What makes for political stability?

Print edition : January 15, 2010

AN ELECTION RALLY in Hyderabad in 2004. The unity of India, the integrity of its democratic institutions and its Central and State governments' commitment and capability to do well by the country's billion-plus people have come under intense pressure from secessionism, communalism, economic and social deprivation, disregard for federal rules, and foreign policy deviations.-P. ANIL KUMAR/AP

POLITICAL India stands at a crossroads, where something different from the patterns that have dominated national politics over the past two decades can perhaps be sensed without anyone being clear about what lies beyond the intersections. The heightened desire for political assurance and stability in the midst of a global economic slowdown and rising concerns over internal security and holding the country together explains the fact that the results of the 15th Lok Sabha election were widely construed to be a clear and decisive mandate for the Congress party as the leader of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) arrangement that had, quite unexpectedly, displaced the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance regime in 2004. Can this possibly mean that the way is being cleared for a return to the conventional or conservative definition of political stability, which in the contemporary Indian context can only mean the unchallenged pre-eminence of a single party at the centre rather than single-party rule?

There is nothing wrong with the desire for political stability, and indeed for an escape from the disintegrative trends of recent years. But political stability is not worth having unless it can be built on the foundations of just, secular, efficient and clean governance, and policies that address the internal and external challenges of rising India in a progressive way. It is not worth having unless it prioritises the basic needs and interests of the overwhelming majority of the population, the hundreds of millions of working people who suffer multiple deprivations in terms of income, livelihood, nutrition, education, health, shelter, environment, gender, and so on.

The six general elections between 1989 and 2004 underlined the fact that the polity was divided three ways, ruling out even the thought of a majority government (with the outcome of the abnormal 1991 general election standing out as something of an exception) and dictating for the foreseeable future coalition arrangements involving some common positions and approaches but much discord and expediency. Against this background, the 2009 general election has been widely interpreted in political and business circles and in the national and international media to be some kind of game-changer. Is this wishful thinking? Or is it at least partly grounded in realities?

SECESSIONISM. A confrontation between the police and protesters in Srinagar in December 2009.-ROUF BHAT/AFP

Recent developments offer early indications that the political outcome of the electoral contests of 2009, or rather the trend suggesting Congress-centred political stability, has been over-interpreted, even grossly so. South Indias largest State, Andhra Pradesh, which has plunged into a deep existential crisis on the Telangana issue barely six months after an overpowering victory for the ruling Congress, provides the most dramatic case in point.

In fact, the opening half-year performance of the second UPA government has been anything but reassuring for those who yearn for political stability predicated on long-term Congress hegemony. A government that appeared to face a weak opposition in Parliament has given every impression of being politically weak and unsure of itself. There may be official euphoria over the above-par growth and performance of the Indian economy (which is presented as being second only to Chinas stunning stimulus-aided performance) in the midst of the unprecedented global economic slowdown but the impact of the slowdown on employment and livelihood across the country has been quite severe. The renewed push for neoliberal economic policies along several fronts, the failure to contain the sharp rise in the prices of essential commodities, especially food items, the delayed and mostly ineffective handling of the drought crisis in extensive parts of the country, the continuing insensitivity towards the agrarian crisis, the early signs of a post-election deterioration in the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and a declining interest in provisioning and administering relief and social welfare schemes indicate what is in store. There is no evidence at this point that the electoral stock of the Congress or the UPA has been eroded but this could happen soon enough if the present policy and performance trends continue.

