Zoya Hasan, Congress After Indira: Policy, Power, Political Change (1984-2009), Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2012, ₹795, ISBN 0-19-568597-0.
7 January 2014
Democracy in India is greatly celebrated and much interrogated. The upshot of this interrogation has been a certain disquiet that with all the rigorous observance of formal procedure –regular elections, a well-established compact on the division of powers, and few barriers to the entry of new political players – the ethos of democracy remains weakly diffused. Unflattering epithets such as “patronage democracy” and more disparagingly, “bandit democracy” have been coined in the academic literature to characterise the curious amalgam that is political practice in India.
At the root of this perhaps is the paradox B.R. Ambedkar drew pointed attention to as the Constituent Assembly – a body elected on a narrow franchise of less than a sixth of the adult population -- prepared to vote into existence the basic law for a sovereign republic. “In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality”, said Ambedkar: “In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”
The story of Indian democracy could be told as a continuing saga of negotiating these contradictions without ever addressing them frontally. The universal adult franchise made politics a competitive exercise in recruiting mass loyalties, but also potentially an arena for an uncontrolled clash of group identities. This would have been a suicidal course for a nation born in the unreconciled clash of two religious identities and the unappeased resentment of an excluded segment within the dominant religious tradition at being denied a fair role within structures of power. A model of the “civic citizen” was crafted to deal with this potential minefield of clashing identities – of an individual unbound by sectarian loyalties, focused on his own betterment and the nation’s. This was at best, a wishful construct of the first generation of nationalist leaders. Political loyalties in India did not easily settle into the mould of civic conformity that is the archetype of the liberal democratic order. Older identities and the animosities associated with them, continued to play a role in political mobilisation. And the key challenge of the contesting parties soon was transformed into the job of assembling a plurality of votes through coalitions of social groups that could maintain a credible facade of unity through five years.
For long years after independence, internal institutional processes of the Indian National Congress – which has acquired various suffixes over its recent career and is now restored to its original nomenclatural identity – were the means of bringing social heterogeneity into the apparatus of governance. The Congress has been studied as a party, but at one time, it seemed far more persuasive and significant to view it as a “system”. The political scientist Rajni Kothari has pioneered this mode of analysis, which argues that the legacy of the mass movement for freedom from colonialism enabled the Congress to remain uniquely engaged with larger political realities, adapting its policies and programs to a multitude of social situations. The Congress, as Kothari put it, handled the metamorphosis from liberation movement to political party by functioning as “an articulator of interests and opinions and as a transmission belt between the government and the people”. Opposition parties, after an early delusional phase, when they believed they stood a chance of “ousting” the Congress, soon settled down to a more modest, but pivotal role. The socialist Asoka Mehta’s proposal that the role of the opposition parties was not to oppose but to function as a “corrective”, was seen as too early an admission of defeat. But Kothari saw, right up to the 1960s, a distinct willingness on the part of the opposition parties, to cast themselves as part of the “regional structure of power”, acting as a safety valve for social and political grievances, that would maintain the “competitive nature of the Congress itself”.
Kothari’s arresting characterisation of the Congress as the “transmission belt” between the government and the people, lends itself to another interpretation. To use the more contemporary vocabulary of political science, the Congress could be understood as the axis linking civil society and the state. And it was not a relationship free of ambiguity or tension. Particularly worrying from the viewpoint of the Congress’s early leadership was the unbridgeable character of many of the sectarian divisions within society. As Jawaharlal Nehru put it in a letter to all provincial presidents of the party in 1954, “secularism” was the essence of a liberal democratic order. It was a word that did not acclimatise very well in the Indian political milieu, but conveyed a profound meaning, little less indeed, than “social and political equality”. A “caste-ridden society is not properly secular” said Nehru, and though he was averse to intervening in anybody’s personal beliefs, he was concerned that these could become “petrified” and “affect the social structure of the state”.
