Indian democracy has had many political protest movements: against authoritarianism (Rajagopalachari’s Swatantra Party, the Jayaprakash Narayan movement), corruption (V.P. Singh, Aam Aadmi Party), empowerment of Dalits and backward classes (Dravida Munnetra Kazagham, V.P. Singh), rights of local groups (Asom Gana Parishad, Telangana, Gorkhas, Bodos). The Naxal and Maoist movements were violent protests against exploitation and poverty. There have also been numerous non-governmental organizations that have tried to improve matters on these issues of the system, getting people to register and to vote, agitating against corruption, for minority rights, against exploitation and for the safety of women, and so on.
Jawaharlal Nehru was an icon. Rajaji was wiser but was called a traitor even by South Indians. He turned out to be right about the inevitability of Partition, and later, the dangers of the license permit raj. If we had listened to him and not Nehru, there might have been less lasting bitterness and violence. Being imposed almost forcibly at little notice, Partition resulted in many dying, fleeing and leaving all belongings behind, losing women and children to kidnapping and rapes. We now have a failed state in Pakistan and a charged relationship in India between the two major communities.
But we, as yet, do not have a political movement that tries to include all religions and castes as equals. We announce benefits to minorities, of which little reaches them. The majority community fumes at “special treatment”, but polarization increases. NGO movements try for reconciliation, but with limited and local success.
Other protest movements have had short lives as political parties. Rajaji founded the Swatantra Party to provide Nehru a democratic opposition. Many powerful politicians joined him: Minoo Masani, N.G. Ranga, Piloo Modi, many business leaders and the erstwhile princes. It was derided as the attempt of a frustrated old man to regain relevance, supported by the wealthy, who did not want to lose their privileges. The Swatantra Party did not last. Rajaji was right in warning against excessive state control and participation in the economy. He failed in building a grassroots movement, essential for a successful political party. He did succeed in making an increasing part of the country realize that the stifling of enterprise and poor growth were not in the country’s interests.
Indira Gandhi was welcomed by young people when she broke the Congress to rid it of the “syndicate” of elderly men who controlled the party. The emergence of a young political leader was welcomed. The “syndicate” members were perceived as ineffective, unadventurous when it came to India’s growth, and even corrupt. In office, Indira Gandhi weakened the institutions that Nehru had painstakingly built to entrench democracy. The “steel frame” of the administrative services was made compliant, “committed” and corrupt. The judiciary was sought to be “committed” to her survival in power, and her policies. Parliament was sought to be made a rubber stamp. Key offices were filled with her supporters. She rewarded these pliant people handsomely from government resources. Non-cooperative state governments were dismissed, exercising the powers under Article 356 of the Constitution. Her legacy was an India with a much weakened administration, a more pliant judiciary, the eradication of inner-party democracy in the Congress, which became a party of yes-men, and state governments for years hesitant to act against the Centre’s wishes. We are still paying the price for her deeds. Mrs Gandhi succeeded in creating a dynastic Congress, concentrating power in herself, because she controlled both the ruling party and the Central government.
The JP movement was led by a charismatic and respected political leader who championed true democracy, against authoritarianism and corruption. Many young people followed him. It succeeded in toppling the Congress from power and brought in a new political party, the Janata. Except for the mutual antagonism between the Jana Sangh and the Communists, none of the other parties who constituted the Janata had a deep political base. Janata fell because of the contradictions between its components and the ambitions of selfish leaders. The Janata left the legacy of a belief that coalition governments could be made to work. Its collapse left behind small local movements with inept leaders like Laloo Prasad or a communal one like Mulayam Singh Yadav, and honest ones like Nitish Kumar who needed the support of effective political administrators to succeed. But it also gave the Jana Sangh (now the Bharatiya Janata Party) its first experience of office at the Centre.
V.P. Singh was an insider and Congress loyalist who saw his chance when Rajiv Gandhi became enmeshed in the corruption of Bofors. He used the Mandal Commission Report on backward castes as an ideological base to change the country. He lasted for a little under two years. His legacy was to make the other backward castes a central determinant of future elections.
The BJP gave good governance for six years under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But its dependence on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for grassroots support and the BJP’s lack of its own deep local organizations, made it subservient to the antediluvian and extremist Hindu ideas of the RSS. For example, the RSS is for swadeshi and against foreign influences; against rural to urban migration, but instead would like to see people remain in agriculture; it does not believe that it is the duty in a democracy for the majority to support and strengthen the minorities and ensure their well-being; it has bizarre ideas like a single tax regime on banking transactions in place of other taxes. As long as the RSS controls the BJP, a BJP government is unlikely to last for more than one term. If the BJP has a strong leader like Vajpayee, it could do the right things for the country. Whether Narendra Modi is a leader who can bring a consensus among the diverse peoples of the country is not clear. But the BJP, thanks to the RSS at the grassroots, is here to stay as a national party.
We must consider the Aam Aadmi Party created by Arvind Kejriwal in this background. He is a strong and articulate leader and undisputed head of his party. He has understood the value of mobilizing the youth. Anti-corruption is a useful platform for this. He understood that the use of television, the internet, mobile phones and the social media could mobilize young volunteers in thousands at short notice, and small donations from them would easily fund a political party. He understood that the television medium was very potent in social mobilization and by his appearances, used it very effectively. He touched a sore chord among people, especially the young, who were tired of corruption, poor growth, declining investment, rising prices and declining job opportunities. His efforts to mobilize people and funds were highly successful. He propped up the relatively unknown, semi-educated and authoritarian Anna Hazare, as the front man. This was a master stroke since Hazare had a crusading anti-corruption reputation form Maharashtra, was in his 70s and simple in appearance, talk and dress, and for Indians his age had an appeal. But it was Kejriwal’s show. Television gave him saturation national coverage. Kejriwal had a lofty national movement almost overnight. When he made it a political party, he appealed to people already mesmerized by his movement against corruption. His simplistic ideas and policies appealed to the poor, and his honesty, integrity and undoubted ability to mobilize people were magnets.
He should never have accepted office, but should have remained in opposition to attack governments by established political parties so that they became more pro-people. The Delhi chief ministership had exposed his deficiencies. But he should continue his anti-corruption crusade. His effect on the national political parties could be fundamental. His role must be that of an opponent to established systems, but he cannot run governments.