Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Beyond renunciation

Disinterested observers will allow that Sonia Gandhi’s act of renunciation has elevated the level of public discourse by returning to it the spirit of sacrifice, which has been as good as extinct for a very long time. It has naturally also raised the Congress leader’s stock immeasurably.

If the tone of humility set by Sonia in an hour of personal triumph is anything to go by, one may just have reason to hope that the coalition government that Manmohan Singh heads will be permitted by leaders of parties that make up the United Progressive Alliance to conduct itself with dignity.

Multi-party dispensations are known to have a precarious shelf-life. The tangles are at bottom nearly always related to power rivalries between individuals and between parties. Sonia Gandhi’s personal example and style may ordinarily be expected to have a soothing effect in this respect as far as government quarters go. Nevertheless, worries will remain until it seems to be going smoothly.

The accretion of power the Congress leader has now come to enjoy — on account of the stunning election results and her demonstration of forbearance — cannot but make her the most critical command node in the system. Indeed, she can hardly help that. But a locus of inordinate influence can either strive to eat into the legitimate authority of the prime minister and his government, or consciously choose to be a benign guiding hand whose very presence is seen by all concerned as being reassuring. Much depends on the person wielding the charismatic authority.

Sonia’s repudiation of the highest office in the land should serve to enthuse those who will soon be operating the government. Frankly, her waving the big prize away is a revolutionary act, and not only a gesture of renunciation. By choosing ia to be prime minister when it was being thrust upon her, Sonia has cut at the roots of the ‘dynasty’ argument as concerns the Congress party. If a Nehru-Gandhi is available, it is inevitable that he or she will be prime minister, runs the over-stretched logic. Sonia’s stance is a refutation of the thesis.

The circumstances of her self-denial are certainly uncommon: it came when more than 300 newly-elected MPs, including those who had once opposed her on the ‘foreign origin’ issue, were pushing Sonia Gandhi hard to become prime minister, and the president had invited her to commence the formalities by tendering letters of
support. It is also appropriate to note that by turning down prime ministership, Sonia has not made it any easier for her son, Rahul, to occupy that position some day.
If that were to happen, he will have to earn it just like his mother had to, though she was to decline it. It is too hackneyed a thing to say — the ‘argument’ is certainly doing the rounds- that Manmohan Singh’s job is essentially to keep the seat warm for Sonia or for Rahul. This is an affront to the high personage who is now prime minister. In real life, there is no such thing, and politics is known to take surprising turns, as it has just done for example.

At any rate, Manmohan Singh is known to be imbued with a high sense of principle and is not expected to do the wrong thing knowingly, or to flinch from performing his constitutional obligations. Besides, no Indian prime minister has been a rubber stamp, even if they appeared to be stop-gap, as in the UF era. Sonia has been around long enough to understand this. She has seen loyalists and friends melt away when the going got hard on account of political adversity. She should certainly know that a quid pro quo of a certain order is simply out of the question in public life. There are far too many imponderables at work.

Sonia Gandhi’s far-reaching decision has certainly put paid to the plans of the RSS/BJP to try and create strife on the ‘foreign origin’ issue so that the UPA’s innings is made to start on the unpleasant note of possibly having to battle organised elements on the streets. But the Congress leader will need to recognise the depths of disappointment of many who had voted for her party because she led its election campaign.
She will need to address this issue when she focuses on reviving her party organisation in the states. Remember, this was, after all, an election in which ordinary voters did the leading. That is why the BJP was in for the shock of its life. If people had not taken matters in their own hand and had elected to be misguided by the official propaganda, an ‘upset’ might not have occurred.

