Posts Tagged ‘elections’

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

(After a nine month hiatus, the Gadfly Column resumes publication today. Blogs will be published on the first and fifteenth days of every month. The blogs will also be carried on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Comments are welcome)

 

It is a reflection of the irony of our times that a blog on liberal democracy has, for its title, the words of Chairman Mao in 1957, when he said “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Over sixty years later, the jury is still out on whether this represented a genuine attempt to encourage inner party democracy or whether it was a shrewd move aimed at weeding out dissidents, followed as it was by a ruthless purge reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union of the 1930s. And yet, the beauty of Indian liberal democracy since 1947 has been the space given for alternative views to flourish and for state policy to reflect the consensus arrived at after listening to opinions from all shades of the political spectrum.

Of course, there have been the occasional hiccups like the Emergency and the tendency of successive governments in India (both at the centre and in the states) to use draconian legislation to curb views interpreted by them as seditious or as a threat to public order. But Indian democracy has survived so far, despite the gloomy prognostications of many Western “Cassandras”, precisely because of its diverse population, drawn from a khichdi of languages, religions, castes and ethnicities.

I will stick out my neck by saying that caste divisions in the majority Hindu community and the formation of linguistic states postponed the slide into a unitarian state ruled by one community. Undoubtedly, there is much to be said for reforming Hindu society through the “annihilation” of caste as a marker of social privilege. But the assertion of specific caste groupings through the electoral process in different states ensured that political power did not remain with a monolith like the Congress. When the Janata party experiment failed in 1979, one of the reasons was the discomfort of various coalition partners with what they saw as the efforts of the then Jan Sangh to use the levers of powers to build up its sectarian political base. The fall of the V.P. Singh government, backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in 1990 was a foregone conclusion right from day one of that government. The Raja of Manda knew his survival as Prime Minister was contingent on withstanding the Ram Mandir Shilanyas programme and L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra. His Mandal gambit was intended to check the possibility of the consolidation of the Hindu community on the emotive Ram Janmabhoomi issue. Unfortunately for him, not only was the Congress Party not willing to back him, the “Young Turk” Chandrashekhar was only too ready to assume the mantle of Prime Minister, even if only for a little over seven months. The 1990s rise of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), based on the support of specific castes and social groups, ensured that, for twenty five years after the Babri Masjid demolition, the party that stood to gain from its demolition was in power for just five years in Uttar Pradesh (UP).

Nehru and Rajaji were strongly opposed to the creation of linguistic states, worried as they were about the development of fissiparous tendencies in the new republic. It took the martyrdom of Potti Sriramulu to hasten the move towards linguistic states. Political developments in the 1960s seemed to vindicate their fears: the attempted imposition of Hindi provoked a backlash in Tamil Nadu (then Madras State) and the bifurcation of Punjab raised strong passions in the Punjabi Sikh population (to be unfortunately revived in the years after 1980). But the creation of linguistic states also had a positive spin off in the formation of strong regional parties, starting with the DMK in Tamil Nadu, followed by the star duo of MGR and NTR in the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and spreading like wildfire to states all across the country, from UP, Bihar, Maharashtra and Karnataka to Odisha, Assam and Bengal.

The clout of regional parties has diminished somewhat in recent years, thanks to a variety of reasons. Poor governance, especially in states like UP, has cost parties like the BSP and SP dear, while the influence of “Big Brother” BJP has reduced the scope for independent maneuvering by parties like the Biju Janata Dal and the Telugu Desam Party. With legislators apparently ready to desert the ship that won them the elections (for reasons that do not need to be explicitly spelt out here), India has entered a phase of fluid politics, where the results of an election do not guarantee which party or parties will govern a state for the next five years. “Aaya Rams” are back with a vengeance more than fifty years after 1967, though whether they will metamorphose into “Gaya Rams” over time is still a moot point.

It is in this context that the recent statement at a conference by the Prime Minister endorsing the idea of “One Nation, One Election” and stating that this is not “just an issue of deliberation, but also the need of the country” has set the cat among the pigeons. No report on his speech has clarified whether “one election” is restricted to just parliament and state elections, though that is the inference we can draw for the present. The issues of expenditures on conducting elections every now and then and the impact of frequent elections on development works can be debated. What is more crucial are the implications of such a move for the federal nature of the Indian state. A state government does not draw its legitimacy from the central government, given that India is a Union of States, affirmed by no less sanctified a document than the Constitution of India. Issues that are prominent in state elections do not often figure on the national agenda. More importantly, in the absence of any provision to recall legislators, elections offer people the only opportunity to hold their representatives accountable. There is also the issue of the lack of predictability of the tenure of a Vidhan Sabha (or, indeed, of the Lok Sabha). Loss of majority of the ruling party or dissolution of the House could trigger fresh elections well before the due date. It would be well-nigh impossible, without major constitutional changes, to manage such contingencies were simultaneous elections to become the norm. I am not holding the simplistic view that simultaneous elections necessarily lead to the same party winning at both the state and central levels. But in recent years, there has been a marked tendency to highlight issues of nationalism and patriotism, with even the armed forces being dragged into election speeches. Playing on people’s emotions could skew results in state elections, especially where large sections of the electorate, including the so-called “educated middle class” have no nuanced understanding of the issues at stake, falling prey to the barrage of fake news streamed at them by social and electronic media. There is also the very likely danger that, given the opacity of the Electoral Bonds system, one party could garner a very high proportion of the funds donated, something that recently available information seems to corroborate.

