On the backfoot?
In an essay published just before the general elections of 2009, I had argued that for Indian democracy to become more focused and effective, four things needed to happen:
First, the Congress had to rid itself of its dependence on a single family. Rahul Gandhi had a right to be in politics, but not to assume that only he or his mother would be the most powerful person in their party;
Second, the Bharatiya Janata Party had to rid itself of its dependence on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and reinvent itself as a right-of-centre party with understated (rather than militant) views on religion, thus to become less like Islamic jehadists and more like German Christian Democrats;
Third, the parliamentary communist parties had to become more alert to the promise of entrepreneurial innovation and modern technologies, and less beholden to the profoundly anti-democratic ideas of Lenin and Stalin. At the same time, I hoped the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI would merge into one party, and then persuade the Maoists to abandon armed struggles and enter the democratic process as well;
Fourth, the emerging middle class, growing in numbers and influence, could start a national party of its own. This would be open to all regardless of caste, religion, or ethnicity, and outline a forward-looking agenda for the nation.
This wish-list, naturally, was offered more in hope than in expectation. Three years later, does it look more or less unrealistic when first articulated?
Consider, first, the state of the Congress. It is clearer than ever before that the stranglehold of the Gandhi-Nehrus has hurt it very greatly. The charisma of the First Family fades with every successive generation. As demonstrated in 2004 and 2009, Sonia Gandhi had some countrywide electoral appeal; but this was far less than that once enjoyed by her husband and mother-in-law. And, as the results of the Uttar Pradesh election showed, her son enjoys even less appeal than his mother.
That the Nehru-Gandhis are necessary to win elections for the Congress is a myth. At the same time, the dominance of the family has damaged the party’s ability to govern effectively. India is a young country whose future will be determined by those now under fifty years of age. The Congress has some capable young leaders at the Centre, but these men and women cannot be elevated to responsible positions in the Cabinet for fear that they will outshine Rahul Gandhi. In the states, where elections are increasingly presidential, it would make good electoral sense for the Congress to project a single leader before assembly elections — this they cannot do, since it will mean undermining the patronage of the First Family. As a result, the party has lost a series of state elections it really should have won.
For its own long-term good, therefore, the Congress needs to think of life for the party beyond (and independent of) the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Coming next to the BJP, it maybe that the RSS has become marginally less influential in the party. To be sure, Nitin Gadkari continues as BJP president largely because of the support of the RSS. The real change in the BJP over the past decade, however, has been the growing strength of their chief ministers. In the 1980s and 1990s, the most powerful leaders of the BJP operated out of Delhi — such as Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and Murali Manohar Joshi. Out of habit, and perhaps laziness, the Delhi media still focus on BJP leaders based in the capital, such as Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj. But come the next general elections, the fate of the BJP will be decided not by them but by leaders based outside Delhi such as Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Raman Singh, and Narendra Modi.
How do these BJP chief ministers stand vis-ŕ-vis the RSS? From what I can tell, Shivraj Singh Chauhan is strongly beholden to the Sangh, and Raman Singh slightly less so. Narendra Modi has sought to make himself independent of the RSS. However, their varying relations with the RSS do not mean that these leaders have come to believe in a more religiously inclusive view of India. For all three, Hinduism defines the essence of the nation. In this sense, although the RSS’s influence on the BJP may have marginally declined, the party itself is still aligned more to hard, than to soft, Hindutva.
In the 2009 general elections, the parliamentary Left did very badly. Two years later, they lost power in assembly elections in Kerala and West Bengal. The latter defeat particularly has led to some introspection among the leaders of the party. After the rout in West Bengal, Prakash Karat published a reflective piece in Caravan magazine that was remarkable on at least two counts: that a major Communist leader would admit to his party having made some mistakes (in this case, the failure to take the concerns of women and of environmental sustainability on board); and second, for its appearing in the kind of bourgeois publication that hard-core Communists are taught to scorn.
The Communists have within their ranks some of the more intelligent politicians in India; and also some of the less corrupt. One hopes that Karat’s (admittedly partial) mea culpa has been followed within party circles with a serious rethink of the economic and political dogmas, derived from the experience of 19th and 20th-century Europe, that has thus far guided the CPI(M) despite its irrelevance to the realities of 21st-century India.
What, finally, of my fourth wish, that of a new national party altogether? When I offered it in 2009, Anna Hazare was confined to his village in Maharashtra, while corruption, although a problem that affected most Indians in everyday life, had not really become an issue of nationwide debate and discussion. The media and CAG revelations on the spectrum and Commonwealth Games scams, and Hazare’s own fasts in New Delhi in April and August, 2011, have changed all this.
The movement born out of those fasts now says it will become a political party, and, in that capacity, fight some (it is not clear how many) seats in the next general elections. I think this a necessary move, which will make the Congress and the BJP less complacent. However, to make any kind of impact, the leaders of this new party must move beyond levelling charges against individual politicians. A campaign founded exclusively on negativity cannot be sustainable.
To attract a wider constituency, the new party needs to offer some clear, pragmatic policies that answer to the growing aspirations of the citizens for a dignified life free both of poverty and of fear. At the moment, however, the policies its leaders articulate veer towards a dangerous populism (such as the burning of electricity bills). The party needs to reach out to other groups such as Loksatta, which have made their own forays into the electoral arena. A Delhi- centred and individual-centred campaign will generate media attention in the short-term, without necessarily preparing the party for the hard realities of electoral politics — canvassing funds, building coalitions, campaigning door-to-door, offering voters more than a stream of abuse at (admittedly corrupt) politicians.
Altogether, my wish-list looks marginally less unrealistic in October 2012 than when first offered in May 2009. The dynasty is on the backfoot; the RSS is relatively quiescent; the Left is introspective; and a new middle-class, cross-caste party is being born. To be sure, there is no promise of a new dawn, no prospect of a thoroughgoing redemption. But Indian democrats have learnt to set the bar low. And as Mahatma Gandhi once said, let us take it one step at a time.