Debating India


The end of a benighted phase

Saturday 24 April 1999

INDIA is headed for its 13th general election within a year-and-a-half of conducting the 12th in the series. The only question is whether the election will come straightaway or will be preceded by an interim government representing the varied, competing and, frequently, contradictory interests of those who came together, against the odds, to put an end to the worst Central Government the people of India have seen in over half a century of Independence. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government was a regime of the Hindu Right, diluted and shaped, to an extent, by the narrow interests of some coalition partners and eventually brought down by the defection of the largest and most volatile coalition partner, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

The Vajpayee regime was communal and divisive with a vengeance: it enabled, and colluded with, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s longstanding project of minority-baiting, allowing the most virulent and thuggish constituents of the saffron brigade to unleash a new level of hate politics and terrorise especially India’s small Christian minority, ostensibly on the issue of ’conversion’. Even though the National Agenda for Governance, the BJP’s compact with its coalition partners, formally excluded the saffron demands on Ayodhya, Article 370 and a Uniform Civil Code, the regime managed to put tremendous pressure on the system’s commitment to secularism and the rule of law. It attempted, without a great deal of success but in a manner indicative of its future plans, to further the RSS plan of saffronising education.

It hijacked India’s independent and peace-oriented nuclear policy, twisted it out of shape, and imposed on the people of India and Pakistan a dangerous and costly new nuclear arms race. It wantonly undermined bilateral relations with China and Pakistan, before attempting, unsuccessfully and unconvincingly, to repair some of the damage. Its economic policy, following the Pokhran nuclear explosions and the imposition of sanctions by the United States and some of its allies, was (in the words of a Frontline columnist, the economist Jayati Ghosh) a policy of "placat(ing) foreign governments and international capital by offering economic concessions, through greater liberalisation, greater incentives for foreign investors and offering the opportunity to enter captive Indian markets and buy up domestic assets cheaply." By attempting cynically to use the knife of Article 356 against the elected government and Legislative Assembly of Bihar and threatening to use it elsewhere, it put destabilising pressure on federalism and cooperative Centre-State relations. Through its determination to hang on to power after clearly forfeiting parliamentary legitimacy, it forced the polity to register a new low in sordid opportunism and horse-trading. In sum, the BJP-led regime set an unmatched - and difficult-to-match - record of divisive, reactionary and chauvinist misgovernance.

Hearteningly, the people of India seemed to show the capability to recognise and act on this political truth quicker than anyone was willing to give them credit for. The saffron debacle in the November 1998 Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh proved beyond any doubt that the masses of the people, alienated by sharp rises in the prices of essential commodities and by the manifestly communal, divisive and inept performance of the government of the Hindu Right, were not willing to buy the pseudo-nationalist and chauvinist agenda based on nuclear hawkishness, efforts to saffronise education, and minority-baiting. But these election results represented only the strongest, the most direct, evidence of the change in the popular mood across the land. The constant tensions and vacillations within the Central Government coalition must be recognised, at least in retrospect, as behavioural manifestations of the truth of alienation from the electorate. At the core, the Jayalalitha party’s end game defection from the government of the Hindu Right was the expression of the realisation that the saffron cause was in headlong retreat in the national political arena and, therefore, continuing to ally with it would be a self-damaging course.

All this has meant, of course, that the pendulum has swung in favour of the BJP’s main rival in the national political arena, the Congress(I) led by Sonia Gandhi. The party of traditional dominance in the system has clearly emerged as the supplanter of the BJP at the Centre, the party that will emerge, in all probability and way and ahead, the single largest party (even if not a party with a majority) in a fresh all-India electoral contest. The only viable interim government conceivable for, say, six months before general elections become unavoidable is a minority government formed by the Congress(I) and supported from outside by all those parties that are presently ranged against the BJP. The two main constructive purposes such an interim regime can serve would be these. First, it must re-commit the Indian state to a course of secular democracy, renew the constitutional commitment to the protection of minorities, and put an immediate end to policies that are guaranteed to divide and indeed vivisect India. Secondly, the interim regime must initiate steps to undo nuclear weaponisation and the nuclear arms race, and rebuild trust and confidence in India’s relations with China and Pakistan. It can begin this vital task by making a commitment not to deploy and induct nuclear weapons, and iniating discussions with Pakistan to develop this commitment into a bilateral agreement. It was clear from the start that the government of the Hindu Right would not be able to get off the nuclear tiger. A change of political regime in New Delhi appeared to be the condition precedent for this. Whatever a non-BJP successor government can or cannot do in other areas, whether it proves to be transitional or longer-lived, it will serve the people’s interest decisively if it shows the political will and courage to undo nuclear weaponisation in South Asia.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 9, Apr. 24 - May. 07, 1999

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