But, above all, I value the festival of democracy characterised by elections at regular intervals at different levels of government, from the gram panchayat level up to the Lok Sabha. Having conducted and supervised elections at the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and municipal levels, I have observed the coming to life of people who are otherwise immersed in the mundane chores of life, whether in Motihari, Muzaffarpur or Mumbai. The right to vote is an affirmation by the citizen of her dignity as an individual. She has the unfettered right to exercise her discriminating judgment each time there is an election, whether to the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha or local bodies, and the full authority to question those who seek to represent her on issues, be they national, state or local. She may be, in daily life, a domestic worker, nurse or shop salesperson. But come election time, she is the power behind the throne, determining the future of those who seek to govern the country or state. It would certainly be churlish to deny her her place in the sun for brief periods at regular intervals in a five year period. Why reduce it to just one time in five years, when governments spend money on so many unnecessary items? Nor are elections the main reason why governments function so inefficiently in executing development works. The ability to handle transfers of power without bloodshed is the mark of a mature democracy, no matter what the cost is in terms of time, energy or money.

Why the Congress needs younger legs (and minds) — if it wants to make a fight of 2019

Just when I thought that I could give two cheers for the victory of the Congress Party in the recent general elections to the state assemblies in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan came the blow to my solar plexus. Two cheers because, frankly, the Congress Party has done very little to enthuse me (and many other middle class voters) in the last ten years. But the very fact that there was some challenge to a monolithic party which is yet to deliver on its promises, and the infusion of some variety between the centre and the states, was a welcome change. And then, the GOP of India’s independence committed its usual error — it picked the oldest man for the top job in two of the three states (MP and Rajasthan) where it barely scraped home past the halfway mark, with some help from others. It did not draw a lesson from the ambiguous mandate it got from the electorate, which probably reflected their scepticism about the same old wine being recycled in new bottles, given that the CM favourites in these two states had made no bones of their keenness to secure the numero uno post.

Why am I not particularly thrilled that the younger men in these two states (Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot) were not picked as CMs, especially when both of them have done stints in UPA-II as Central Ministers and have clean reputations? Four reasons come to mind:

  • The legacy of the old guard: Congress politicians who entered politics in the times of Indira Gandhi carry outdated socialist baggage with them. The pre-1991 Congress politician belonged to the “crony socialism” era, when the government micro-managed public enterprises while maintaining a cosy relationship with favoured private sector businessmen. The MP CM also carries with him his past association with the Emergency caucus and the alleged association (not so far conclusively proved) with the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.
  • A statist mindset of Nehruvian vintage: Almost no Congressman (or woman) has shed their fondness for the tight economic embrace of the state. This was patently visible to me during my days in a key economic Ministry in Delhi in the early 1990s, when the Minister had to be cajoled to sign any file that contemplated opening up the sector to competition. It almost always took calls from either the Finance Ministry or the PMO to get him to sign on the dotted line. Once the liberalisation glasnost eased up after 1993-94, it was back to pre-1991 business as usual. The only difference was that new avenues for extraction of economic rent were explored and developed, especially in the natural resource and infrastructure sectors. Although it has to be said that the NDA interregnum (1998-2004) saw more positive measures being taken on the infrastructure front, the attractiveness of the “economic rent extraction” method never diminished. The coal sector is a prime example of this approach, with former bureaucrats even today paying the price for implementing the absurd policies of their days. Aided by a suspicious public that looked askance at every government decision in the chaotic days of UPA-II, economic reforms were virtually doomed. Add to this the decisions to guarantee the rights to food, rural employment and education, all of which had to be implemented by the same moribund government machinery in the states, with no clear idea of where the money was to come from and it is little wonder that the government wrote its own epitaph in the days leading up to 2014.
  • The absence of fresh thinking: Nothing characterises an antediluvian mindset more than the recourse to the same tired shibboleths of the past when confronted with problems. Governments of today (centre and states) are falling over themselves to waive farm loans. Apart from the cruel reality that no one has carefully computed the budget implications, such ‘band-aid’ solutions do not really go to the heart of the farmer’s distress. There is no talk of major investments in rural infrastructure, whether irrigation, storage, farm-to-consumer chains or comprehensive crop insurance, nor does one see major policy thrusts aimed at these. Lack of employment opportunities, especially for the teeming millions of the under-30s, imperils future economic and social stability. Education (both school and post-school) and health care are in a shambles in a number of states, with two of the three states referred to above sharing a seat with countries from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.
  • Lack of commitment to thoroughgoing reforms: Along with all other political formations, the Congress has no firm ideas on or commitment to crucial reforms in the realm of institutions — electoral reforms, judicial (including especially criminal justice) reforms, reforms in the administrative structure and, most crucially, in devolution of financial and administrative powers to elected urban and rural local bodies. The result has been increasing criminalisation of politics and society, continuing poor public service delivery and growing public disenchantment with the idea of liberal democracy itself.

