February 22, 2020
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The Past And Future Of Indian Elections

How the polity got fractured and how we can aid the healing process

The Past And Future Of Indian Elections
The Past And Future Of Indian Elections
In the first weeks of 1967, the town crier in Dehradun left his municipal job to campaign for the Jana Sangh in the general elections. A refugee from the North-West Frontier, this man was tall of countenance and loud of voice. Where he had previously cycled around town commanding citizens to pay their taxes or renew their ration cards, he now shouted slogans asking people to vote for a particular political party. A slogan I remember well ran: Jana Sangh ko vote do/ Bidi peena chhod do/ Bidi mein tambaku hai/ Kangress wala daku hai.

Point Break: The 1967 general election, held the year after Indira Gandhi and her cabinet were sworn in, saw the fragments standing up to the Congress monolith

By now, the Congress had been in power a full 20 years. It could no longer cash in so easily on the legacy of the independence struggle. Khadi, once the livery of freedom, now denoted opportunism, and even corruption. Hence that slogan, which juxtaposed the devious ways of the ruling party with the austerity (some would say puritanism) of the Jana Sangh. This party had a particular appeal in north India, where its call to Hindu pride evoked resonance among Partition refugees and those brought up on myths of resistance to Muslim rule. Elsewhere in India, the challenge to the ruling party came from different quarters. No doubt, the slogans being shouted in Coimbatore and Madurai chastised the Congress for promoting Hindi and seeking to eliminate Tamil. Meanwhile, in Kerala and West Bengal, the Congress was being represented as the party of the propertied and the moneybags.

Even as that loose-limbed Frontiersman cycled around my hometown, inveighing against the Congress, a nation-wide survey was being conducted to assess the likely outcome of the 1967 general elections. Overseeing the study was E.P.W. da Costa of the Indian Institute of Public Opinion, who was (so to say) the Yogendra Yadav of his day. The survey found that the Congress had "lost a great deal of its charisma"; it would still retain power at the Centre, albeit with a greatly reduced majority. However, it would lose power in many states. Thus the elections of 1967 would signal "the disintegration of the monolithic exercise of power by the Congress party".

The predictions were vindicated by events. In that general election, the fourth since Independence, the Congress won 54.5 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha—down from more than 70 per cent. Many established leaders lost their seats, such as Bombay strongman S.K. Patil, who was defeated by the then mostly obscure trade union leader George Fernandes. (This, if I may be permitted one last comparison, is somewhat like Murli Deora losing now in South Bombay to Medha Patkar.) The Congress's losses were far greater in the provinces. It won a mere 48.5 per cent of the seats in state assemblies, where its previous tally had always been in excess of 60 per cent. It lost power in Madras to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in Kerala to the Communists, in West Bengal to an alliance of Communists and Congress defectors, in Orissa to an alliance of Swatantra and Congress defectors. It also failed to establish governments in many states in northern India, where loose coalitions of Jana Sanghis, socialists, and breakaway Congressmen came to form governments.

In retrospect, the polls of 1967 marked a decisive turning point in the history of electoral democracy in India. The Congress was now no longer hegemonic at the Centre; and deeply vulnerable in the states. At the same time, there was no clear national alternative to the party of the freedom struggle. In Madras, the Congress had been overthrown by a regional formation with no presence in other states. In some other states, the Congress had been replaced by spur-of-the-moment coalitions, with individuals of varying tendencies uniting on the single issue of grabbing political power.

The next four general elections appeared to reverse this trend. All these elections returned a single party to power in New Delhi. Each time, however, there were special circumstances: the charisma of Indira Gandhi (as in 1971 or, posthumously, in 1984), or the devilry of Indira Gandhi (which swept the hastily cobbled Janata Party to power in 1977). In any case, at the level of the states, the Congress continued to lose ground. The rise of the DMK in Tamil Nadu was emulated by the Akali Dal, the Telugu Desam, the Shiv Sena, and the Asom Gana Parishad, all of whom made broad gains by claiming to stand for the interests of their region against an overbearing and homogenising Centre. The parliamentary communists consolidated themselves in Kerala and West Bengal. And the erstwhile socialists formed parties that successfully promoted the interests of the backward castes. Hence the rise of the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, and of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh. Most recently, the Dalits have formed a solid voting bloc in Uttar Pradesh, propelling the Bahujan Samaj Party to power three times in the state.

The decentralising trend inaugurated by the 1967 elections deepened through the 1970s and 1980s. By the end of the latter decade, it had decisively transformed the nature of national politics itself. Thus, between 1989 and 2009, India had nine governments, headed by seven different prime ministers. None of them commanded a majority in Parliament. Sometime towards the end of May 2009, the President of India will swear in the country's tenth successive minority and/or coalition government.

