Political India over fifty years

Published : Aug 09, 1997 00:00 IST

India in the golden jubilee year of its independence is passing through a time of painful transition.

INDIA is one of the most politicised societies in the world: this is as true today, fifty years after Independence, as it was in 1947. The degradation of democratic institutions and frustrations over the failure to solve the problems of mass poverty, socio-economic deprivation on a gigantic scale, various forms of entrenched backwardness, notably illiteracy, communalism, pervasive corruption and criminalisation of politics might have led to cynicism from time to time.

This decline and the frustrations surely have something to do with the volatility that has been a defining feature of Indian politics since the mid-1960s. But they have failed to generate a long-term trend of de-politicisation. This is evidenced by the relatively high rates of participation of urban as well as rural Indians, men as well as women, in political activity in general and elections in particular.

Sustained politicisation must be recognised as one of the basic strengths of the Indian experience, a function of its democratisation over half a century of Independence. People take their political rights and choice seriously. This is an advantage that India has over several countries which are more developed in several respects, more educated at the base level, and far more prosperous. The fact that, for all its weaknesses, the system that took shape in the post-1947 period seems to be endowed with a certain bottomline of institutional sustainability, if not stability, is a double advantage.

Nevertheless, recent political events have underlined the fact that India in the golden jubilee year of its Independence is passing through a time of painful transition. The question is - to what? This question cannot be answered without reference to the striking range of conflicts and pressures, some of them apparently malignant, which have over an extended period pulled against the fabric of nationhood, the social order and political stability. These are, of course, inter-related.

Queues at polling booths, 1996. Sustained politicisation must be recognised as one of the basic strengths of the Indian experience, a function of its democratisation over half a century of Independence.

To characterise the recent and current socio-political situation as unstable and volatile is to call attention to the obvious. In addition to having to face the implications of a massive denial of socio-economic justice, in a system that is (as the distinguished economist. Amartya Sen, implies in his contribution to this Special Issue) one of the most iniquitous in the world, India has had to bear the burden of a national agenda of unwanted social, ethnic, communal and caste antagonisms and divisive issues shaped by the 1970s and 1980s. In consequence, these decades saw beneath the appearance of strong governance the decay of a political system and the disestablishment of several democratic institutions.

CAN India hold together in the next decade? Can our civil society and social order come out of the woods? Can we count on a reasonable bottomline of political stability and coherence in our system? These inter-related questions define the nature of the challenge when we speak about national integration and political stability, both desirable goals or objectives.

The question of who rules and will rule in Delhi is an important question, but there are more basic questions. The unity of India and the integrity of its democratic, secular institutions have, during the second half of these fifty years of Independence, come under intense pressure from at least four types of socio-political phenomena.

The first is the problem of separatism or secessionism allied with religious fundamentalism or other extremist ideological and social tendencies and committed to militarised or terrorist methods. This ideologically, socially and politically determined problem has brought civil society in the affected States or areas to its knees. The pressure exerted by this phenomenon has waxed and waned over the five decades, sometimes increasing oppressively in response to political authoritarianism, over-centralisation and opportunism.

The second is the phenomenon of politically organised, militant communalism which has been on the march, taking a very high toll and threatening the integrity and basic character of the polity. This phenomenon is expressed in a variety of religious fundamentalist responses, but most menacingly on the national stage by the quite successful building up of the 'Hindutva' or 'Hindu Rashtra' platform by aggressive Hindu chauvinists, the saffron brigade, since the mid-1980s.

The third is related to the deeply damaging features of, and the pressure and social strife that have built around, the caste system. Although not unchanging, this system, which is bolstered by landlordism and seeped in semi-feudal values and ideas of a most retrograde kind, continues to have a malignant durability. It exemplifies social oppression, inequality and injustice in a way that cannot be escaped. The widespread demand for 'social justice' and the social divisions and strife that seem, at times, to overwhelm the democratic polity arise from this situation.

Dalit victims of caste-related violence in Bihar. The caste system, which is bolstered by landlordism and seeped in semi-feudal values and ideas of a most retrograde kind, continues to have a malignant durability.

The fourth issue that cannot be escaped relates to the working of 'cooperative federalism', and more specifically Centre-State relations, on which both national unity and political stability depend vitally in a political sense.

If India is to do well in the intermediate future, these challenges have to be responded to in a much more imaginative way than we have witnessed over the past decade and a half.

FOR most of the fifty years, India has been ruled by one party, the Congress, by virtue first of its leadership role in the freedom struggle and, secondly, because of the absence of coherent alternatives at the all-India level. But that political hegemony, seriously challenged and eroded as early as 1967, came to a decisive end in the late-1980s and we are into a new chapter.

The last three general elections (1989, 1991 and 1996) have underlined the fact that the Indian polity is divided three ways, making a majority government virtually impossible and dictating, for now and the foreseeable future, coalition arrangements involving some common positions and approaches but much discord and expediency. The three political 'formations' or groupings which may be identified as the national level players are: the Congress and its (mostly minor) allies; the BJP and its Maharashtra-based ally, the Shiv Sena, plus a small emerging new group of regional players such as the Akali Dal and the Samata Party; and the ideologically and politically disparate but interesting United Front. Any Central government must, of necessity, come from one, or a combination, of these broad 'formations'.

The recent track record suggests that none of the three groupings can come within striking distance of winning a simple majority of the 540-plus Lok Sabha seats. Since various developments have indicated that the twelfth general election cannot be too far away, the real contest will be about emerging, first, as the single largest formation so as to be able to dictate terms for a coalition arrangement at the Centre. Who will be able to lead such a government and what precisely will be the weightage given to various constituents cannot be predicted at this point. Some surprises may well be in store, but the general view in the polity appears to be that the Hindu communal formation has gained ground, raising the question: will it be able to close the gap next time?

WHAT has brought about this situation? In order to begin to answer this question, we need to examine certain key, long-term trends in Indian politics.

The most important of these trends is the historic decline of the Congress, the party of traditional dominance in the system, in terms of popular support, vote share and governing skills. This process seems far gone and is probably irreversible.

There has been a good deal of press commentary and analysis on the theme of the Congress(I)'s decline and fall. From time to time, political commentators have tended to write it off, so that the party can remark, with Mark Twain, that "the report of my death was an exaggeration." While it is nothing without its factionalism and infeuding, a measure of glue extracted from the habit of holding power seems to make it go on against the odds. The returnability of the Congress is a function not of any vision or leadership, but of historical familiarity, of simply being around for a long time in every part of a vast and mixed-up country.

The Congress(I) is still the only party in the system which is truly trans-regional, which has a presence on the ground in every part of the country. Its resilience and capacity to cling to power or to stage comebacks are not to be underestimated. There are certain signs that under the stewardship of Sitaram Kesri, it has been able to achieve a kind of organisational resurgence, or at least functionality, which places it in a position of advantage relative to the United Front and the minority Government it offers the polity.

Nevertheless, what stands out is the massive political space the Congress has vacated over the past decade or more. From the time of Independence, popular support for this party has declined by some 15 percentage points at the all-India level, with the erosion being significantly higher in key States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu.

Congress leaders and manifestos have traditionally equated their party's rule with the idea of political stability and identified the Opposition with uncertainty and instability. Aside from valuing 'stability' for its own sake, that is, independent of the content it has to offer, such assertions embody merely half the truth. It is the big decline of the party of traditional dominance combined with the inability of coherent democratic alternatives to occupy the space vacated - on the basis of a minimum programme speaking to real issues - which explains the phenomenon of political instability in India.

The volatility of the Indian electoral arena is well recognised by psephologists, political scientists and serious journalist analysts. Substantial swings over relatively short periods, combining with changes in the split factor, help to overthrow incumbents or, in some instances, to moderate and balance the electoral change. Without the prevalence of the 'first past the post' system of elections, which entrenches disproportionality and confers undue advantage on those above a certain threshold, the hopes single parties nurse of winning stability outside a coalition framework would be impossible to sustain in most cases.

The actual decline of the Congress system of governance over the long term is much greater than is generally realised. In terms of share of the popular vote, the decline is from a level of 46 per cent (until and excluding 1967) to an average of 42 per cent (from 1967 to 1984) to 39.5 per cent in 1989. The share slipped further to 36.5 per cent in 1991, when a powerful sympathy factor following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi boosted the figure for the second stage of a split contest, and to 29.7 per cent in 1996.

