Misalliance and bad governance

Print edition : September 01, 2001

NOBODY within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) maintains any longer the fiction that a set of broad ideological-political principles or some common minimum programme holds the coalition's 20-odd constituents together even as bad governance becomes steadily worse on virtually every front - appallingly so, by common consent, on the national unity, economic, and educational fronts, as this Frontline Cover Story highlights. Power, symbolised by the congenial mask-face of Atal Behari Vajpayee but showing unmistakable signs of erosion if some recent all-India public opinion polls are to be credited, remains the sole binding factor.

Political opportunism never had a more uninhibited and cynical exponent than the NDA's convener, George Fernandes, who has justified the latest decision to let the turncoat Trinamul Congress and Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) back into the fold in terms of there being "no permanent friends in politics - just permanent interests." Even the cliche seems misapplied. Since each of these highly unreliable regional parties has only recently contributed its substantive share to the discomfiture of the NDA in electoral contests in battleground States, the questions arise: what interest could have been possibly served by their changes in allegiance and whose interest will such parties serve when the next major test comes? Yet there is no question of the NDA allowing itself the luxury of raising and debating even this existential question. Such is its plight in Year Four of Vajpayee rule.

It is not so much bare numbers as the unviability of any alternative political combination within the thirteenth Lok Sabha that keeps one of the democratic world's worst - most divisive, reactionary, and inept - governments in office at the expense of every elementary interest of the Indian people. The economy is a shambles, with NDA policy contributing an unedifying story of Rightwingness and callousness towards the people's interest combining with incompetence and venality. For all the formal dissents and caveats entered by allies, communalism and obscurantism - the "assault on reason," spotlighted by Prabhat Patnaik in this issue - remain central to the agenda of the Vajpayee government. It is in the educational arena that the programme of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is in full, fast track play. It is as though the hard-core Hindu Right knows that time is running out for an NDA government in disarray and therefore is all the more determined to insinuate and institute into the educational system as many of its favoured pedagogic projects as a soft situation will allow. As for the targeting of the secular fabric of India and the continuing assaults on vulnerable sections of religious minorities if only to make a larger point, what else can be expected from a government committed largely and with increasing desperation to the core agenda of the Hindu Right?

FROM the standpoint of the serious opposition, political interest seems to demand that the NDA government remain in office in order to make a complete mess of its elected term, so that when the fourteenth general elections are held (no later than October 2004), the experience of the Indian electorate leaves it no choice but to hand out a comprehensive defeat, preferably with long-term implications, to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its unprincipled allies. This, at any rate, is the secular, democratic, and progressive hope building across the country. As the weeks and months roll by, the prospect of being able to throw back in a big way the political interests of the Hindu Right and its ragbag of allies is likely to invest national politics with a spirit of challenge and even excitement.

However, the present tasks must not be underestimated or neglected while waiting for some kind of grand denouement to the plot that began to take shape in the second half of the 1980s and has since taken a huge democratic toll. Some political analysts have characterised India's Hindu Right in terms that recall the attributes not of established conservatism, but of the militant 'New Right' movements seen in Europe and elsewhere. Given the opportunity, such movements can thrive on the impression generated in society that they are out to overthrow the status quo, the 'establishment', and the old rules of governance. They tend to prey on socio-economic and political ills, such as unemployment and underemployment, alienation of youth, corruption, instability, crime, and widespread middle class disaffection with the old, run-down system. They can thus plausibly present a 'radical' face, invent new kinds of 'enemies' for 'mainstream' society, tilt against 'elitism', and have quite a run by aggressively taking up causes as diversionary as they are reactionary. These causes can include driving out or intimidating 'foreigners'; projects of racism and ethnic cleansing; building a Ram temple on the grave of an old mosque, thus speaking simultaneously to the past and the future; instituting, or conniving with, pogroms against vulnerable minority sections of the population, making use of lumpen social elements; rewriting the history curriculum in schools in favour of the favoured chauvinist or communal cause; and threatening to alter a tested and faithful Constitution, which is suddenly held to be out of sync with the times, and create a 'Hindu Rashtra' (or, for that matter, a state ruled totally and uncompromisingly in accordance with the 'Shariat').

What is clear today is that the ruling combination - the National Democratic Alliance, whose helmsman and other leading figures must not be underestimated since they are vastly experienced, resourceful, and battle-hardened - is staring at what looks very much like a loss of political legitimacy. The next watershed will be the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, due in some months. All political eyes in India will be on the action accompanying these elections, which could deal a death blow to the NDA's hopes of reversing the trends and regaining its stock at the national level.

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