History, as Marx said, repeats itself; first as tragedy and then as farce. But is it possible that the repetition of history can present itself as a new opportunity' This question is particularly apt at the moment when the past narratives of Indian politics are threatening to haunt it once again. During the Eighties, three tendencies cast an indelible shadow on Indian politics. The first was a narrative of unsustainable populism that led to fiscal indiscipline and finally culminated in the economic crisis of the early Nineties. The pivotal event of the second narrative was the Shah Bano case. Whatever one thinks of the Supreme Court judgment in that case, there is little doubt that the Congress's handling of the aftermath gave credence to the charge that the Congress was pseudo-secularist. It was the case that gave Hindutva its first serious political opening. The third trend was the conflict over reservations, epitomized by the debate that followed the Mandal Commission's recommendations. Each of these moments produced, in its own way, great upheavals in Indian society and politics. And each proved to be detrimental to the Congress, in its own way.
One riposte to Marx might be that history never really repeats itself. But this week, one could be forgiven for at least wondering whether the Congress might not, once again, be haunted by ghosts of a bygone era. For instance, the prime minister himself has said that India's fiscal deficit poses a serious threat to the Indian economy. Of course, there is a sense in which 2005 is not 1991. The Indian economy is much stronger. Our external balances are as strong as they have ever been. Nevertheless, one cannot rule out a financial crisis for the Indian state.
One symptom of this is the fact that we have decided to meet our infrastructure needs by borrowing heavily from the World Bank, with loans that come at a premium. Although, in principle there is nothing wrong with investment aimed at helping the poor, other measures have to be put in place to ensure that the result is not a fiscal crisis for the state. The syndrome of populism without discipline looms large. We know from past experience that the politically tougher decisions are harder to make later in the life of a government. But the party seems not to have leveraged the goodies it is giving out to various constituencies to do some serious reform. Will the Congress, despite the pronouncements of the prime minister, be able to find the political will to prevent a fiscal crisis'
The second challenge is at the moment hypothetical, but cannot be avoided for long. The aftermath of Shah Bano produced a sordid politics on the part of the Congress, which the Bharatiya Janata Party then fully exploited. But the underlying issue of a common civil code was never fully resolved. The Supreme Court, very tactfully, in the Latifi case, preserved the essence of the Shah Bano judgment. While suggesting that it was desirable to make the rights of women independent of their religious affiliations, it refrained from the hortatory excess that had marked Justice Chandrachud's call for a common civil code in the original Shah Bano case. The silver lining of Latifi was that there were almost no protests from the Muslim community. So something akin to cold water had been poured on the issue.
But how long will the courts give political parties breathing space on the issue of a common civil code' There is a set of petitions pending before the Supreme Court that might occasion yet another verdict on Muslim personal law and religious courts. It is still a matter of guesswork what exactly the court will come up with this time. Will they finesse the issue as Latifi did, in the hopes of avoiding conflict' Or will they once again force the hand of political parties by making a strong pronouncement on a common civil code' Given the recent mood of the court, there is more probability of the latter than the former. But the question is: how will political parties, particularly the Congress react if the court were to force their hand on the issue of a common civil code' This will, of course, depend upon how the party reads Muslim politics. But then the Congress has always been a prisoner of its own presumptions about Muslims.
This time, will it fall into the same trap it did during Shah Bano' Or will it have more imagination to use this as an opportunity to genuinely recast the debate over a common civil code' Will it be able to take the issue away from the BJP, and at the same time do justice to all the relevant considerations on the issue' Can it create a new and healthier debate on the possibilities of a common civil code' It has had twenty years to come up with a new position, and respond to altered circumstances. But it still does not have an articulated position on the issue. It must be hoping that it is not required to take a stand once again.
The third issue is reservations. Admittedly again, there are crucial differences. This time, the controversy pertains to reservations for scheduled castes in private colleges, not other backward castes in public institutions. There is a good deal of clamour to respond to the Supreme Court's recent decision. If the party remains stuck in the past, it will go for a solution from the past: a combination of reservations and excess financial regulation. On the other hand, will it be courageous and imaginative enough to find new and innovative ways of resolving the issue of access for marginalized communities'
These three issues ' fiscal imprudence, a conception of minority rights, and the politics of caste ' will impinge urgently upon the Congress. These issues will define whether the party remains the ideologically tattered shell it had become towards the end of the 20th century or whether it has the capacity for genuine renewal. Each of these three issues will require a core commitment to justice that the party has always professed. But each will also require recognition from the party that its means of achieving justice were deeply flawed. Its fiscal imprudence and statism jeopardized the growth of prosperity. Its unimaginative response to the call for a common civil code delegitimized secularism. Admittedly, this is a tricky issue. But at the very least, the Congress will have to find a way of resisting the temptation to cave into religious orthodoxy. And its inability to respond to the caste issues extracted a dual price.
On the one hand, it was unable to accommodate the aspirations of the newly empowered lower and backward castes. On the other hand, the combination of policies that it ended up endorsing by way of reservation produced neither greater access, nor excellence in education. And in all three cases, short-run political calculations jeopardized the long-term future of the party.
Perhaps these challenges will not come to pass. Perhaps the economy will magically grow itself out of its fiscal hole. Perhaps the Supreme Court will avoid the issue of a common civil code, and perhaps we are all misreading the debate over reservations. But it would be unwise for the Congress to base its strategy on avoidance. It has to prepare the political groundwork for some tricky decisions ahead. What it does will decide whether history will repeat itself as a farce, or present an opportunity for redefining Indian politics.