Regimes in this country have never changed in a ‘normal’ election, ie. one not driven by the emotion quotient, as in the case of the Emergency, Bofors, Mandal Commission or the Babri destruction. The remarkable thing about General Election 2004 is the electoral disgracing of an entrenched party and its top leaders when times were perfectly ordinary.
Therefore, the Sonia Congress and the Manmohan government will need to be particularly solicitous of the popular mood and expectations. This means, above all, having to work hard at making the government work.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Turning it down

Whichever way you looked at Election-2004, it belonged to only one person: Sonia Gandhi. The Congress president fought the most daunting odds to give her party the kind of victory no one ever imagined. The Congress came back from behind to emerge with the highest vote share and the largest number of seats. But more remarkably, she won the unanimous support of over 300 legislators, among them men who had earlier opposed her on grounds of her foreign origin. Sonia had a mandate way beyond anything the outgoing government enjoyed in its five years in office. By all canons of democracy — and decency — she ought to have been sworn in as India ’s next prime minister. That things have turned out differently is an adverse comment, not on the democratic credentials of this wonderful country and the large masses of its people, but on the behaviour of a handful of men and women who, through sheer political blackmail, have sought to reverse the electoral mandate. It is a sad day for India . And yet, even if regretfully, the nation must accept her decision. By stepping aside to make way for another candidate, Sonia has emulated a tradition of renunciation that, ironically, has long been held to be the pinnacle of Indian civilisational thought.

Sonia can rest assured, though, that her stock will go up — as much here as internationally. By the same token, those in the BJP and the RSS who have spearheaded a hate campaign against her, must know that they have come out of this sordid drama looking like street bullies: The display of shakti by Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti did little for the famed maryada of the Hindutva parivar. This is all the more unfortunate considering the nature of the electoral verdict which was unambiguously against this kind of xenophobia. However, such is the politics of blackmail that it spares no one. It won’t be long before these hoodlum tactics rebound on the political class and the country. We have seen a manifestation of this in the behaviour of the stock market in the last few days. Clearly, the record fall of the Sensex by 564 points on Monday and its instant recovery within minutes of information that Sonia will be stepping down, cannot be explained in purely market terms. That markets should play such a role, by design or default, in the formation of government bodes ill both for our democracy and the future of free enterprise. This is a travesty of the larger ideals that capitalism, globalisation and democracy represent.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Elections in India

Miracles never cease to happen in India.
After a decade-long lay-off, the Congress, synonymous with the Nehru-Gandhi family, rode back to a position where it may be asked to steer the destinies of a billion people. In a convincing verdict, the world"s largest electorate inflicted a massive defeat on the country"s longest-lasting coalition of disparate political parties, the National Democratic Alliance headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was an outcome that upset all calculations of pollsters and media pundits and one that went beyond Congress"s own expectations. It is now expected that Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, as leader of the party that won most seats in Parliament, would become India"s second woman prime minister. She will also be the fourth member of the Nehru family to occupy that office.

The results have brought doubtful relief to President Abdul Kalam whose task it will be, in the face of a hung parliament, to determine the tenability of clashing claims emanating from a welter of political formations welded on the spur of the moment to add up to the magical figure of 272 MPs in a house of 543 members. A day before the results, several scribes worked overtime to remind the President of his constitutional obligations in the event of a badly fractured verdict. Their recommendations ranged from calling the leader of the largest single party to inviting the leader of the largest single coalition of parties forged before the elections. But that has not worked in 1996 when President Shankar Dayal Sharma invited the Bharatiya Janata Party to form government. That government lasted only 13 days.

If media experts are to be believed, it is what they call the anti-incumbency factor that brought back the mothballed Congress warhorse into reckoning. This logic does not, however, adequately explain how the Marxists have managed to remain in office for nearly a quarter century in West Bengal or how the Congress Party itself headed by Jawaharlal Nehru and after him his daughter had an uninterrupted run of power at the center from 1947 to 1977. Even the man and wife duo of Laloo Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi in the state of Bihar have kept anti-incumbency at bay for the last 13 years. Voters are not children who get tired of the same toy and howl for a new one.

