The nation has recently crossed two significant milestones: 60 years of independence, and half of that span since Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency. Celebration of the ‘golden jubilee’ of national freedom has been marked by standard rituals, even though a wee bit spoiled by the controversy over the nuclear deal. In contrast, the anniversary of the Emergency has passed in total silence. For some, the Emergency is an inconvenient episode to be reminded of. For some, it was a folly. For others, political alignments have shifted remarkably in the past three decades; mentioning the Emergency would involve an uneasy recollection of certain principles and convictions totally incongruous in today’s milieu.
If such purposive oblivion is to be described as the archetypal bourgeois attitude, there should be no reason to demur; after all, we are living in a quintessentially bourgeois State. That conceivably is also the reason for skipping, amid all the eulogies showered on Chandra Sekhar on the occasion of his death last month, any reference to a particularly shameful phase in his political career. He was once considered to be one of the grandest heroes in the battle against Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism. The lady packed him off to prison the moment the Emergency was declared; the fact that he was at the time a member of the Congress Working Committee was no matter. The Young Turk, as he was then hailed, was the talk of the town. He was the talk of the countryside as well, a supposedly flaming socialist, a thorn in the side of his own party’s government. Throughout the Sixties and early Seventies, he would ask harrying questions in parliament focussing on the misdeeds of the regime, and go about as the nation’s avenging hero. In private conversation, Indira Gandhi would pour scorn on Chandra Sekhar’s antics, insinuating that he was on the regular payroll of a business house; her comments were taken to be expressions of pure bile.
Maybe she was not altogether subjective in her judgment. Following the landslide victory of the Janata Party in the 1977 Lok Sabha polls, Jaya-prakash Narayan picked Morarji Desai as prime minister. Chaudhuri Charan Singh took this as an unkind, unjustified snub. He was a man of vaulting ambition, with no ideology except the advancement of the cause of the rich Jat peasantry. It was therefore not much of a surprise when, within two years, he ditched the Janata Party and got himself elected prime minister with the support proffered by his erstwhile number one enemy, Indira Gandhi. What was, however, flabbergasting was the exact repetition of the Charan Singh act, ten years later, by Chandra Sekhar. He sulked when, in 1989, in the aftermath of the Bofors scandal and Rajiv Gandhi’s eclipse in the ninth Lok Sabha polls, Vishwanath Pratap Singh was chosen over him as prime minister by the Janata Dal. It was natural for him to enter the gussakhana for a while. What shocked several of Chandra Sekhar’s former admirers, though, was his unabashed lack of scruples in seeking Rajiv Gandhi’s help to be installed as prime minister. Indira Gandhi’s son obliged with alacrity, only to pull out the rug from under him after barely seven months. That was effectively the end of Chandra Sekhar’s political career.
Man, according to bourgeois norms, does not quarrel with the dead. All comments in obituaries have accordingly avoided mentioning this tale of Chandra Sekhar’s going back on all principles and past pronouncements in order to be the country’s sultan even if for a short stint. But, then, his demeanour may well be regarded as perfectly normal in the current climate. A capitalist order places the profit motive on the highest pedestal. Profit needs to be maximized both at the firm and the individual levels. As good and honest American parlance puts it, one must be prepared to run over one’s own grandmom if that would yield an extra grand. Are not we in India being daily inoculated with this ideology of the self-above-everything-else' So-called social vision, including such things as a more equitable economic order, a rule of law which treats everybody, high or low, by the same yardstick and code of moral rectitude, has gone out of the window. Chandra Sekhar ditched his former colleagues as well as his former convictions, quite a few might perhaps suggest, for a worthwhile cause, the cause of self-advancement; he, the new morality would say, deserves to be lauded rather than pilloried.
But Chandra Sekhar is dead and gone. Must we not turn our gaze elsewhere in the landscape' The Left till now had the reputation —and rightly — of observing what is known as the policy of the principle. However, once the perception seeps in that not even the ghost of a prospect exists of transforming the social and political structure in the foreseeable future, even the Left is tempted to obfuscate ideological issues and adopt the line of when-in-Rome-do-as-the-Romans-do. That was in fact the explanation offered when it compromised on the principle that only a regular resident of a state must be elected to the Rajya Sabha from that state.
The latest challenge is of a much acuter dimension. The 123 Agreement New Delhi has entered into with the United States of America does not explicitly state that it is not subject to national laws of either country. On the contrary, the Hyde Act passed by the US Congress asserts — and asserts unambiguously — that the proposed nuclear agreement with India has to be subservient to the conditions it spells out; once the nuclear deal becomes operational, we will therefore have to surrender the prerogative of an independent foreign policy, be an active ally of the US in its forthcoming war against Iran and report periodically to the American administration on the state and disposition of our nuclear arsenal.
The times are indeed out of joint. The Constitution, as it now stands, describes India as a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic. The Left has tacitly gone along with the proposition that, in today’s circumstances, talk of socialism is mere shibboleth. Despite the proliferation of dynasties, we may still claim to be a republic, at least as a republic of hunger as Utsa Patnaik has so succinctly put it. The tug-of-war at the moment is the trade-off between sovereignty and secularism. In order to save the nation from the dirty hands of the communal bigots, would the Left go along with the proposition that it is preferable to accept a fudged version of the 123 agreement even if it erodes in some measure the country’s sovereignty' Would it also be deterred by the possibility that in case it persists with its opposition to the nuclear deal and a fresh Lok Sabha poll becomes inevitable, it might fare worse in that poll than it did in 2004, thereby forfeiting the clout it enjoys at present' Since pragmatism is allegedly fast replacing ideology, would the Left too conclude that discretion is the better part of valour'
There can, however, be a further epilogue to the epilogue. Suppose the Left, intent on saving the country from the clutches of religious obscurantists, compromises on the issue of the nuclear deal and lets the United Progressive Alliance government continue, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its friends might then play the super-patriotic card to the hilt, so much so that they emerge victorious in the Lok Sabha elections due only 20 months hence. The Left would then have contributed to the surcease of both sovereignty and secularism. Is that the denouement we are all waiting for'