I do not discount the fact that you can be old in age but young in mind (disclosure: I am past sixty years myself). As a good example, I can refer to that gentle bureaucrat-turned-politician, Dr. Manmohan Singh who, at almost sixty, reinvented himself from a Nehruvian socialist to a liberaliser and carried on with his new avatar when he was past seventy. But then we have only a few philosopher-kings: dyed-in-the-wool politicians are hardly going to reinvent themselves in the later stages of their lives. More crucially, I feel they stifle whatever talent exists in their political parties: this talent then either resigns itself, like Prince Charles, to a very late accession to the throne or makes a beeline for other parties. The real losers are the people of India: they are denied the benefits that innovative thinking and dynamic action could bring to their lives.

Where the Congress party is concerned, I see few options before it. Either it bloods its younger elements and places them in positions of leadership or it faces irrelevance in the near future. Younger leaders should forcefully stake their claims to responsible leadership and, if denied, should examine the possibilities of striking out on coalitions of their own. My generation of school and college-going cricket lovers venerated the likes of Pataudi, Borde, Viswanath and Gavaskar. But we would hardly ask them to face the Australian quicks of today: we leave that to the current generation of cricketers — Kohli, Pujara, Rahane, et al. Politicians, like bureaucrats, should gracefully bow out at the ripe age of 65. The law of diminishing returns sets in with a vengeance thereafter, with geriatric politicians completely out of tune with the needs and aspirations of their constituents, whether farmers, students or young professionals. Unfortunately, these vain efforts to secure political immortality come at a huge cost to the nation.

When the President of India speaks

(March 21, 2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of the lifting of the Emergency in India)

We normally get to hear the President of India speak on three formal occasions: on the eve of Republic Day and Independence Day and at the joint session of both Houses of Parliament marking the start of the Budget session. Of course, the President of India also makes speeches on various other platforms over his/her tenure. But what marks all these speeches is their standardised nature – they are either listing the priorities and achievements of the government of the day or are exhortations to select audiences on specific subjects. Which is why the publication of the first of his three volume memoirs by President Pranab Mukherjee was interesting: it was the first by a President while still in office. More intriguingly, it dealt with his first fifteen years in Lutyens Delhi during the Indira Gandhi era.

Of particular interest to my generation, which received its political education from the Emergency years, is his analysis and understanding of the Emergency – the events that led to it, the rationale for the Emergency and the happenings during that period and the political resurrection of Indira Gandhi in the post-Emergency years. Even today, forty years on, I remember my feelings on the morning of 21 March 1977 – “Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”- when a captive All-India Radio and Doordarshan had to admit that Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party had been decisively routed in the polls. At a juncture now in the country’s and world’s history when strong personalities bestride the political scene and when the tenets of liberal democracy are being seriously questioned by the inhabitants of such democracies, there is need to try and understand the social forces at work in a country like India and what these imply for a country which has defied its critics and sceptics by doggedly persisting with a democratic form of government, despite all its flaws and aberrations. A comparison of 1975/77 India and her offspring of 2017 bring out the bright and dark sides of present-day India and enable possible prognostications of what the future holds for us Indians.

