IF one were to ask even a cursorily informed person to list the reasons why Narasimha Rao and his team should be thrown out of office, the person quizzed might initially appear both hesitant and confused. The hesitancy being caused not by lack of material but an excess. What should he choose? Corruption? Incompetence? Greed? Nepotism? Criminality? Rarely in a democracy has a ruling party provided such an embarrassment of riches to the voting public for its own rejection. The task of making out a case for the Congress in the summer of '96 would probably defeat even the sharpest advertising brain. 'Organised lying' has its limitations.
However, it seems to me that the most powerful reason for ejecting the Narasimha Rao Government is seldom mentioned in political discourse or commentary. Corruption (PV says this is a national weakness), incompetence (not a monopoly of the Congress), greed (even less of a monopoly), nepotism (look at Bal Thackeray and the late NTR), criminality (Mulayam Singh's history-sheeters will take some beating)... need to be denounced in the strongest possible terms, but even more injurious and debilitating for a nation is to be ruled by a party which is 'tired'. The Congress is suffering from power-fatigue, and the disease currently is in its terminal stage.
Just take one passing glimpse at the front bench of the Congress or even its second XI. These are men from whose bodies all creative and intellectual energy has been drained out. They are yesterday's people, enfeebled, jaded, exhausted, softened, bedraggled by uninterrupted access to the spoils of office. Except for two brief periods in the life of our Republic, the Congress party has ruled India. The after-effects of such prolonged comfort are very visible.
I believe a tired government is more dangerous for a functioning democracy than, for instance, a corrupt government. It is not for nothing that the astute Indian voter has refused to fall for Mr Rao's newly acquired avatar of the fearless leader determined to cleanse public life. The Prime Minister's efforts in this direction notwithstanding, politicians with sticky fingers are suddenly not going to become extinct. Doubtless, they will find newer, more ingenious ways to ensure regular side-income. We might as well get used to the idea of living with corruption in public life and console ourselves with the thought that more advanced democracies than ours have learned to make that accommodation.
At the risk of sounding cynical, one could advance the proposition that there have been occasions when the manifestly corrupt have rendered useful national service. Partap Singh Kairon, Bansi Lal, Sharad Pawar (he consolidated Maharashtra's industrial preeminence), MGR come to mind in this context. I remember living under A.R. Antulay's dispensation in Bombay in the early '80s. Antulay was, of course, merrily collecting loot, but the year or so he was chief minister saw an extraordinary creative bustle in the city. Mr Antulay held open court and there was literally no problem facing the state which he did not try and address. Ramakrishna Hegde, he of the suave exterior, had his own money-making schemes, but few will deny that it was Hegde who almost single-handedly positioned Bangalore as a rival to Bombay. Consequently, while we should not condone corruption, it is not the number one evil to guard against as we enter the 21st century.
Consider now a tired government, the like of which governs us. It has no vision, no ideas; it believes in the status quo since that is safe; it always reacts never initiates; each day that passes without it being toppled is totted up as a minor victory. Problems are allowed to fester so that problems become crises. The whole machinery of governance is put on hold because cowardice—new ideas require moral and intellectual courage—and fatigue invariably go hand-in-hand.
A senior bureaucrat, who has now retired and who had more than one opportunity to work with Narasimha Rao when he was a central minister, told me that working for Rao was in some ways a pleasure. He read the files, he understood the brief, he weighed the options. However, when it came to taking a decision he always found a logical reason for procrastination, i.e., he found a reason for not taking a decision. The history of this government is a testimony to a style which results directly from tiredness. Whether it is Kashmir or Pakistan or education or electoral reforms...the record is too fresh and too painful to warrant any detailed elaboration.
What about economic reforms and liberalisation, the one area where the Government has taken bold and purposeful decisions, you might ask? How can one explain this monumental activity against a background of delay and dithering? Actually, you can. When historians set about writing the launching of liberalisation they will discover without much research that the 'bold' measures were forced on the Government, taken as it were at gun point. The coffers were empty, foreign exchange reserves for imports were down to three weeks and the sole available lender, the World Bank (WB), demanded not tinkering with the economy but major surgery. No 'middle-path' was possible. Dr Manmohan Singh's main qualification for the job he currently holds was his known knowledge around the corridors of the WB building in Washington.
The Congress and Narasimha Rao could draw some comfort from the fact that power-fatigue is a global phenomenon. In Britain, the nice John Major is about to be booted out not due to a concerted challenge from Tony Blair but because the Tories have been the government for 20 years and like the Congress seem distracted. President Clinton, despite his philandering, draft-dodging and cocaine-smoking occupies the White House. The Republicans, Americans reckoned, had run out of fresh ideas to address the challenges facing their country. Down Under, the Labour Party suffered a shock defeat recently for similar reasons.
So, how can we help Narasimha Rao and his party and, more crucially, the country? As someone who is a supporter of the Congress and believes it is the natural party of government, I fervently hope the Congress loses power. Five years in the political wilderness will cause a transfusion of energy. Congressmen will get a taste of the real world outside. Let them queue for railway tickets, gas connections, telephone lines, ration cards, Maruti cars...and sweat. Then, hopefully, the hunger for power will return. If you want to do the Congress a favour, vote against it. The party needs to be defeated in the national interest.