Another feature of this decline is the plight of the ruling party at the State level: its position in State Assemblies is very much worse than its position in the Lok Sabha. Of the seven large States, that is, those with more than 35 Lok Sabha seats (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu), which make up a total of 350 or nearly two-thirds of the House, the party is in power only in Madhya Pradesh. Its chances of bidding for power in the conceivable future in four of these States - Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu - are virtually non-existent. Of the five medium sized States, that is, those with 20 to 30 Lok Sabha seats (Karnataka, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Kerala and Orissa), the party is in power only in the last. It has suffered an upset in the smaller northern States (Punjab, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir) where it shows few signs of recovery. It is solely in the small States in the northeastern region that the Congress is in a position of some advantage. All this has a major implication for the practice of federalism in India.

THE second major trend in the polity has been the relative success of the forces of Hindu fundamentalism, or communalism, in a populous part of the country. It is they, and not the secular alternatives, that have made an aggressive and effective play for the space vacated in these vital arenas of northern and western India by the Congress. In quantitative terms, the defining fact is this: between 1984 and 1991, the BJP as a party climbed, in two steep steps, from a one-fourteenth share to a fifth share of the national popular vote. Now, with its allies, it seems perched at a one-fourth share. Any further climb towards the strategic one-third mark could bring the BJP and its allies dangerously close to power at the Centre.

The high performance States for the BJP are Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and, in alliance with the Shiv Sena, Maharashtra. In all these States of the Hindi heartland and western India, the party of Hindutva is an effective bidder for power. Its most spectacular growth has come in India's most populous State, where its share of the popular vote climbed from less than one-tenth in 1984-85 to one-third in 1991-93; and in Gujarat, where it rose from less than one-fifth in the 1984 Lok Sabha contest to over half in 1991. The State where it has achieved the highest growth from a very low base is Karnataka, where it polled 28.8 per cent of the popular vote in the 1991 Lok Sabha election (compared with 2.6 per cent in 1989). The areas of moderate or moderate-plus growth include Orissa and Bihar, where the BJP is still not a real contender for power.

However, certain factors clearly work against the BJP and its ambitious project of expansionism. A look at the electoral map of India suggests that there are, as of now, some 250 Lok Sabha constituencies where the BJP is not in serious electoral contention. This geographical limitation or containment is a major weakness for a party which is determined to supplant the Congress at the Centre. By this token, the BJP and its allies can be said to be only half an all-India formation as of the present.

Further, experience teaches that the BJP in government tends to let its mandate erode quicker than the Congress and the regional parties of the United Front, not to mention the Left fronts that are in power in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. There is, in fact, some basis to surmise that a term for the BJP in office approximates half a term. Extremism in course and lacklustre policy-making and administrative performance cause disillusion among the people.

This was certainly in evidence in Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh between 1990 and 1993. In Gujarat, it suffered a demoralising split. In Maharashtra, where it has been playing second fiddle to the Shiv Sena, its spirits have flagged in recent months on account of policy contradictions and socio-political developments, and it could be in decline. In the BJP's chosen battleground, Uttar Pradesh, spirited democratic resistance to its virulent communal politics and to the Ayodhya act of barbarism has also sent out the signal to the people that the Hindutva party can be effectively countered by a united secular and democratic combination. However, if the secular and democratic forces fail to close ranks, the likelihood is that the BJP can set the terms in India's most populous State.

The BJP's claim to be different from other parties has been dented by unsavoury developments in several States, by rank opportunism in the alliance politics pursued, and by the involvement of some of its leaders in corruption scandals, notably in the Jain hawala affair.

In general, it may be observed that, since the BJP is a geographically limited party with no significant presence in the South (outside Karnataka), in the East and in the North-East, those who live outside its zones of strength tend to underestimate it while those who live in its stronghold States, including Delhi, tend to overestimate it. The task of serious political analysis is to do neither.

In historical order of precedence, the United Front (U.F.) arrangement, and the National Front (N.F.) experiment that preceded and paved the way for it, must be placed after the Congress and the BJP. The N.F. phenomenon arose essentially as a response to the decline of the Congress and, to an extent, as a response to the BJP's activism and expansionism during the second half of the 1980s. Whereas the Janata Party coalition that was able to defeat the Emergency regime in the 1977 general election was a crystallisation, under extreme circumstances, of the idea of all-in Opposition unity (inclusive of the communal Jan Sangh and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS) against the Congress, the National Front that took shape in 1988-89 represented a measure of differentiation in that it aspired to be anti-Congress as well as non-BJP.