Perhaps the history of the Congress since it was passed on as a family heirloom by Nehru’s dynastic heir Indira Gandhi, to her son Rajiv Gandhi, could be understood in terms of this prophecy. Zoya Hasan’s important new book on the life of the Congress post-Indira, draws its rationale from the unique position that the organisation occupies in terms of its longevity and “its role in the building of the Indian nation”. That is sound reason, but perhaps incomplete until complemented by an exploration on the reverse side of the coin: of comprehending how Indian society has shaped the career of the Congress. The Congress, like all political organisms of similar longevity, has had a chequered life even before it became a ruling party: from its origins as a debating club of genteel Anglophiles, to a crisis of identity when besieged by radicals intent on creating a new nationalist idiom based on a primordial Hindu identity, and its transition to being a party of mass mobilisation with an ecumenical doctrine but a practical difficulty in representing the surging aspirations of a diverse social milieu.
When finally, the Congress came to be ruling party over a newly independent nation, it was with some notable gaps within its leadership tiers. With a leadership drawn mostly from the upper and middle-strata, it depended on the poor and the working class for its electoral sustenance. It pitched a universal message of development as part of the effort of gaining broader allegiance, but by the late-1960s had to abandon this course when faced with brute economic realities. Indira Gandhi reconstituted a populist coalition in part by recruiting the poor into a promised effort at redistributive justice. But that again had to be abandoned. In her second avatar as Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was to prove much more mindful of the established centres of authority in her social milieu, cultivating even the most extreme forms of religious chauvinism as a prop for her own power. From then on, the Congress became the “transmission belt” importing the disorders of a grossly divided and unequal society into the apparatus of governance. Nehru’s prophecy had come discomfitingly true. The sectarian furies could not be defeated, but electoral advantage could potentially be drawn from appeasing them.
Hasan refers to the dramatic speech that Rajiv -- as inheritor of the mantle -- delivered to the centenary session of the Congress in 1985. With rhetoric soaring great heights, he upbraided the Congress leadership for forgetting their constituencies and transforming the organisation into an apparatus of patronage dispensation. This was a speech then hailed for its “revolutionary” significance and Hasan while recording this peak in Rajiv’s political career, misses the irony of a dynastic political novice calling to account a group of hoary veterans whose principal omission was possibly their dumb acquiescence in his ascent. Expectedly, as Hasan points out, nothing came out of all the centenary rhetoric. A membership drive floundered on a wave of bogus enrolments, and leadership elections were called off rather than reward the much decried power brokers with the legitimacy of an organisational mandate. The organisational decay continued as Rajiv Gandhi came increasingly to rely on the apparatus of the state, rather than the party, to mobilise political support.
The Congress meanwhile, had lost power in various states of the union, with all four southern states – which had stayed loyal even during the post-Emergency rout of 1977 – going out of its hands. “Half-way through his five-year term as prime minister”, Hasan observes, “Rajiv Gandhi had faltered in most of his major initiatives”. But in itself, this would not have posed insuperable difficulties had he not been “advised to adopt” a series of “compromising overtures and tactics” towards the “demands of various religious communities and their sundry anxieties”.