COMMUNALISM. BJP activists in Ahmedabad after the party's victory in the 2007 elections in Gujarat.-PTI

But it is on the political stage, internal as well as external, that the real weakness of the Central government and the ruling party has been on prominent display. The developments of December 2009 in Andhra Pradesh provide an instructive case study of the volatility of Indian politics, of how the mass mood can swing wildly in a matter of months, of how a powerful electoral mandate can be squandered by reckless policymaking, of how political legitimacy can be lost akratically. The sudden loss, in a helicopter crash, of a strong and controversial leader, Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, transformed the political scene in the State that sent the largest Congress contingent, 33 MPs, to the Lok Sabha. A fast by Telangana Rashtra Samithi leader K. Chandrasekhara Rao, who had fared poorly in his own region in the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly contests, and a hasty and miscalculated Central government announcement that the formation of a separate State of Telangana would be initiated by introducing a resolution in the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly plunged the State into a deep political crisis. To be fair, responsibility for this decision cannot be fixed on any individual and indeed must be shared by most significant political players in Andhra Pradesh. But there can be little doubt today that by announcing, without wider political consultations at the national level and without assessing the public mood across the State, that the process of forming the State of Telangana will be initiated and an appropriate resolution will be moved in the State Assembly, the Central government made the kind of blunder whose consequences will be felt for a long time to come.

On the foreign and strategic policy front, it is clear that while the Manmohan Singh government is capable of differentiating itself from developed country stances on issues like climate change and policy towards neighbouring countries, the unmistakeable tilt towards the United States and the Western bloc persists. The ideological belief that reigns at the top levels of the ruling party and government seems to be that such a strategy enhances national strength. This deliberate move away from non-alignment and external independence is profoundly inimical to the peoples interests and damaging to national strengths. It is certainly unworthy of a country that is widely seen as a rising power on the international stage.

DEPRIVATION. The mass of economic and social deprivations blights the lives of millions of Indians.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

But let us not rush to big conclusions by underestimating the advantages and strengths of the ruling party and its most resourceful allies such as Tamil Nadus Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Let us try and restore the balance by looking at the overall national political situation in the wake of the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

The improved Congress performance, in terms of Lok Sabha seats (206 out of 543) and share of the popular vote (28.6 per cent, a 2.1 percentage point positive swing from the 2004 performance), has been quite modest. But it does mean more room for policy manoeuvre and political muscle flexing. For one thing, the parliamentary opposition is much weaker than it was in the 14th Lok Sabha. There has also been less dependence on coalition partners, not to mention outside support, in running the Central government. But the recent threats of resignation and other acts of defiance of party discipline by Congress legislators in Andhra Pradesh, and the alienation of significant regional players on the national stage such as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, remind us of the possibility of this situation changing under the impact of major events.

After all, the real significance of the 2009 mandate was the ruling out of any viable alternative political arrangements in New Delhi. The main political opposition, the BJP, the party of the Hindu Right, found itself weakened [its 18.8 per cent of the vote meant a negative 3.6 percentage point swing from 2004] and in unprecedented disarray. The main ideological opposition, the Left, suffered big political setbacks in its two main strongholds, West Bengal and Kerala, and found its Lok Sabha strength truncated to just over a third of what it was in 2004. While the significant regional parties pulled their weight in States such as Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Orissa, and Uttar Pradesh, they found their overall political weight and leverage reduced in the Lok Sabha. Equally important in a federal set-up, the balance of power in some large States, notably Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, and a handful of smaller States tilted the Congress way, while voting trends in Indias most populous State, Uttar Pradesh, where the party had suffered long-term marginalisation, hinted at a revival in its fortunes.

For close to two decades, political punditry has identified leadership as a weak point for the Congress compared with the BJP and even some major regional parties. But as a detailed study, How India Voted, by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (published in The Hindu of May 26, 2009) points out, drawing from data yielded by a post-poll survey, far too much has been made of this issue and the truth is that leadership was not as much a handicap for the Congress as it was made out to be. In fact, it can be argued that in a context where the departure of the charismatic leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee from active politics had created a leadership vacuum that could not be filled by any BJP leader, projecting a troika of Ms Gandhi, Dr Singh and Rahul Gandhi, which was initially seen as an attempt to make the most of a weakness, proved to be smart political strategy (even if only one of every six voters surveyed by the CSDS said party leadership was the consideration that dominated his or her vote).

