connect the PM and the Cabinet with the rest of the government, is heard of more than before, but the allocation of duties between the two would be a classified information, making drawing a conclusion difficult.
Parliament is certainly the most important, yet most distressed institution of the Indian democracy in its seventh decade. Beginning the 1990s, most parties have used the two houses of the parliament as a theatre for grandstanding with street politics, rather than a legislative institution constitutionally designed for setting the agenda for governance and a forum for debate to hold the government responsible and accountable and present before the people an alternative agenda. The decline that set in many legislatures in the late 1960s is now dogging the Parliament. The wasted hours are increasing; the leaders and the parties find it easier to carry on protest politics than to engage in serious debate even with serious criticism of the government. In the past decade the Parliament has also been dogged with scandals, such as loose ends in the MPLADS, cash for questions, office of profit and so on.
The Judiciary has always got the top slot among the institutions in citizens rating. However, while the higher judiciary has performed creditably, with a few exceptions, it too is under stress. The controversy over the mode of appointment to the apex judiciary has come under severe controversy and debate since the NDA II has come to power. The government’s initiative to replace the collegium system of appointment with a National Judicial Appointment Commission (NJAC) is now being examined by a bench of the Supreme Court of India with the executive and the judiciary engaged in a bitter battle. The lower courts continue to crumble under their weight with no reform in sight for the laws deadly delays.
After Indira Gandhi spoke of a committed bureaucracy in 1974, the debate on this crucial institution of governance has been subdued. However, the recommendations of the two Administrative Reforms Commission separated by four decades (1966 and 2005) have been implemented only in exception.
The police reform hanging in balance since independence and engagingly debated since the 1960s, continues to remain stagnant. Indeed, some moderinsation attempts have been undertaken; dusting up the superstructure, the base continues to remain moth-ridden. In 1973, an Indian Institute of Public Opinion survey indicated that those who interacted with the police had a better opinion of it than those who did not. A recent survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies indicates that those who interacted with the police had worse opinion about it. Obviously, four decades later, the politicians, the police leaders and those operating police stations, have allowed further slide in performance and reputation. What has been ignored is that the police as the first line of defence in ensuring public security can realise the goals of a peaceful society.
With the focus of the present government on Make in India and building skills, institutions of learning, as also methods, and education they are imparting have come to focus. These institutions have always been significant for building the human resource of the country. However, the school system in the public sphere (the government schools) has severely declined, with all the parties and state governments contributing to the decline. The surveys have indicated learning gaps across the board. The school systems in the private sphere (the public schools) continue to be uneven and increasingly expensive. The school curricula have remained under controversy both for their orientation and content as well as ideological leanings. Obviously, there is a huge gap in the learning base.
The higher and technical educations too are areas of concern despite expansion. There have been severe and serious decline in the state university systems due to politicisation and academic cronyism. The Central Universities and technical institutions are relatively better, however, they too have been afflicted with politicisation and cronyism. The academia that complains of political cronyism, practices it in the worst form, not caring for the standards. With political change since 2014, a premium has been placed on in-bred mediocrity on so called ideological grounds. Obviously, the ideological battles in the academe are being fought on the political turf. The governments in the past decades have been unable to balance public and private roles in education.
With the debate on smart cities, the state habitats, urban and rural in the country has come into focus. The status report on existing infrastructure across the states is poor, with a few well-painted examples, which are anything but models for others.
Strength as the Vulnerability
Recently an uncalled for and avoidable controversy was created by displaying the original Preamble of the Constitution, without ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ added through the Forty-second Amendment in 1976. Whether it was intended, or by design due to the government change, the storm in the tea-cup died without understanding a few key questions. First, the two subsequent amendments to the Constitution in 1978—Forty-third and Forty-fourth—to which the senior leaders of the present BJP were a party as the members of the Janata Party, did not remove these words. Second, if controversial and unacceptable, the two can be (in fact, they have been) ignored in policy making, while focusing on the essential values enunciated therein—justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. There are serious discrepancies in the practice of each of them. This strength has time and again become India’s prime vulnerability.
By Ajay K. Mehra
(The writer is Honorary Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida)