The first non-Congress government in the country, which rode to power on the crest of an anti-Emergency wave, fell apart in two and a half years. Its three main leaders, with each permanently on an ego trip and looking on the other two with disdain, were in no position to resolve the contradiction which dogged the career of the uneasy ruling coalition from the start. It was the country’s first experience of how dysfunctional a government of shreds and patches can be.
That it has learnt nothing from a succession of hung parliaments and minority governments, depending for their survival on support from others subscribing to different ideologies, makes the story all the more dismal. It is not so much the fault of the public as that of a splintered polity, with religious, regional, caste and ethnic groups acquiring a vested interest in coalition politics, where small groups can often manage to get a share of the spoils of office out of all proportion to their size. This is where the logic of the democratization process and the need for a strong government, which can make its decisions stick, come into sharp conflict.
This lesson is once again being driven home by the three-year-old National Democratic Alliance government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Ironically, the main partner is painfully aware of the state of semi-paralysis in which the government finds itself. Yet it can do little either about the unseemly squabbles within its own top echelons on the issue of disinvestment in the public sector or between it and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The recent patch-up between the last two is no more than a cosmetic exercise to hide from the public the wide gulf that now divides them. The sangh parivar leaders’ demand for the ouster of Brajesh Mishra, the most trusted aide of the prime minister, is nothing but an ill-concealed attack on Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself.
The Cold War between the prime minister and the RSS has stymied the government and taken all the good cheer out of the party’s low-key celebration of its completion of three years in office, a record for a non-Congress regime so far. In this agit-prop contest, neither camp can hope to emerge as the winner. Both will be losers as the government becomes more and more dysfunctional.
Neutral observers of the national scene cannot understand the current stand-off between Arun Shourie on the one hand and Ram Naik and George Fernandes on the other, or between Vajpayee and K. Sudarshan, except in the context of the fast-shrinking BJP base in many states, the slowing down of the rate of economic growth and the deepening communal divide in the country in the wake of the post-Godhra carnage in Gujarat, which was abetted by the Narendra Modi government to cash in on the consolidation of Hindu votes resulting from a new polarization between the two main communities in the state.
The RSS was never quite happy with the way the BJP set aside its own agenda and gave up its badges of identity because of the compulsions of coalition politics. But until recently, Vajpayee provided the only rallying point for the NDA government. It was the succession of reverses in state assembly elections which altered the balance of power in the sangh parivar in favour of the hardliners who held the poor record of the government and the sullying of the BJP’s image responsible for the decline in the party’s popular support. Whatever the reason for the changed scenario, the result has been to make the BJP leadership, particularly the prime minister, more vulnerable to pressures from firebrands both in his government and in the larger saffron brigade.
This is no freak happening. Both the BJP and the RSS are equally concerned over the dark shadow cast on the future of the leading partner in the NDA government. Both are unhappy over the contraction of the BJP’s support base and share the fear that the space it is forced to vacate is likely to be occupied by its main political rival or the major regional party in the state concerned. The chief source of difference between the moderates and the hardliners lies in their contradictory diagnoses of the ills which are eating into the party’s nerve and bone, and compromising the BJP’s public image, and their conflicting perceptions of the best means to recover the ground it has lost.
The NDA government’s lacklustre record during its three years in office is no accident. No amount of hard-sell can wish away the constraints of coalition politics. As things are, the parties involved in policy-making happen to number over twenty, each with a different constituency and a different agenda. This makes every policy decision take the form of a messy compromise. Neither Sudarshan nor Ashok Singhal can do anything about it.
This is not to say that the prime minister used the authority derived from his high popularity-rating to the best advantage. Whether it was his indifferent health or his lackadaisical way of functioning, he did not exercise a degree of control over his ministerial team to create the necessary unity of purpose which alone could avoid the spectacle of the government forced to rescind its decisions all too frequently. Every time it was a public demonstration of its failure to do its homework and ensure prior consultations and coordination, particularly with allies or outside supporters it could not afford to antagonize.
Even such initiatives as those which the prime minister took often worked to the country’s disadvantage. Thus when it hailed the Lahore declaration signed with the Nawaz Sharif government as a major diplomatic triumph, it did not pay sufficient attention to the Pakistan army’s all-too-obvious opposition to the agreement. Instead of alerting intelligence agencies to be more vigilant, it let them slip their guard. The result was the Kargil war which was won only at an enormous cost in lives and equipment. The costs would have been still higher but for persistent American pressure on Pakistan to withdraw all its forces to its side of the line of control in Kashmir.
There may be some room for difference of opinion on the political sagacity of the way the government carried out the Pokhran nuclear tests. There is no doubt, however, that whatever strategic advantage it banked on in securing a credible nuclear deterrent was neutralized by a parallel series of tests by Pakistan. Indeed, to some extent, this country lost the edge it had over its hostile neighbour in conventional weaponry by providing the world community with an excuse to brand south Asia as the most likely site for a nuclear conflict, and Pakistan with the opportunity to raise a scare about any armed conflict with India going nuclear the moment its territorial integrity was put at risk.
Thus what was envisaged as a show of strength and self-confidence at great cost became a dubious proposition. In any case, it still remains to be seen whether it will give added weight to India’s voice in international affairs in the absence of much greater economic dynamism and a new degree of political cohesion.
These two necessary constituents of what can make the country a big regional power are still conspicuous by their absence. The differences within the government and the squabble between it and the sangh parivar are increasingly detracting from the authority of the prime minister, who is no longer in control. The reform process has almost come to a standstill and the future of the disinvestment policy, the labour law reform and a more stringent fiscal management have been put in jeopardy.
The real irony about the murky developments which have brought the country to this sorry pass lies in the fact that the semi-paralysis which has overtaken the government is due not so much to the compulsions of coalition politics as to the discord within the BJP as well as between the prime-minister’s men and the RSS. The saffron brigade is indeed making Vajpayee the scapegoat for the government’s failure to push the BJP’s own agenda as set forth in its election manifesto. The current crisis centres on the parties’ refusal to ditch the economic liberalization process in the name of swadeshi, which in effect means making the country inhospitable to both infusion of large-scale foreign capital and uninhibited induction of new technology.
The country was put on a fast growth track in the early Nine- ties by a hard-pressed Congress government with a policy of “two steps forward and one step backward”. Going by the signs of the changing balance of power within the sangh parivar, the BJP is no longer its dashing 1999 self and may have to carry on with a policy of “one step forward and two steps backward”. In these conditions it may be difficult for it even to maintain a rate of growth of 5 to 6 per cent, however loud its sales talk of an 8 per cent rate projected by the tenth plan draft.