But if such findings help us avoid exaggerated perceptions of the role of the individual or the personality factor in political success or failure, does this imply that Indian elections have come to be dominated by issues? No simple or straight answer can be provided to this question. But what is clear from the CSDS 2009 national election study is that the overwhelming majority of voters have serious concerns and an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with the political system: Nearly 70 per cent of voters feel that elected representatives care little for their concerns and problems. Half the respondents feel that in terms of policies and issues, there is little or no difference between parties. This means that while the electorate is full of hope and expectation, there is an undercurrent of unease about the available choices and scepticism about those who run the government. This vital finding goes to the heart of the conundrum of political stability in India.

CHALLENGE TO FEDERALISM. A demonstration in support of statehood for Telangana.-NAGARA GOPAL

Independent of what figures or does not figure in particular elections, the key issues, the issues that matter if the people of India are to do well over the long term, can be readily identified. The unity of India, the integrity of its democratic, secular institutions, and the commitment and capability of its Central and State governments to do well by the countrys billion-plus people, have come under intense pressure from at least five types of socio-political phenomena.

The first is the phenomenon of separatism or secessionism, which is allied with religious fundamentalism or ethnic chauvinism or other extremist ideological and social tendencies. Typically, it combines ideological hardness with a distinctive repertoire of violence and terrorism. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, in a recent lecture to the Intelligence Bureau, certainly did not underestimate the gravity of this challenge while offering his own ideological interpretation: By a quirk of fate, India in the twenty-first century has turned out to be the confluence of every kind of violence: insurrection or insurgency in order to carve out sovereign states; armed liberation struggle motivated by a rejected ideology; and terrorism driven by religious fanaticism. Never before has the Indian state faced such a formidable challenge. This assessment, which may sound hyperbolic, needs to be taken seriously.

The second challenge comes from politically organised, militant communalism. It has certainly taken a high toll of life, liberty, and peoples welfare. It mocks the secular Constitution and threatens and compromises 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 building up of the Hindutva or Hindu Rashtra platform by the saffron brigade commanded by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and spearheaded at the mass political level by the BJP. The recent electoral and other political setbacks for the premier party of the Hindu Right and its ally, the Shiv Sena, must not lead to any sense of complacency suggesting that the danger from communalism as a political mobilisation strategy is past.

FOREIGN POLICY DEVIATION. In the neoliberal era India has shown a marked tilt to the Western bloc. Manmohan Singh and Barack Obama at the state banquet the latter hosted in his honour in the White House in November 2009.-PTI

The third challenge, possibly the most important one, comes from intensified exploitation and the mass of economic and social deprivations that blight the lives and future of hundreds of millions of Indians. Despite attempts by successive governments to underplay the scale and nature of the deprivations, and make light of the failure to remove them through a set of policies that often make them worse, it is indisputable that India has the greatest mass of deprivations among any country in the world. Related to this is a vital set of issues that figure in the demand for social justice. It is important to recognise that the already widespread and expanding demand for social justice, and the social divisions and strife that sometimes overwhelm the democratic polity, arise from a deeply entrenched situation of caste and other forms of oppression, inequality, and deprivation.

The fourth key issue relates to the working of cooperative federalism, more specifically Centre-State relations. At a time when it is abundantly clear that India cannot be ruled from New Delhi alone, it is easy to see how national unity and political stability depend crucially on observing the federal rules of the game scrupulously and on the Centre being even-handed in its dealings with States ruled by various political parties or combinations of parties.

The fifth key priority is restoring the independence of foreign and strategic policy, which has been badly compromised in some sort of progression by BJP-led and Congress-led governments over the past decade. There can be little doubt that the process of globalisation increases the weight of external policy in a countrys affairs. A low level of awareness of foreign policy issues does not at all mean they are not of much consequence to the lives of ordinary people.

If India is to do well now and in future, these challenges have to be responded to in a much more imaginative way than we have witnessed over the past quarter century during which Frontline has been in existence.

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