The article for this Week is not a typical Weekend Thoughts article. It is a powerful political commentary on the current state of Indian politics. The article is by one of the most prominent Indian writers, Arun Shourie. A lot of people might already have read this article. We wanted to present this for those who haven't. As is the norm with Arun Shourie, when he writes, the readers sit up and listen to what he has to say.
Sidhartha Mohanty May 31, 1996
is among India's best known commentators on current and political affairs. His writings are backed by rigorous analysis and meticulous research. He has been an economist with the World Bank, a consultant in the planning commision and the editor of Indian Express. Among the many honours and awards, he has received the Magsaysay Award, the International Editor of the Year, the Dadabhai Naoroji and the Astor Award.
This article had been published in India on May 22nd, before the Vajpayee government resigned.
The so-called secular parties -- that is, all fifteen of them, including the Muslim League -- are continuing to insist that they shall vote out the BJP Government on the 31st. Assume that they do, and assume that a Government headed by Deve Gowda assumes office. It will be a Janata Dal Government for two simple reasons : there is nothing to the National Front except the Janata Dal; second, what was being touted as the other half of the "NF-LF", that is the Left Front has already opted out -- like the Congress it says it to will support the "National Front" Government from outside. The Governments of Charan Singh and Chandrashekhar were "supported from the outside" by the Congress. One lasted till the day it had to face the House, the other lasted four months. But to the defenders of secularism all that is history. The situation now is different, they say; for one thing there are those experiences to warn the secular parties and leaders, they say; moreover, this time the leaders of "the forces of social change" are very conscious of the historic responsibility that rests on their shoulders, they say.
The situation is indeed different. As I said, assume that a Government headed by Deve Gowda has been installed. The Patna High Court has ruled that the agencies of the Bihar Government cannot be trusted with the investigation into the gawala loot. Will the Government of Deve Gowda try to nail the culprits who have walked off with Rs. THREE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED CRORE of public funds from the treasuries of Bihar, when all this has been looted during the reign of the very man, Laloo Yadav who happens to be the President of the party of which Deve Gowda happens to be a member ? Even if Laloo Yadav had not been the President of the Janata Dal, he would still be in control of 15-20 MPs. Will Deve Gowda pursue an inquiry which is certain to corner such a person ? Will he ever be able to forget that the Janata Dal has only 43 MPs -- forty less than Charan Singh had, two less than Chandrashekhar had -- and that 21 of these are from Laloo's Bihar ?
Or take the cases in which Congressmen have a direct interest. The St. Kitts case, the case regarding the bribes paid to the JMM MPs, the numerous affairs involving cheating by Chandraswami and his associates. In each of these not just the ordinary member of the Congress but the President of that party has a vital stake. If Deve Gowda does not stall them, the Congress will be honour-bound to withdraw support. If he stalls them, you can see where that will leave the issue which all the pollsters said was of the greatest concern to the people in the elections -- namely corruption. Not just these cases involving the President of the Congress, take even a case like the hawala one. Even if one disregards the statement of S.K. Jain that he had paid three and a half crores to Narasimha Rao, the case involves several far-from-ordinary Congressmen. If Deve Gowda does not take steps to stall the case, each of these will be pushing Narasimha Rao or whoever the Congress President is to remind Deve Gowda what "support from the outside" means. If Rao or his successor succeeds in having Deve Gowda or his successor stall the case, the corrupt get away again. If Rao fails to check Deve Gowda, resentment against Rao within the Congress swells further, the party disintegrates further, and with it the "support from outside".
That is just one illustration regarding one of the issues about which the people were concerned in these elections : the moment the "National Front" Government is installed the people can say good bye to that issue. The position shall be no different in regard to other matters. Before the BJP Government was formed, that is when the working premise still was that the NF-LF Government is going to assume office, and at a time when the Left parties, certainly the CPI expected to be a part of the Government, Madhu Trehan asked A.B. Bardhan of the CPI what the NF-LF Government would do about the economic policies of the Congress Government. Bardhan said the policies would be reversed. But the Congress will be supporting your Government, how will you reverse their policies ?, Madhu asked, a little incredulous. That is their problem, said Bardhan, and he repeated the phrase more than once for good measure. And yet we are to believe that these parties are getting together with an agreed programme !
But it is not just policies, it is structure, it is the base itself which will put them at loggerheads. The Narayan Dutt Tewari-Moopanar-Mamta Banerjee phenomenon will be repeated all over. Assume that a Janata Dal Government is in office and the Congress has pledged to keep it afloat. But can J.B. Patnaik in Orissa afford to subordinate the Orissa unit of the Congress to the local unit of the Janata Dal ? Will he let go of the cases against Biju Patnaik, can he afford to let go of them ? But how can he pursue cases against such an important leader of the party whose Government his party is keeping alive at the Centre ? The alliance will entail that the local unit of the Congress in Bihar must subordinate itself completely to the discredited Laloo Yadav, that the local unit of the Congress in Andhra must completely efface itself in favour of Chandrababu Naidu, that the units in Bengal and Kerala must subordinate themselves to the CPI(M).
What hope can these units then have of survival ? The stains that today discolour Laloo will rub off on the Congress also, exactly as those of Mulayam Singh's Government in U.P. so thoroughly discredited the Congress in that state. In Andhra, West Bengal, Kerala the situation is even more urgent : in such states the Congress is fighting a battle of survival -- and it is fighting against well organised, rapacious adversaries. The very reason for its continuance in such states is that it is available to those who do not like the ruling parties there. Once the Congress enters into a direct or indirect alliance with these very parties at the Centre, that is in regard to the country as a whole, why would those who support the local units of the Congress do so any longer ? A Narasimha Rao can afford to ignore all this : far from being concerned about strengthening the Congress, he has derived his strength in good measure from seeing the Congress weakened; moreover he cannot now have a very long horizon. But what about the local Congressman, the local Congress leader ? Can he also go on looking with comparable equanimity at the subordination, and thereby the certain erosion of his platform ? In a word, as these partners are in deadly competition for the same base, the "alliance" just cannot last long.
And what of the reactions of the workers and associates of the parties in the field ? Consider the Maanila-Congress in Tamil Nadu. Its leaders may well have gone along with Narasimha Rao's decision to ally with Jayalalitha : they have not been known for staking much for principle. But as they explained, they were a "worker-driven" party : the Congress workers in Tamil Nadu were so furious at Rao' decision that the leaders just had to fall in line. The workers then celebrated in the Congress office itself in Madras -- they did so by throwing Rao's cut-out to the ground, forming a queue, and going on urinating on it for hours. Can the leaders of the Maanila-Congress long associate themselves in a joint-enterprise with the same Rao so soon ? The case of Chandrababu Naidu's flock is not very different : several of his MPs are convinced that the one man who helped Lakshmi Parvati's candidates against them -- and with much more than mere "moral support" -- was none other than the very same Deve Gowda whom they are being asked to prop up today. Will they do so with any conviction, will they do so for long ?
And then there are the strictly personal factors. First there is the ambition. In the Janata Dal not everyone feels that he deserves to be PM as much as any other person in that collection. And strictly speaking he is right : as all are equally unqualified for the job, there is no reason why one should get it and not the other. So, even if you give it to one of them on the 31st, jostling will start on the 1st.
And then there are the vicious animosities. These have been on display again : you should just hear the accounts of the determination with which Mulayam Singh blocked V.P. Singh, and then Laloo Yadav; of the peremptory way in which Deve Gowda shot down Hegde's name; of how so many of them were dealing behind each other's backs with their private partners in the Congress. One can scarcely imagine the animosity that the rest in the Janata Dal feel about that trio -- V.P. Singh, Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan. And who among any of these alliance parties has even an iota of trust in Narasimha Rao ? A volume can be compiled -- a volume should be compiled -- about what they have proclaimed about him and his Government during the last three years. But suddenly we are to believe that all that was nothing. Indeed, why take the trouble of scanning three years ? Just recall what happened the other day when the Janata Dal leaders learnt that the President had invited Atal Behari Vajpayee to form a Government. It did not take them fifteen minutes to conclude that the very man, Narasimha Rao on whom they were depending to form their Government had executed a conspiracy against them, and to proclaim this to the world. Persons who feel this way about each other will provide a stable partnership ?