  • The educated middle class expansion and its implications: Post-1991, the middle class population in India has grown significantly in numbers apart from being engaged in a variety of occupations. The 1975 Indian middle class was largely employed in government service and beholden to the rulers of the day. The present day middle class Indian could be an entrepreneur, one who works in the organised private sector or is self-employed, very often one with international footprints. She has had access to improved education opportunities, is far more aware of thought currents across the globe and has many more avenues to express herself openly. And yet, the educated middle class is today far more susceptible to the allurements of narrow nationalism, jingoistic pride and intolerance of the views of others, as evidenced by the vicious attacks on social media. The ideals which guided the framers of the Indian Constitution find little resonance with the millennial generation. The technocratic worldview has little patience for liberal, humanistic values. It is little wonder then that liberal democracy is facing an existential crisis today.
  • The explosion in mass media: Freedom of expression has been facilitated by the internet revolution and the humongous growth in electronic and social media. Those of us who had just All India Radio and Doordarshan for meeting our information needs during the Emergency find the current Babel Tower of the electronic media refreshing, even if somewhat irritating at times. Twitter trolls notwithstanding, there is opportunity for every Indian with digital access to put forth her views. And yet, the flip side can be disquieting. While print media in the past was privately owned, big business has now come to dominate both print and electronic media. Editors and news managers are under increasing pressure to conform to the business interests of their owners, unlike in the past. The dissemination of news is also coming to resemble a cricket Twenty-Twenty match, with inexperienced reporters (having little understanding of ground realities) excitedly putting forth garbled versions of the true picture. Even more dismaying is the tendency of news anchors (puffed up with self-importance) functioning as judge, jury and executioner, silencing all inconvenient voices and sending to the gallows those they consider lacking in patriotism and national pride.
  • The Big Brother syndrome – I am the State: We are now in the era of the strong man, whether in India, Russia, the USA, Turkey or the Philippines. Indira Gandhi in 1975 was strong in her own right but she did not have the wide, rapturous acceptance of her predominant position that a Narendra Modi enjoys today. The problem is that the person, party, state and nation are today all seen through the same prism. Criticism of any one of these is seen as opposition to the nation-state. An aura of invincibility is sought to be created around the superman, using the media and capitalising on an ineffectual political opposition. It is true that unlike 1975, when Tamil Nadu was probably the only prominent non-Congress state, today’s political scene is marked by a multiplicity of parties, especially regional formations, ruling in different states. Many of them are often hostile to the ruling party at the centre and lose no opportunity to oppose it on a variety of issues. However, with power and money rather than principles and convictions being the bases for political conduct, there is no certainty about the opposition either, as the recent events of manufacture of governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Manipur show.
  • Diversity – of language, customs and religion: Running a subcontinent of India’s size and heterogeneity is no easy business, more so for a centralised, authoritarian government, as Indira Gandhi found to her cost in 1977. The multiplicity of tongues, religious beliefs and customs, cultural and dietary patterns render the enforcement of a uniform, majoritarian worldview well-nigh impossible. But, in recent times, efforts are being made to impose straitjacketed versions of history, culture and ideas that are drawn from the Gangetic plains. Conformity with the majoritarian mindset is sought to be ensured through indoctrination, legislation and government action and, where these prove inadequate, through resort to vigilante action, whether to dictate what women can wear and do or what people can eat, see and talk.
  • Institutional capture: The first attempts by the government of the day to bend institutions of democracy to its whims and fancies started in 1975 with the supersession of judges of the Supreme Court and the enunciation of the concept of a committed bureaucracy, apart from very crude efforts to muzzle the media. History seems to be coming full circle once again, with steps being taken to exert the influence of the political executive on appointments to the higher judiciary and with no clear system being adopted for appointments to the elite bureaucracy at the level of the Government of India (the media has already been tamed to a great extent, as mentioned earlier). Institutions of higher learning and statutory bodies are being packed with appointees beholden to the reigning political order.

It is impossible (and highly risky) to hazard any definite conclusions about the likely direction of politics in India in the coming decades. Inferences can at best be drawn from the straws in the wind as revealed by the actions of the government and the averments of its spokespersons. In totting up the balance sheet for India’s political system, what gives cause for some comfort is the resilience of the Indian people and their refusal to tolerate incompetent, corrupt and authoritarian behaviour on the part of those elected to represent them. In the first volume of his memoirs, Pranab Mukherjee has glossed over the rationale behind the Emergency, apart from sticking to the usual Congress line of opposition indiscipline, unrest and the call for the resignation of the Prime Minister: having been a loyal Congressman for most of his life, it would be too much to expect him to frankly analyse the inner motivations of the primary actor in first imposing the Emergency and then calling for the elections that led to its end. What is important is whether, forty years hence, we as a people understand the significance of a functioning democracy and the rules and conventions by which it should operate. Sadly, we, the so called “thinking classes”, are ready to hand over our powers (and even our freedoms) in our quest for security and certainty, forgetting that democracy is eternally a story that is in the making. It is we, the citizens of India, who have to write that story, learning from past mistakes. Else, there will be need to revert to a perennially favourite quote of mine “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”