This fragmentation of the Indian political system is both good and bad. The billion and more citizens of a country so far-flung and diverse can scarcely be represented by a single political party. That the Congress could be so dominant for so long was a consequence of the patient work done by generations of Congressmen in building a network of coalitions under the party's umbrella. To quote Mukul Kesavan, the Congress constructed a "Noah's Ark of nationalism", seeking to keep every species of Indian on board. The attempt was both heroic and flawed. When the British were the common enemy, there was an incentive for all Indians to join the leading force against imperialism. However, before Independence itself, there were grumblings from the Dalits and the minorities, whose principal leaders—B.R. Ambedkar and M.A. Jinnah—strongly argued that the Congress did not represent the interests of their constituents. After Independence, a section of the backward castes left to join the socialist parties. Workers and peasants flocked to the Red Flag. Then the Tamils vested their faith in the DMK, encouraging Telugu, Punjabi, Assamese and Oriya speakers to likewise respond positively to regional parties in their own states.

From the late 1960s, a diverse citizenry and a federal polity have worked together to undermine Congress dominance. On the whole, these developments are to be welcomed, as an incorporation of previously excluded or marginalised groups into the democratic process. At the same time, when aggregated up to the national level, this decentralised deepening has produced less-than-rational outcomes. For there are some issues that require a wise and far-seeing central government to handle them. The five crucial sectors here are health, education, environment, the economy, and foreign affairs. One needs an efficient and focused state to bring education and healthcare to all its citizens. One needs long-term strategies for energy and environmental management so as to renew our natural resources and safeguard the material interests of future generations of Indians. One requires a pragmatic economic policy that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship while resisting populist handouts. And, in an increasingly fragile and disturbed neighbourhood—not to speak of an increasingly multi-polar world—the importance of a sensible foreign policy can scarcely be overstressed.

If one reads the newspapers of the past weeks and months, one finds that these policy questions are hardly discussed. Print and cyberspace alike are obsessed with which party is negotiating what kind of alliance, and with whom. Or they are speculating on the question of Kaun Banega Pradhan Mantri. And yet, feasible and effective policies in the sectors I have identified are vital to the long-term interests of India and Indians. However, in an era of multi-party coalition governments, one can be certain that we will not get them. Political negotiations will be resolutely focused on the short-term, with smaller parties asking for the most remunerative ministries in exchange for support to the ruling government. The prime minister's own working day will chiefly be taken up with massaging the egos of his fellow ministers, or of his own party members who have not yet found a place in the Union cabinet.

Surname game: Is Rahul willing to be the ‘aam Congress admi’?

I have argued that the fragmentation of the Indian polity is a product of the staggering diversity of class, caste, religious and linguistic interests. Even so, the process may not have proceeded so far and so fast had it not been for the organisational failures of the once-dominant Congress party. In the first decades of Independence, the Congress had robust and well-functioning district and state units. The setbacks in the 1967 elections should have prompted a strengthening of inner-party democracy. Instead, they led to a centralisation of power in the person of the prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Local units and state leaders were systematically undermined. This process was continued under Rajiv Gandhi and, more recently, under Sonia Gandhi.

As the promotion of Rahul Gandhi demonstrates, the Congress believes it can compensate for these structural deficiencies by calling upon the charisma of the latest member of the family to enter politics. If not in 2009, then perhaps at least in 2014, the Grand Old Party will once more stride assertively across the Indian political landscape—that is the hope, and it will be belied. It is highly unlikely that the aandhi of this particular Gandhi will ever sweep the Congress to anywhere near a majority in a general election.

Some observers see Election 2009 as a sort of semi-final. The leaders of the two major parties are both old and tired. Neither inspires much confidence in the electorate. Is this then merely a waiting game, a prelude to the next battle, when Rahul Gandhi will be pitted directly against the man best placed to succeed L.K. Advani as the next leader of the BJP, namely, Narendra Modi?

The endorsement of sundry CEOs notwithstanding, my own view is that, like his young Congress adversary, the Gujarat chief minister cannot ever lead his party to a majority in a general election. His main weakness, as of the formation to which he belongs, is ideological. From the time the BJP was formed, a section of the middle class has hoped that it would abandon hard-core Hindutva and reinvent itself on the model of the Christian Democrats of Germany, or of the Republican Party in the United States—that is to say, as a party which stands for such conservative principles as free enterprise and family values. These hopes have been repeatedly belied, most recently by the BJP's thoroughgoing support to its bigoted candidate from Pilibhit. The German Christian Democrats and the American Republicans do not hate Jews and Muslims. But the BJP, it appears, cannot stop itself from hating Muslims and Christians.

In recent decades, then, Indian democracy has been increasingly influenced by identity politics, by parties and interests representing (or claiming to represent) various castes, ethnicities, regions, and religions. It is likely that a majority of Outlook readers, themselves urban and cosmopolitan, are not in sympathy with this trend. Rather than 18-or-20-party coalitions, they would like to see a single party dominating the central government, such that it might frame the rational, sustainable policies this country desperately needs. The question is: will they get such a government in their lifetime?

