The author is former director general, National Council for Applied Economic Research [email protected]
The present disagreements between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the government are severe, embrace ideological issues and personalities, and have been aired forcefully in public. The conflict is not with the political parties in the coalition but with the RSS that gave rise to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The RSS and “front” organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal have attacked the prime minister and his secretary and cabinet ministers. Is the RSS getting ready to become a political party on its own'
It has faulted the government for inaction on Ayodhya, and the “soft” approach to Pakistan. Its non-negotiable stand appears to be on economic issues, symbolized by the swadeshi argument. It wants India to open up only to the extent it must. It has always been against giving encouragement to foreign investment in all sectors and to the competition from foreign goods. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch, its economic wing, argued that Indian industry be given time to adjust. Now it has extended the concept of swadeshi to embrace government ownership. Public sector undertakings are now apparently more swadeshi than privately owned ones. Hence disinvestment in them is to be opposed, in “strategic” areas like oil and gas for national security reasons, in “sensitive” areas like coal in which there is a large number of people employed and involve fertilizers, vital for agricultural growth.
Conflicts between a party and its government are not uncommon in democracies. In the United States of America, the president is for all practical purposes the leader of his party. Electoral candidates emerge through primary elections, not with party approval. In Britain, such conflicts have occurred especially in the pre-war years. They are very muted today even on contentious issues like reform of the National Health Service or joining the common European currency. In the Labour party in the United Kingdom, nobody is ready to revert to the exile from office of past years.
Dissent has never matched the virulence of the RSS and the VHP against the Indian government, regardless that this conflict might destabilize the government and make re-election very difficult. Under the present chief minister, West Bengal has witnessed such conflict. The party seems to have won, though the chief minister while paying lip-service to party ideology, acts in practice as he thinks necessary to the interests of the state.
A political party does not have the compulsions for compromise that a government does. No government can survive for long if it does not make compromises and end up somewhere near the centre, however extreme the individuals in it might have been as mere politicians. The exception has been in situations of national crisis, as in war or when Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister, when the UK as a nation was mired in gloom and waiting for a leader who would take drastic corrective actions. Tony Blair, as prime minister of the UK, has used his perceived indispensability to the Labour party for keeping the party in submission to the government, while he rides roughshod over the traditional ideas of the party.
India has had frequent conflicts between government and party. The Congress president, Purshottamdas Tandon, challenged Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister, but Nehru won because he was able to use his mass support and apparent indispensability to the Congress. Indira Gandhi was to be the “dumb doll” who, as prime minister, would dance to the tune of the party elders. Instead she split the party, and then installed puppets as presidents of the Congress, finally abandoning even this façade and combining the two positions in her. She also kept Congress chief ministers on a short leash, removing anyone who seemed to be developing a strong base of his own. Rajiv Gandhi was unsuccessful with this model. P.V. Narasimha Rao held both positions, but left the chief ministers alone. Sonia Gandhi seems to be following the same strategy but has given far greater freedom to her chief ministers. The Shiv Sena has used its “remote control” to keep its state government toeing the party line.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s age, frequent bouts of ill-health, apparent disinclination to descend to the arm-twisting necessary for keeping the party in check, the inflexibility of the RSS, and the generation gap between the RSS leadership and the prime minister, combine to make for a difficult situation.
The RSS is not yet a political party, though it would not be surprising if it became one in the future. Its behaviour suggests that it is disappointed with the BJP and its coalition government, and might opt to push its agenda directly in the political arena. RSS and VHP seem so little concerned about the stability of the government that there is the possibility that the RSS might disown its creation, the BJP and its government. It could then seek electoral support on its rigid platform by proclaiming its ideology of Hindutva, subordination of other religions, undying hostility to the Muslim nation of Pakistan, with swadeshi as its economic platform and the middle classes as its primary target for support.
The conflict between the RSS and the government cannot be papered over and will keep surfacing until the government succumbs or the RSS withdraws its backing. Vajpayee’s designation of L.K. Advani as deputy prime minister with more powers than ever before seems intended to prevent such an eventuality. If that is so, we must expect major compromises to the RSS views in the coming months. Disinvestment will continue, but in seemingly less “strategic” or “sensitive” undertakings. Arun Shourie may be sacrificed.
The middle classes, the core of BJP support, can expect significant benefits. Interest rates may not fall any further since this class has seen great erosion in earnings from savings. Commitments to open up further to foreign investment and trade will be watered down. There will be no compromise whatsoever on Kashmir as part of a larger settlement with Pakistan. Minorities will be threatened and bullied into subservient attitudes. Desultory reforms will continue, but with no holistic thrust.
The prime minister’s target of 8 per cent gross domestic product growth was never achievable, given the lack of coordinated reform policies and their whole-hearted implementation. Now they will be even less so. The other parties in the National Democratic Alliance could prevent these developments. But their desire for office might well override any principles. George Fernandes’s sudden wakening on disinvestment might be the signal to the RSS that he is available to head the coalition and support much of the RSS agenda.
The chances are that even if the worst does not happen and the RSS continues its support to the BJP and the NDA government, the present coalition will give way to one led by the Congress in the next elections. Such a government will have to adjust to the new realities that the RSS and the NDA government have brought about in the polity. They cannot go back to earlier centrist policies. The centre has shifted under the BJP and the RSS. This has happened in the US, the UK and in other countries. The new centre may not allow India to rise to its potential.