The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Congress would gain most if Sonia Gandhi were not PM-in-waiting

As election frenzy sends the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable in the hunt for alliances, Sonia Gandhi might reflect that the best service she can render her murdered husband’s country is to make a firm commitment on the hint she dropped last month about the prime ministership being an open question.

India needs an alternative to the ruling party. Parliamentary democracy becomes elective autocracy without the ballast of a vigorous and credible opposition that is also the government-in-waiting. In spite of considerable erosion of confidence, the Congress, as the oldest and largest party, for decades the party of governance, is best equipped for this necessary role. Its inherent advantages must not be squandered.

This is not to deny the obvious fruits of Bharatiya Janata Party rule. India has prospered. Economic success has mitigated discontent and earned prestige abroad; diplomatic finesse promises to counter the security challenge from Pakistan. But no amount of glib propaganda by smart alecky publicists who find it profitable to clamber aboard the Hindutva bandwagon can obscure the fact that these achievements are largely the culmination of processes over the last half a century.

Jawaharlal Nehru went to Pakistan to build bridges with a gift of water. Indira Gandhi made the first overture to the United States of America at Cancun. Rajiv Gandhi’s obsession with the 21st century initiated the technological revolution. P.V. Narasimha Rao opened up the economy with Manmohan Singh’s pioneering budget. India’s forgotten prime minister, Chandra Shekhar, half in and half out of the Congress, set the precedent for military collaboration with the US before the first Iraq war. Even the term “natural allies” is not original. Sunit Francis Rodrigues, the army chief, coined it in 1990.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s sound management has enabled India to benefit from the prescience of this succession of Congress leaders. A bounteous monsoon and the altered global equation after the Twin Towers attack have helped him. But his stewardship has also brought strife and terror such as we have not known before. Great play was made last year of the BJP sweeping the polls purely on its economic record. That is utter rubbish. The present claim that Hindutva stands for “all-round progress of India” is as much a myth. Certainly, roads, irrigation, potable water, electricity, jobs and schools — which any government is expected to provide — win votes. That is why the Lok Sabha poll will be held ahead of time amidst Jaswant Singh’s bonanza. But apart from disarray in the opposition ranks, the BJP’s particular emotive appeal is especially potent in the rural orthodoxy of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

That statement deserves expansion. India and Bharat are not two geographically separate worlds. They overlap and interlink. There is a residue of Bharat even in the most modern among us. Speaking in more mundane terms, Bharat lingers, nay, flourishes, in the bustees and jhuggi jhopris just round the corner from fashionable bungalows and smart condominiums in every one of India’s cities. When Bombay was set to clear out urban slums, the cry went up that the maids, chauffeurs and bearers of the rich would have nowhere to live. While they are on duty, India and Bharat actually mingle under the same roof.

Like any successful political party, the BJP straddles both entities. But while sophisticated men of the world like Jaswant Singh, Arun Shourie or Arun Jaitley beguile India, the BJP’s affiliated organizations pander to Bharat. When India’s communists still had something to say, they whipped up the egalitarian urges of Bharat’s deprived denizens with the promise of bread. The sangh parivar feeds their cultural and religious hankering with the circus of superstitious ceremony.

As a result, fear and suspicion stalk the land. Mathura and Kashi may not be on the agenda, but, thanks to Ayodhya, even in unadventurous daily life, one nowadays hears casual comments, both hostile and contemptuous, indicating that the chasm between India’s two great religions is deep and growing. It would have been different if there had been some means of exchanging populations, as between Greece and Turkey. That being impossible and since 150 million Muslims cannot be wished away, we seem doomed to increasing communal tension erupting every so often in bloody conflagration.

No hands are clean in this respect. Partisan though he is, M. Venkaiah Naidu may have hit on the truth when he derided “the non-existent divide between the ‘communal’ BJP and the ‘secular’ parties”. Congress leaders are as much slaves to religious rites and rituals. But the BJP and its assorted affiliates are most guilty for bestowing respectability on prejudice and obscurantism. They have infected the Hindu with a sense of being under siege. Even if they do nothing further to exacerbate relations, the wounds they have inflicted on national harmony will not easily heal. They never will if Bal Thackeray continues to call the shots in Maharashtra, and if the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the power behind a Madhya Pradesh chief minister whose presence and practices recall the Dark Ages.

J.M. Lyngdoh reportedly says no leader is committed to democracy. Sonia Gandhi is probably no better — or worse — than other contenders for power. But Hyderabad confirmed that she is the BJP’s trump card. It is no criticism of her to repeat that for reasons beyond her control, she cannot be taken seriously as prime minister in waiting. Her pretensions to the job make Indian democracy the laughing stock of the civilized world. At home, it leaves the field wide open for sycophants, opportunists and operators to intrigue and conspire. Her humourless sallies and tours, telephone calls and tea parties to woo trite men who can muster a few votes and cunningly play hard to get do nothing to enhance either her or her party’s prestige.

Of course, Pranab Mukherjee’s five-member committee to investigate the electoral debacle would not dream of reporting that she is Congress’s greatest liability. S. Jaipal Reddy, as eloquent now for the Congress as he was once against it, makes out she is the best thing that could ever have happened to the party and country. Ambika Soni and her colleagues resign and unresign at her whims. Amarinder Singh swallows his pride and accepts a rival. M. Karunanidhi has gladly proved the truth of Harold Wilson’s old dictum that a week is a long time in politics.

All this in the name of secularism. And yet, and yet, secularism is what matters most today. It is the mood of the country that has been vitiated; it is the temper of the people that must be restored. Sonia Gandhi with her stilted Hindi and amused half-smile, understanding little beyond the numbers game, does not have the vision, grassroots base, organizational skills, appeal across all community divides or ability to command respect at home and abroad. It’s a tall order. P.A. Sangma thinks Narasimha Rao “is the only man to match Vajpayee”. Sharad Pawar remains a formidable power broker. Manmohan Singh would bring dignity and integrity to any job. P. Chidambaram lurks in the wings. No doubt, Mukherjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav would at once throw their hats in the ring.

Perhaps, Sonia Gandhi does not crave to rule after all. Perhaps she is only dragging out a charade until her daughter is ready. That, too, is an insult to the world’s largest democracy. But even if she is, she should hurry up. Otherwise, some joker like Laloo Prasad Yadav might sneak in and snatch the crown. That would serve us right for allowing her to gamble with the future of one-sixth of the human race. Legend has it that she was a good daughter-in-law, a good wife and a good mother. A return to some worthy domestic role would earn her the grateful respect of millions of people as well as an honoured position as the revered Congress mata.

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