Several assumptions seem to underlie these locutions. Principally, that Rajiv was ill-advised rather than maladroit or mischievous in making that infamous overture towards competitive communalism in 1986: first enacting a bill abridging the rights on divorce of Muslim women and soon afterwards opening a place of Muslim worship in Ayodhya to Hindu vigilantes who had long claimed it as part of their nationalist patrimony. A leader bold enough to mount a frontal challenge to the “power-brokers” in his party just a few months before this series of manoeuvres is thus cast in the role of a political innocent who falls victim to poor advice. The subsequent course of the Ayodhya dispute, which scarred the nation with communal violence on a scale never seen before, is put down to a “political entente” that Rajiv’s successor, P.V. Narasimha Rao, established with the Hindutva extremists in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Narasimha Rao is portrayed as a willing partner in the BJP ploy to bring down a place of worship in Ayodhya and instrumental in the erosion of the Congress vote base in the northern states. After being propelled into a leadership role by Rajiv’s assassination and the tenuous electoral plurality gained on a wave of public sympathy, Narasimha Rao remained insecure on his perch, but aware that the centre of gravity of the Congress, unlike in Rajiv’s time, had shifted to the south. That was for him as a man from the south, supposedly the key to perpetuating his leadership. As long as the party remained off-balance in its engagement with the politics of the north, he could count on being the indispensable link with the principal power centres in the south. Hasan briefly touches upon this aspect of the Narasimha Rao years, but does not go too deeply into it. She omits the deeply consequential decision that Narasimha Rao made in 1996 in fighting the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh as a junior partner of the newly emergent Dalit party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). That was, by various accounts, the last nail in the coffin that the Congress had fashioned for itself in India’s largest state. The BSP came out of that election with a hugely enhanced bank of seats, able to bargain for a power sharing arrangement with the much reviled BJP. The Congress won a minute fraction of the seats it contested, and its elected representatives proved all too willing to talk terms and sell their services to the more powerful political entities that promised appropriate rewards.
In the mythology of the Congress as a dynastic inheritance, Narasimha Rao has acquired a position akin to the serpent in the garden of paradise. Inconvenient facts though, stand in the way of this theology gaining any further traction. It is for example, quite a viable proposition, that the Congress lost ground in the north because it proved unable to accommodate the assertion of the so-called “backward classes”, which had been underway with great subtlety all through the 1970s and 80s. It was a shift in the political balance that Viswanath Pratap Singh, who quit the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet on principle at a time when his authority seemed unassailable, and then succeeded him as prime minister in 1989, sought to accommodate by notifying the Mandal Commission recommendations on reservations for the backward classes in government employment. The resultant social chaos remains a sparsely documented episode in recent history and Hasan does little to remedy that, quickly passing over the Mandal Commission issue with a rote reference to the Congress’s tired old formula that reservations should be attentive to the needs of the economically deprived. The Congress role in fomenting mass disturbances against the Mandal Commission in several urban centres in the north of the country was much spoken of, but very poorly documented. What is documented with absolute authority in the Indian parliamentary record, is that the Congress under Rajiv made common cause with the BJP in voting out the V.P. Singh government in 1990, just days after it had shown the courage of secular convictions in halting an adventurist Hindutva convoy towards Ayodhya that could have had fateful repercussions.
Otherwise, V.P. Singh merits a mention in this chronicle of decline as the author of the 1985 budget and the frontman for Rajiv’s radical new economic blueprint, presented before a plenary gathering just prior to the party’s centenary observance. Hasan looks at the turn in economic policy, inaugurated by Rajiv and then accelerated under Narasimha Rao, as a key element in the new identity of the Congress. This represented a radical change of course and paradoxically, the Narasimha Rao regime – numerically weak in terms of the parliamentary arithmetic – succeeded in making far more consequential changes than Rajiv had with his brute majority of over three-quarters in the lower house.
Economic policy under Narasimha Rao, Hasan says, showed disproportionate concern for the “social elites and middle classes who had turned against the earlier model of state-led economic development”. Though there was by no means a solid consensus within the party on this new course of economic policy, dissent was silenced in part by incantations of the Rajiv mantra, invoking him as the original inspiration behind the economic reforms that attained their full-blown form under Narasimha Rao. This spoke of the great ideological flexibility of the Rajiv inheritance, its adaptability to any exigency of power politics. It was also a time when a large part of the political spectrum, including the forces of the left, were sunk in deep trepidation at the electoral rewards that the BJP had harvested from its provocative course of communal adventurism. This in turn, fed a marked reticence on all sides to engage the Congress in debate on the fundamentals of the new economic orientation.
Towards the end of this study, Hasan applies a rather interesting characterisation to the current state of the Congress: “Congress has no ideology, only strategy. If there is one ideology that the party continues to represent, it is the ideology of power”. This description it would be evident, is equally valid for the very beginning of the post-Indira years and indeed, to the last years of the Indira era too. The implications though, began to play themselves out when a dynastic element was not at the helm of the party, enabling the family to largely evade responsibility.
