With Crucial Gap Years

This book navigates India’s political, economic departures, then falters at final conclusions
With Crucial Gap Years
AFP (From Outlook 12 November 2012)
Congress After Indira: Policy, Power, Political Change (1984-2009)
By Zoya Hasan
OUP | Pages: 256 | Rs. 795

Zoya Hasan is clearly an admirer of the Congress that once was the “natural party of governance”, “central...to India’s present and future” (and, one would have thought, its past!), with a “claim to authority, legitimacy and representativeness” that no other party could claim, standard-bearer of “secularism and economic development, assuring citizens of equal rights regardless of their caste or religion, and working to end poverty”, a party which once “possessed considerable elasticity which allow(ed) it to speak in multiple voices and work with multiple agendas”. She is, therefore and understandably, distressed by the Congress’s decline into “a party in serious disarray” and “without the right kind of state-level and local leadership”, “dominated by the culture of nomination”, a party that has “no ideology, only strategy”, lacking “the political will to take a firm stand against the practitioners and purveyors of polarisation” and, therefore, unable to confront “the politics of social cleavages”, hence faced with “a multi-dimensional crisis of political identity, mobilisation strategy and organisational coherence”.

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Congress After Indira is an attempt to come to grips with what has led to this unfortunate decline and an enquiry into whether the process can be reversed. Zoya Hasan’s starting point is the “centralisation” of the party under Indira Gandhi and “the mixing of religion and politics” under her son, Rajiv. But since she deals with the entire decade of the ’80s in a single opening chapter of a mere 35 pages, the historiography is suspect, the analysis is surprisingly superficial, the facts adduced highly selective and with gaping gaps in the narrative. For this book is not really about the Congress After Indira, but the Congress After Rajiv. That is when she becomes more sure-footed, clearer about her narrative and more convincing in her conclusions.

Once Zoya Hasan gets her teeth into the 20 years after Rajiv, her book turns into a smooth sail through the period in which governance in India turned definitely, perhaps definitively, to an alternative paradigm to the one that had marked the first four decades after ’47. What mars the story is repeated use of expressions like “critical juncture”, “crucial turning point”, “critical issue”, “depended crucially” and, just “crucially”, on virtually every development or theme taken up in the successive chapters, which comprise individual essays on Ayodhya, “regime change” from single-party governments to coalitions, government-party relations in the Age of UPA, minority affairs, foreign policy, and economic and social policy, rather than an integrated history of the whole period.

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In the final analysis, Hasan is overly concerned with short-term poll results, often the result of only proximate political events.

She is, perhaps, at her best in recounting and evaluating the political economy of the processes of economic reforms, and the social and political fallout of the current emphasis on accelerating the growth of the GDP, reversing the earlier privileging of distributive justice. She does so by first setting out succinctly the various elements of reform—“delicensing, deregulation, and privatisation”; “substantial changes in industrial economy, investment, trade” and massive tax breaks; removal of “restrictions on big business” and encouraging their “entry into areas hitherto reserved for the public sector” and small industry; freeing foreign investment, unchaining the exchange rate, etc—and the successive stages through which the process was carefully calibrated. She also summarises, fairly and objectively, the positive outcomes of the process: the doubling of growth rates; the swelling of foreign exchange reserves; and the exponential growth in social sector and poverty alleviation programmes. And only then does she come to her cogent critique.

