| We, the people
Harold Wilson made the famous quip that a week is a long time in politics. Five decades and a half may not be a long time in the history of a republic but it is long enough to attempt a kind of stock-taking, especially because the Indian republic seems to be caught in a longish transition.
It might be convenient to begin with Jawaharlal Nehru's undying coinage which has become, perhaps justifiably, one of the most important pieces of rhetoric of independent India: 'Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny.' Nehru uttered the sentence in a moment of self-congratulation without any hint of irony. But with the wisdom that comes with hindsight, there are good reasons to ponder Nehru's use of the pronoun 'we'. Who was Nehru claiming to speak for' In his own mind he had no doubt that he was speaking for the people of India. But did the people of India want independence that brought in its trail the trauma of Partition and communal violence' Was this the tryst they had made with history long years ago' Did Nehru speak for those in Bengal who did not know on the morning of August 15 where they belonged ' West Bengal or East Pakistan' Did he speak for those who were fleeing from West Punjab to make their homes in refugee camps in New Delhi' In fact, with hindsight, the poet Faiz when he wrote, 'This is not the long-looked for break of day', captured better the poignancy of August 15, 1947 than Nehru's mood of self-congratulation.
The history of the Indian republic can be read as an attempt to engage with the question that Nehru unwittingly posed when he used the pronoun 'we'. Who has the right to speak for India and the Indian people' The Congress, because of the leadership it had provided to the Indian national movement, appropriated the right to speak for the Indian people. 'The Congress,' Nehru said, 'claims to speak for India as a whole'That is to say what it demands is not for any particular group or community but for the nation as a whole.' The party was made to stand in for the nation.
Thus was created what the political scientist, Rajni Kothari, called the Congress system. Till the elections of 1967, Congress rule faced no effective opposition. The achievements of this period can be briefly stated: the setting up of an economic system based on planning and major state initiatives in industry, public works, urban development, education and reforms in Hindu society. The state, under Nehru, was made into the principal agency for social and economic change. The foundations of a secular and democratic polity were laid during this period. The other important legacy of the Nehru era was the protection of the minorities and a policy of affirmative action in favour of the scheduled castes and tribes.
The system held till the first onslaught on Indian democracy came from within the Congress itself by way of the Emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed. But the Emergency apart, Indira Gandhi inflicted some other enduring wounds on Indian democracy ' tampering with the judiciary, the idea of a committed bureaucracy, subversion of institutions, the spread of nepotism, the coming of the dynastic principle, the pervasive influence of money and corruption in politics and the use of religion for political leverage.
Indira Gandhi also produced the first real opposition to Congress rule. Initially, this opposition took the form of a united protest against the policies and personality of Indira Gandhi. This unity was, however, short- lived and its break up saw the emergence of at least three distinct political tendencies. One, the left, confined though it is to West Bengal and Kerala. Two, a cluster of disparate caste-based political parties whose positions were fortified by the recommendations of the Mandal commission. Third, the Bharatiya Janata Party, a self-proclaimed party of the Hindus. If the Congress made the party stand in for the nation, the BJP made Hindutva stand in for the nation.
From the Nineties, there have thus been many claimants to that pronoun 'we' that Nehru used so tantalizingly in his famous speech. There is the Congress, which still claims to speak for India and Indians but electorally does not represent all of India. The BJP is in the process of refashioning itself to speak for India but is impeded by its baggage of Hindutva and its lack of presence south of the Vindhyas. The caste parties speak for their respective castes, and the left claims to speak for the poor. The 'we' has come to be endowed with layers of significance.
One way of seeing this phenomenon is to see it in terms of a fracturing of the polity. This fracturing has coincided with a deepening of the polity. Over the last two decades or so, more people have come into the ambit of political society and become aware of their own political rights and claims. This is a direct consequence of the empowerment of the subalterns. They are in a position now to politically articulate their rights through their voting preferences and forms of protest. Witness, to take a very recent example, what happened in Kalinga Nagar and Rourkela. The deepening and the fracturing of the polity have gone together and may even be complementary.
Both the fracturing and the deepening have rung alarm bells in certain quarters. The fracturing has been taken as a symptom of the polity's fragility, and the deepening has been seen as a threat to civil society. The latter is totally misplaced. If anything, the deepening is a sign of the strength of democracy. Civil society and its institutions have to adapt themselves to new entrants, who are untrained in the codes and conventions of democratic practice. The fracturing has led to coalition governments which are not necessarily fragile and vulnerable.
The alarmists, located mostly among the privileged, should take heart from the fact that increasingly, the economic processes in the country, especially industries, the service sector and stock markets, are becoming insulated from the sphere of politics. Despite a coalition government and the constant carping of the left, the economy continues to grow and the stock market remains buoyant.
The future of the republic and its robustness will be determined by the way it adjusts and adapts itself to the changes in the polity and the forces in society that are driving the political changes.
It is no longer possible to use the pronoun 'we' with the same confidence ' and even perhaps arrogance ' that Nehru did. The evaporation of the confidence creates conditions for hope since it underlines the fact that India does not belong to any one class, party or religious community. Attempts to appropriate India are doomed to fail. This is the success of the republic.