At a small gathering earlier this week, where the conversation centred on the Uttar Pradesh election results, the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, recalled an incident from 1969. The news of the Congress split involving Indira Gandhi and the so-called Syndicate had just been told to “Guruji” M.S. Golwalkar, the redoubtable head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. On hearing about it, Golwalkar paced up and down the room agitatedly. When asked why he was so upset, Golwalkar is said to have snapped back: “Don’t you realize its consequences' A weak Congress is disastrous for the country.”
The misgivings of Golwalkar, who, it may safely be presumed, was neither a Congress sympathizer nor Congress voter, have been echoed in responsible circles over the past month. What was significant about the Uttar Pradesh verdict was neither the impressive victory of Mayawati nor the defeat of Mulayam Singh Yadav, but the complete decimation of the two national parties—the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The implications of this are awesome. Assuming that the 2004 pattern of the Lok Sabha election being an aggregate of state polls is repeated, it follows that the general election of 2009 (or earlier) will result in neither of the national parties coming close to a majority. More ominously, unlike the past when the Congress and the BJP between them won more than half the Lok Sabha seats, India may be faced with a situation where — theoretically, at least — caste and regional parties and the Left between them are in a position to form a non-Congress and non-BJP government. Alternatively, even if the Congress or the BJP are participants in a coalition, the influence of the national parties will no longer be paramount. If the Bahujan Samaj Party repeats its performance in the Lok Sabha and bags some 50 or so seats, the balance of power at the Centre may well be held by a party that doesn’t even bother issuing a manifesto.
Such a nightmare may well be a dream scenario for both the Communists and Muslim sectarian parties. As the most organized force in any Third Front, the Communists will be wonderfully placed to dominate any fragile coalition ideologically and in other ways. The Left subversion will be complimented by the parallel influence of sectarian Muslim lobbies that will bank on the community’s numerical spread throughout the country. The regional parties may not necessarily welcome these developments, but their focus, by definition, will be on their limited geographical spheres of influence. Unless guided decisively by a national party, regional and caste parties are rarely able to rise above localism.
The perversion of Indian nationhood is a natural corollary of the weakening of the two pillars of nationalism. Those who venture the suggestion that the Uttar Pradesh verdict is a “vote against India” may be jumping the gun somewhat, but there is little doubt that India is pulling in too many different directions for comfort. It is also paradoxical that such a development is taking place against the backdrop of a growing pan-Indian entrepreneurial class and a visibly self-confident middle class that is as much at ease in Bangalore and Chennai as it is in Delhi and Mumbai. The political fragmentation of India is working in conjunction with the rise and rise of global capitalism in India.
It is tempting to attribute the tensions to the India Shining versus Bharat mismatch. Uneven development coupled with rising but unfulfilled expectations has created localized turbulence — as witnessed in Nandigram, Dadri, Kalinga Nagar and Dausa. The commemoration of the UPA government’s third year in power witnessed both the prime minister and his cabinet colleague, Mani Shankar Aiyar, expressing fears about an impending backlash against unrestrained success.
The volatile protests have, by and large, been confined to those sections that either feel left out of the development process or want to have nothing to do with it. At the same time, there is nothing to suggest that the young and relatively more successful India has developed a stake in preserving the present political order. The principal beneficiaries of India’s economic growth appear to have opted out of public life altogether. On its part, the Indian political class (dominated, at this point, by those who came into political prominence in the turbulent Seventies) has failed abysmally to tap the phenomenal energies of the post-socialist era. Voter turnouts in the showpieces of modern India have been spectacularly low and none of the political parties have succeeded in engaging the self-confident, young Indian. There has been an emotional secession of the successful from the political community.
The debates surrounding the choice of the next president of India are a good indication of the gulf. The political class as a whole prefers an experienced politician in Rashtrapati Bhavan — a person who is sensitive to the political compulsions of the rulers. The middle classes, however, seem to want the completely non-political President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who has emerged as a role model for many, to be re-elected. It is this growing gulf between the political class and the vanguard of civil society that is alarming. Both sides are unable to relate to each other.
The decline of the national parties can be traced to their collective failure to address those on whom the future of modern India rests. Logically speaking, those who have the greatest stake in the future of India qua India should have been natural supporters of either the Congress or BJP (with a minusculity drifting to the Left). Both national parties seem content in a make-believe world of smug insularity. The Congress is trapped in a monarchical quagmire and the BJP has been taken over by individuals of astonishing mediocrity who are not even aware that there is a very new India in the making. The cumulative result is the growing lack of dynamism in the political system.
One of the symptoms of decay is the complete lack of debate and internal democracy. In both parties, healthy political debate has been replaced by a command structure that results in revealed wisdom (or banality) of one family or a clutch of leaders being transmitted down the line. Apart from being demeaning and dangerously flawed, this regimentation makes it virtually impossible for the parties to cater to a multiplicity of interests, both local and national. In its heyday, the Congress prospered precisely because it was a rainbow coalition of competing viewpoints, factions and leaders. Leaders weren’t leaders simply because they spent time massaging the egos and lining the pockets of established leaders; local Congress leaders represented something tangible which could be incorporated within the larger party umbrella.
The BJP was, of course, always more regimented thanks to the involvement of the RSS. However, it compensated this organizational inflexibility with a tradition of free and frank discussions. Since 1998, this openness has been steadily curtailed to the extent that the present president has made factional loyalty a hallmark of his tenure. Coming in the wake of the RSS’s own existential crisis — falling attendance in the shakhas is symptomatic of an inability to cope with change — it has meant the ossification of the party and conflicts between its apparatchiks and mass leaders. The BJP finds itself increasingly outflanked by regional and caste parties because it can’t accommodate diverse aspirations. It has yet to recognize that a cadre-based approach can often become a euphemism for the retreat into a small-sect mindset.
The tragedy of Indian democracy is that the two national parties have shut their doors on any auto-rectification process.