Since the Planning Commission itself has confessed that an average growth rate of GDP of “over” 8 per cent per annum in the Eleventh Plan period has resulted in a poverty alleviation rate of “under” 0.8 per cent, there can be little doubt that Zoya Hasan is right in saying that the first round of reforms under Narasimha Rao (1991-96) showed up in electoral results where “evidently, liberalisation was seen by the masses at large as an attempt to dilute the party’s social commitment to the deprived sections of society”. She adds, “The leadership downplayed the effects of economic liberalisation, but in the end this issue proved critical (that word again!) in turning the tide against the party”. She does not review the intensification of reforms under the Gowda and Gujral governments (which is a pity), but of the third round of reforms under Vajpayee—Marks I, II and III—her conclusion is that “India was shining only for the elite and middle classes, and this too restricted to some regions and cities, for most of the issues that mattered to them had little relevance for the majority of voters who remained poor and dependent on agriculture”. She maintains that the 2004 election results “underscored the mass resentment against rising social inequalities” and led to UPA-I’s proclamation of “economic reforms with a human face”, manifested most particularly in NREGA and reservations for the backward classes in education, which she credits for the 2009 repeat victory of the UPA.

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Zoya Hasan’s book ends in 2009, but her conclusions endure beyond. She maintains that “equity-based growth strategies, social protection for all and inclusive pluralistic policies for all” hold the key to electoral success, but laments that “even as disparities and inequalities have been an intrinsic part of India’s high-growth economy, the state has thrown its weight behind the rich and powerful”. She weighs against “the dominant influence of the corporate sector” in matters of state policy; of “crony capitalism” and the “corruption” it breeds; of how “as business and politicians grew closer, they evolved a mutually beneficial relationship at both formal and informal levels” (how delicately put!); and regrets that “the new economic policies declared a shift from a multi-class state to a narrow conception of the state more aligned with business, capital and the middle classes”, as also to “abandon whatever was left of the idea of socialism”. She believes political recovery for the Congress is “dependent on the Congress’s ability to sharpen the focus on economic and political inclusion” and thus to undermine the “politics of identity”, as opposed to the “politics of inclusion”, that had led through the 1990s to the spectacular rise of regional, caste-based parties, especially in UP and Bihar, to the dramatic detriment of the Congress. The limitations of such exclusivist politics are now becoming quite clear. As such, an ideological reorientation in the party’s thinking might yet compensate for its “dwindling organisational base, (and) the lack of ideological clarity and political purpose” that has “left the Congress with an image of ambiguity and confusion”.

There is much in what Zoya Hasan says, but I wonder if she is altogether right. She is overly concerned with short-term electoral results, often the consequence of proximate political events than sustained change in political preference. The party has known volatility in its political fortunes, beginning with Nehru losing all five byelections after the Chinese imbroglio. Back in 1967, it lost all the northern states, making it possible to traverse the entire breadth of India from Wagah in west Pakistan to Jessore in east Pakistan without setting foot on Congress territory; yet, in the next election, in 1971, it triumphed with a two-thirds majority. It was smashed in 1977, but bounced back in 1980. And 1984 gave it a three-quarters majority of seats, largely in reaction to Indira Gandhi’s assassination, but in 1989 it lost heavily because of the holding of the shilanyas in Ayodhya in the middle of the election, and that too partially on plots that Rajiv Gandhi later admitted he had been misled into believing were outside the ‘disputed’ territory. This alienated everyone, minority or majority, but just 18 months later the Congress found itself back in power, as voters in the second half of the elections massively voted out forces directly or indirectly responsible for Rajiv’s assassination. And what seemed an eternal exile for the Congress between 1996 and 2004 quite unexpectedly became the stage-setter for two successive UPA victories. And what of the next elections? What does it matter—either way it will be no more than a blip in the long history of the party.

Therefore, ups and downs are part of the electoral process—as Churchill famously discovered after World War II. It is only in one-party dictatorships that the ruling party is never defeated—until it is overthrown and consigned to the dustbin of history. So will it be with the Congress. Zoya Hasan is wrong in overemphasising the electoral impact of mistaken decisions and tectonic shifts in the electorates’ priorities. What is much more important is that the party should do many of the things she recommends in order to become once more, as it was under Gandhiji and Nehru, the moral conscience of the nation—“modern, forward-looking and compassionate”, as Prof Hasan puts it. Otherwise, India may prosper—but Indians won’t.

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