However, 'pragmatism' (another name for political opportunism) dictated the J.D. and N.F. strategy of extensive seat adjustment with the party of Hindutva to unseat the Congress. The N.F. cannot claim to have made this decision in innocence. It bears critical emphasis that the line was worked out at a stage when the BJP had already launched its project of mobilising aggressively on the Ram Janmabhoomi issue - targeting the Babri Masjid and Muslims in general. It was no surprise that the N.F's minority Government headed by V.P. Singh had to depend directly on the BJP, from start to finish, for its survival.

N.F. apologists might argue even today that the 'tactical' course was correct, since there was no other way the unpopular and corrupt Congress(I) could have been dislodged, at that juncture, from power. However, there can be little doubt that it was the BJP and not the J.D. and N.F. which gained from this experiment in expedient and uneasy cohabitation. While the BJP's core held firm and toughened itself through a rath yatra, the J.D. suffered from internal splintering as well as the erosion of small to moderate bases in several electoral arenas where it had hoped to advance and score.

Generally speaking, those within the N.F. who took a firm line against both the BJP and the Congress(I) did well at the popular level. On the other hand, those who dithered, soft-pedalled or stood for a line of compromise have fared poorly since the N.F. Government fell in 1990.

In retrospect, the BJP's decision to withdraw support to the V. P. Singh Government on account of the latter's putting an end to the rath yatra can be recognised as the best thing that happened to the N.F. from its moment of birth. By breaking free of the BJP's clutches, the secular and democratic character of the J.D. and the N.F. seemed redeemed. Secondly, the break helped to free the 'third formation', such as it was during an extended period of disarray, from any illusion that the path of advance lay in collaboration with Hindu communalism.

Leaders of the constituent parties at a meeting of the United Front's Core Committee, July 17, 1997.

The 'third force' has progressed from the N.F. to the U.F., entailing changes in composition and character and responding to a new context. The N.F. was basically the Janata Dal plus two or three regional parties, neither more nor less. It was in alliance with the Left, the stable factor in the equation, which supported it wholly from outside. The U.F. seeks to be a more representative and inclusive coalition. In this altered equation, the weight of regional parties, including those like Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which are offshoots of the Janata Dal and do not label themselves regional parties, has increased significantly. Further, the Left is now part of the coalition, although, as far as the leading Left party, the CPI(M), is concerned, not of the Government. Most important, the U.F. as a minority Government is dependent on the Congress(I) for survival. This dependence, unavoidable if there is to be any Government in New Delhi, is its defining weakness.

The second U.F. Government, headed by Inder Kumar Gujral, has demonstrated contradictions, vacillations and backbonelessness on several issues of policy importance. Its leader appears to be too bent on survival to do well among the people on major political and socio-economic issues. From the start, it has seemed incapable of taking any kind of principled stand against anyone accused of corruption and malfeasance in office, notably erstwhile Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal president Laloo Prasad Yadav.

The U.F. has suffered from other weaknesses. On economic policy questions, it seems quite divided and the Government seems incapable of any coherent thinking, let alone action. Most of the promises contained in the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) remain unmet. And relations between some U.F. constituents are in poor shape. It seems guaranteed that in the months ahead, the Congress(I) will seek to impose toughened terms on a practically lame-duck U.F. Government, in return for unreliable support.

Quantitatively, the Left is the smallest of the forces or alignments being discussed here. Its weight in the national polity has not increased much over the fifty years of Independence. However, given its stable core and bases, its clean image, its spirited championing of secularism, national unity and federalism, the fight it has put up on economic policies, its mass campaigns in various States on class and policy issues, and its clarity and vision of the future, it has been in a position to play a role of qualitative importance in national politics.

THE third force must stand or fall by the quality and effectiveness of the stand it takes on the major issues that have come to the fore in the Indian political arena fifty years after Independence. These issues are:

political corruption on an unimaginable scale, combining with the criminalisation of politics; the set of issues raised by the post-1991 economic policies; the challenge to national unity posed by communalism as a political mobilisation strategy; the threat of separatist movements backed, to some extent, from abroad; the challenge of social justice; the need for federalism and State autonomy; the need to do well in the areas of basic education, public health and meeting basic needs of the masses of the people; and external pressures on India's foreign policy.

This list is not exhaustive but indicates what needs to be tackled if India is to do significantly better in the period ahead than it did in the first fifty years of Independence. There is no need for excessive concern with stability at the Centre, since experience has shown that stability without democratic, secular and popular content, and without equity and justice, is simply not worth having.

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