"And never underestimate habit," one of the most prominent among Congressmen said the other day. "For forty years these fellows have been making one speech, specially the Lohia-types," he continued. "They have just to start speaking -- whatever the subject, within two minutes they are shouting : 'These forty years have been ruinous for India, the Nehru-Gandhi family has been the ruin of India....' Now, the younger Congressmen will keep quiet for the first two or three times. But how long will they keep quiet ? On the other side those fellows cannot continue a speech without flying off on that handle."
Ambition and habits apart, the compulsions of the moment will propel them even faster in that direction. It is well known that whichever Government is in power, very harsh economic decisions will have to be taken within weeks. To take just one example, for nine months administered prices have been held down with a heavy hand -- prices of steel, of coal, of petroleum products. This holding down has already put the severest strain on Government finances -- even the oil account is already in deficit to an astronomical amount. The prices of these items will just have to be increased within weeks. How will the Deve Gowda Government justify these increases except by blaming the Narasimha Rao Government's handling of the economy ? And when they start casting the blame, will that propper-up-of-the-Government-from-the-outside, the Congress be able to swallow the declamations in silence ?
The simple fact that so many parties would have got together to prop up the Government, coupled with the fact that on its own the Government would have even fewer MPs than Chandrashekhar had would mean that that many more would have a veto over what it wanted to do, that it would have to do things that so many more parties, each aiming at some particular group, would want done. Can we even imagine where all this tugging and pulling will leave policy-making ?
And what is their excuse for entering into such alliances ? Secularism has to be saved, they say. Is that the real reason ? The AGP knows well what members of the Left Front used to call it -- not just communal and anti-Bengali but the instrument of foreign powers; the AGP knows well how the Left supported Mrs. Gandhi as her Government shot down 800 young boys and girls of AASU. They also know that the only political group which stood by them, the only group which has consistently kept the issue that gave them birth -- the swamping of the North-East by infiltrators from Bangladesh -- has been the BJP. They know that from the very first days of the movement, the politicians who stood by them were persons like Atal Behari Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh. Is it secularism which impels the AGP to contemplate supporting a Government propped by the very Congress that killed their comrades, by the very Communists who hurled the worst invective at them and their movement ? The reason is very different, and far from principle : to get back to office, the AGP decided this time round that it needed to break some Muslim votes away from the Congress, they decided that they needed to get some chunks of the Bengali votes which have been the base of the CPI(M) in Assam. Therefore they down-played the infiltration issue, they allied with the CPI(M). And supporting a BJP Government at the Centre, they have feared, will jeopardise these sections. In Andhra the situation is the same : to eliminate the Congress Chandrababu Naidu feels he needs to break its bank among the 12 percent Muslim voters; the more he can show himself to be in the forefront in thwarting the BJP Government the more that lot will look to him in the future.
The calculations of the Maanila Congress leaders are no higher. They realise that they cannot survive long as a mere regional outfit. They have to get back to the Congress -- when Rao is replaced, or when the anger of the Congressmen in Tamil Nadu has subsided. If they support the BJP Government in the interim, they reckon, their chances of rejoining the Congress would be impeded. Such are the calculations that account for the "secularism" of these politicians.
There is of course a lot other than these politicians -- the intellectuals and "opinion makers". Their secularism is to be explained merely by consistency -- compounded now by sheer cussedness, by zid ! No, whatever happens, we shall not allow a BJP Government to survive, they say. As the wag would say : No, there is no reason for it, it is just our policy.
All who are cheering the MPs to bring down the BJP should see therefore that the Government they will be installing will not be conspicuous for being secular. What it will be is out-and-out casteist. And it will be brazen and blatant, the way Mulayam Singh's Government was in UP, the way Laloo Yadav's Government is in Bihar -- completely bereft of any inhibition, completely unrestrained by any sense of shame : how come no paper has reported the way these leaders behaved when they went to the President to protest against his decision to call Vajpayee ? More than anything else, it will be a Government which will start out knowing that it is not going to last long. Its members will therefore grab with a vengeance, and they will decree the things that in their calculation will solidify this caste or that, Muslims qua Muslims behind them for the next elections.
To push the country into such hands at such a critical time is not just cussedness, it is cussedness which borders on the criminal.
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