The BJP blamed the exit polls for its debacle. Whether exit polls are ethical or not, they have caused havoc at the stock exchanges. On the day the state government of Chandrababu Naidu fell in Andhra Pradesh, sensex dropped by 229 points wiping out a capitalization of 55 billion rupees, damaging mostly the share base of the state-owned companies. However, the sensex recovered by 227 points within the first ten minutes of trading on Thursday, the day of the release of Parliament results. The Congress, if it is able to form a ministry, is unlikely to make drastic changes in economic policies because the party is sure to nominate Manmohan Singh as the finance minister. Singh was the author of economic reforms in 1991 under Rajiv Gandhi. The Congress returned to power in Andhra Pradesh promising free power to the farmer, a promise unrealizable without throwing the economy totally out of gear. If the party chooses to embrace the same populism at the center, the voters will surely shift their loyalties in another election.

The new government will have to live with the nagging problem of its allies holding it to ransom on crucial issues. Since principle is not the basic adhesive of a coalition it will not stand in the way of horse-trading. More than anything, the Congress has to evolve a minimum programme agreeable to all the parties that are its allies. Probable allies like Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are too powerful in their home bases for the Congress to handle. The left also, with new accretion to its strength in Parliament, is likely to push its agenda with greater confidence, something the non-Left allies in the coalition will resist. To evolve a common minimum policy acceptable to the motley is not going to be a cakewalk.
In foreign policy area, the BJP took significant initiatives in restructuring relations with China and Pakistan. A memorable gain is the Chinese recognition of Sikkim as part of India. Vajpayee took personal interest in sending a cricket team to Pakistan that brought the diplomatic dialogue to the peoples" level. It now becomes difficult to either government to employ the old rhetoric to keep the people of the two countries apart. Congress President Sonia Gandhi said that the new government would continue the peace process with Pakistan initiated by outgoing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Congress party is committed to nurturing good neighborly relations with Pakistan and to discussing all issues with it under the framework of the Simla Agreement, according to Natwar Singh, chairman of the Congress foreign affairs department. As a matter fact, changes of guard have never seen shifts in foreign policy that remained nearly the same since 1947. It is mostly a flexible portfolio of diplomatic perceptions.
Of significance is the BJP entry into south that remained impregnable for a long time. At the time of writing, the BJP is vying with the depleted Congress party to form government in Karnataka with support from a Janata Dal splinter group. The BJP continues to govern such big states as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan besides the much smaller Chattisgarh. It is a partner in the government that rules Orissa in the east. This is the first time since independence that the Congress has no MP from Kerala. The Left, like the Congress, made additional gains apart from winning a seat in Kolkata after 18 years. Adding to BJP"s debacle are the poor returns made by three of its major allies, the AIADMK of Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh and the Trinamul Congress of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal.
Instead of resting on questionable theoretical crutches, both polity and media will do well to accept the most convincing reason for the rapidly changing inclinations of the electorate, that is, illiteracy. More than two-thirds of the Indian electorate is illiterate, a factor that substitutes emotion for information. It is appalling that political parties can arouse people"s passions, even in the third millennium, in the name of religion and caste and heroes and heroines of a bygone age. The greatest priority of the present government should therefore be to take education to every village and hamlet, a priority next only to food. The Congress must not delude itself that the people have voted for secularism of the skewed kind that imparted legitimacy to communalism.

Water continues to be as crucial to the lives of the people as it is for the political class to win votes. Development should now reach areas where it is just a campaigning slogan. Water is necessary both for agriculture and for the thirsty millions living in the countryside. Village roads and electrification are no less important. The BJP lost because it lost touch with rural realities. The result must make all parties realize how crucial is the rural vote. The spectacle of shining expressways running parallel to mud tracks in villages cannot showcase development. It ought to begin at the grassroots.

Nobody in a democracy can question the judgment of the people. Yet it must be said to the credit of Atal Behari Vajpayee that the country had not seen a prime minister of that stature after Nehru. He is the only non-Congress prime minister to win three successive terms. A man of great vision he wanted that India should shine. Shine it did in select sectors. Once he became the Prime Minister, he belonged to India and not to any party. India above all was his motto. He headed the first coalition to complete five years in office. Governance and development were his slogans that unfortunately did not appeal to the masses whose needs were different. As Vir Sanghvi of the Hindustan Times says, "History will remember Atal Bihari Vajpayee as one of India"s finest prime ministers." More than anything, he elevated the much maligned coalition politics to the highest levels of substance and respectability