Some trends are promising. More Indians now live in cities, where the pressures of caste and locality matter less than in the countryside. More Indians now contract marriages outside their communities. With economic development, more Indians are abandoning traditional caste-based occupations. In factories and offices, they work and break bread with Indians of different social backgrounds. These secularising tendencies are reinforced by TV and the Internet, which alert the young to mentalities and lifestyles very different from those of their parents or grandparents.

Can these trends collectively produce an electorate that shall come to vote not on the basis of identity, but with regard to the policies on offer? If ever that question was to be answered in the affirmative, two things have to happen. First, the secular (that is to say trans-caste and trans-religious) middle class has to grow massively in numbers, so that it can come to decisively alter the outcome of elections. Second, the contending parties have themselves to become more serious about executing rational policies in the fields of health, education, environment, the economy, and foreign affairs.

Historians are worse than useless in predicting the future. What might happen is impossible to foresee. However, citizens may be permitted the luxury of wishful thinking, of articulating what they think should happen. As an Indian democrat, I wish thus to hope for one or more of four alternatives to the identity politics of the present:

  • The first thing to wish for is a Congress that is not wholly beholden to the dynasty. Rahul Gandhi has decided to make a career out of politics. This he is entitled to do. What is questionable is the assumption—shared by his family, his close associates, and apparently by the man himself—that the top job in party and government is his for the asking. For the sake of the Congress (as much as India), Rahul should turn down this path of nepotistic advancement. He should spend the next decade—and more—working with his colleagues to rebuild the party's organisation, by reviving the tradition of regular elections in district and state branches and inducting ambitious and intelligent people into the Congress. In other words, his role models should be the party-builders—Vallabhbhai Patel and K. Kamaraj—rather than the power-wielders—Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Meanwhile, if the Congress comes to power on its own or in a coalition, then cabinet posts and the prime ministership should be filled on the basis of competence, without the family standing in the way. (Which it certainly did in 2004, when no young Congressman was inducted into the council of ministers for fear that he might outshine the heir apparent.)

Warp & woof: BJP leaders at an RSS rally in Delhi
  • The second thing to wish for is a BJP that is not remote-controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which remains committed to a Hindu rashtra, a state in which citizens belonging to the Hindu faith will have a superior status to citizens who belong to other faiths or who are atheists. With the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the RSS has had a hand in some of the worst communal riots in independent India. They are also xenophobic, turning their backs on modern ideas while glorifying a mythical past in which Hindus were supposed to have dominated the world. Further, they have a marked prejudice against women who are independent or independent-minded.

Can the BJP ever come to practice small 'c' conservatism, by which one means a respect for tradition which does not shade into a hatred of the alien, the modern, or the non-Hindu? Under the leadership of the poet Atal Behari Vajpayee, at times it came close to shedding its deepest prejudices. Now, under the leadership of L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh and Narendra Modi, it has once more returned to its roots, to its long-lasting suspicion of minorities, its paranoia about the West and about women. It may be that some other BJP leaders—say Yashwant Sinha or Shivraj Singh Chauhan—are more committed to an inclusive politics of governance rather than an emotive politics of hate. In that case, one may hope that they come to inherit Advani's mantle instead of the megalomaniac (and Muslim-hating) Modi.

Violent fringe: A Maoist camp in Bastar, Chhattisgarh

  • The third thing to wish for is a united and reform-oriented Left. With the deep inequalities that persist in our country, left-wing ideologies still have considerable appeal. And Marxist politicians are in some respects more decent than the rest. Surveys have consistently shown that CPI and CPI(M) MPs are less corrupt and less prone to criminality than politicians of other parties. Then there are the Naxalites, who have considerable influence among the most disadvantaged sections of Indian society, the low castes and Adivasis in the economically depressed districts of central and eastern India.
One hopes that the Naxalites can, one day soon, follow their comrades in Nepal and give up the gun to enter the electoral process. They might then form a joint front with the CPI and CPI(M), to thus more effectively represent the interests of the marginalised and the excluded. But it is not enough that the Left be united: they must also recognise (to quote Comrade Prachanda) that "multi-party democracy is the political system of the 21st century". They must give up the fantasy of constructing a one-party state on the basis of armed struggle. A pragmatic Left must also appreciate the benefits of entrepreneurship and innovation, of seeking to increase the size of the economic cake so that there are bigger slices to go all around.
  • The fourth thing to wish for is a new party altogether. Based on the aspirations of the expanding middle class, this party could throw away the baggage of the past by constructing an agenda suited to the circumstances of the present. As a modern, or even post-modern, party, it should be open to all, regardless of caste or religion, and promote policies that are likewise not oriented to a particular sect or ethnic group. Anticipations of such a formation are already available, in the activities of such groups as Loksatta and the Professionals Party of India, both of whom shall put up candidates in the forthcoming elections.
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