In Hasan’s narrative, discontent triggered by economic liberalisation led to the “poor sections” moving away from the party and its share of the national popular vote shrinking from 48.1 per cent to 31 percent between the general elections of 1984 and 1996. This disintegrative impact of liberalisation coincided with the arrival of “the politics of social cleavages.” Caste groupings categorised as “other backward classes” (OBCs) in the official nomenclature “emerged as a major force in national politics”, she writes, “thanks to V.P. Singh’s decision to implement the ... Mandal Commission recommendations (on) reservations in government employment”.
This diagnosis perhaps mixes up cause and consequence since it is equally plausible that the Mandal Commission decision, deferred for a decade simply because no government seemed willing to grasp that political hot potato, was long overdue recognition of the OBCs’ power, already manifest in the electoral arena. It was a means of bringing the administrative apparatus and the representative system in closer consonance and minimising possibilities of a divergence between the intent of one and the actions of the other.
The reality then would be that the Congress was not so much undermined by the “politics of social cleavages”, but contributed to it by steadfastly failing the test of change. Rigidities in its leadership tiers, induced by its commitment to the principle of dynastic succession, could well have been one of the contributory elements. The outcome was that after a spell of being an external prop of a minority ruling coalition – bereft of the comforting presence of a dynastic inheritor at the helm -- the Congress was beset by a wave of desertions, sinking to depths of electoral ignominy in 1998 and then again in 1999. This is the context in which the return of dynastic control occurs, which succeeds in staunching the haemorrhage but not in restoring the party to any semblance of health.
The quest for power was by this time the Congressman’s principal motivation and fear of freedom his biggest debility. Various explanations have been advanced for the Congress’s dependence on the guiding hand of the Gandhi dynasty, which suggests nothing less than a form of political infantilism. Mani Shankar Aiyar, the former diplomat who was among Rajiv Gandhi’s closest advisors and then a parliamentarian and minister with a conspicuous streak of independence, is quoted by Hasan as saying that the dynasty provides “the comfort of continuity”. That would seem a plausible explanation if it did not obscure the reality of sharp discontinuities and divergences in the Congress’s actual policy mix when in power – on issues of secularism and distributive justice – all under the make-believe that the more things change, the more they remain the same. And soon afterwards, Aiyar is quoted offering a still more outlandish apology for the infantilism of the Congress. The family, he says, is not a straightforward dynasty: rather, it is a “succession of people who have adhered to policies that serve the poor”.
This quote has the unfortunate connotation of suggesting that “the poor” is a permanent category in Indian politics, whose function seemingly is to serve as electoral fodder for a “succession of people” that is not quite a dynasty. Beginning with 1971, when Indira Gandhi discovered the poor as a political resource that could be tapped for electoral advantage and won a massive landslide against an older and more hidebound generation of the party leadership, the Congress when in power, has set much store by welfare spending that directly targets the poor. But this commitment has waned in times of economic stringency, as in the mid-1970s and then again in the 1990s. The zeal for liberalisation and for embracing the market as the ultimate arbiter left no room for these putatively wasteful doles. It was the Congress’s good fortune perhaps, that the BJP which partially gave up its hardline ideological positions to win a mandate in 1998 as the leading party in a broad coalition, proved even more zealous in its belief in the neo-liberal dogma.
Late in 2003, the BJP suffered a serious attack of delusional hubris after winning three state assembly elections in the Hindi-speaking belt, recklessly playing on the theme of a “shining India” when the reality was that the apparent spurt in economic growth seen that year was actually no more than a rebound from the dismal performance after the monsoon failure of 2002. Yet there was no uniform message that emerged from the 2004 election which brought the Congress back to power as head of a large and diverse coalition. If anything the outcome at the national level was a patchwork of diverse results from the states. Yet the wisdom gained ground soon afterwards, that rural distress had been an element in the mix of voter motivations. This may have been accurate, though it was less so to say that this factor worked entirely in favour of the Congress.
The Congress though was quick to read the signals, especially since the arithmetic of the poll outcome made it dependent to a high degree on the sustenance of the left parties. With the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act being passed into law in 2005, the Congress signalled a return to the early-1970s, at least in terms of its intent to recruit the poor as a political resource. Unlike then, the new phase of populism was supported by a buoyant economy, which just happened, fortuitously to hit a high growth path at about the same time. Clear-headed and sober analysis in later years put down the seeming migration to a higher growth path which fostered dreams of India’s arrival on the world stage as a global power, to a conjunction of circumstances in the casino of international finance. With other investment destinations losing their allure, India suddenly gained favour with those who held the levers of the global flow of speculative capital. Bank credit expanded massively and the economy was propelled onto a higher trajectory by the explosive growth of middle-class spending. The windfall revenues accruing to government coffers made ever increasing outlays for social programmes a feasible proposition, unlike in the 1970s, when the process came up short against a severe fiscal crunch and successive “oil shocks” in the global economy.
Despite this favourable though entirely fortuitous conjunction, the Congress in Hasan’s assessment, failed to make full use of the opportunities. Policy remained focused essentially on the perceptions and interests of big business, stockmarket operators continued to be pampered, and the most doctrinaire ideologues of the market continued to be honoured with tutelary roles in policy. Hasan offers the acute diagnosis that “Congress politics has been captured by the rich but is sustained by the poor in the age of globalisation”. And the party has responded in a manner that heightens the risk of an enduring loss of electoral advantage: “Even as disparities and inequalities have been an intrinsic part of India’s high-growth economy, the state has thrown its weight behind the rich and powerful”.
Hasan explores the reigning cult of the “rich and powerful” and traces its implications in the world of foreign policy. Inspired in part by its own striving for an economic order where merit alone would be the passport to success – and by the rising volubility and confidence of a large Indian diaspora – India has had through two decades of globalisation, a period of growing rapprochement with the U.S. Since returning to power in 2004, the Congress did little to reverse the course of foreign policy set by the BJP, despite being stridently critical while in opposition. It in fact went so far as ending its first term in office with a bitter and acrimonious parting of ways with the left parties over a nuclear trade agreement with the U.S. that was of little substantive benefit, but had the corrosive symbolic value of casting India as an abject camp-follower of the U.S. in an increasingly contentious geopolitical environment.
The parting of ways with the left did not involve any electoral penalties. If anything, the Congress as head of the UPA won an even more convincing triumph in 2009. But UPA-2, as Hasan calls it, was beset with intense strife and public controversy from the very moment of its birth. Less than halfway through its term, it was being described as the most corrupt government of all time. A hapless Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought to regain the unequivocal loyalty he had enjoyed from corporate India and the media, by pleading the compulsions of coalition politics. But the middle-class rebellion, fuelled by rising insecurity and the collapse of the global casino in 2008, granted him no leeway.
With this diagnosis behind her, Hassan offers a rather grim prognosis which would seem especially acute since it was authored a long while before the Congress and the coalition it leads, was plunged into a serious crisis of credibility by an absolute rout in a number of state legislative assembly elections in late-2013. The Congress she says, failed under UPA-2, to “capitalise on the momentum of change achieved under UPA-1”. The wilful decision to part with company it had kept during UPA-1 may have been partly the reason, since during that time, the left had “put pressure on the government to fulfil its own manifesto which benefited the Congress electorally”. Without a conscience keeper under UPA-2, the Congress tightened its embrace of “crony capitalism” and hastened the ingress of “big money” into the corridors of political power. “The increasing monetisation of the political process, backed by a state-business alliance at its apex”, Hasan grimly concludes, “could produce conditions to unravel the social agenda which brought the Congress back to power”. That the immediate beneficiary will be a primitive, xenophobic political formation that has harvested great electoral advantage from vilifying and physically targeting a vulnerable religious minority, offers grim prognosis for Indian democracy.