Saturday, May 1, 2004

The Great Churning

The Great Churning
By Narendra Luther

The heat and dust of elections is over. We have a new government at the Centre, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. This is the first national government of the new century. The results were full of surprises. The NDA coalition did not expect to be beaten so badly. The Congress did not expect to do so well. Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh was expecting to get a new term though the Congress seemed to equally sure of throwing him out. And that is what happened.

Numerous analyses have been made. Let me give you mine. The first is beware of politicians because they never die. How many people whom we had written off have risen from their graves as it were? Patience is a virtue in politics. After all we have to choose from those who stay on.

Naidu's' defeat

Remember Lord Acton's maxim: power corrupts? One way of doing that is by making the holder of power blind. After a while in power one stops seeing things as they are . Those who are in charge of showing things do not do so accurately because they know that it is risky to do so. They show their masters the things and trends, which they want to see. It happened to Indira Gandhi during the elections after the Emergency. She was told by her coterie including the Intelligence agencies right till the end that she was winning while in fact she was losing. It happened this time too. Naidu believed that he had done so much for the people that they would gratefully vote for him. He also felt that having survived an attack on him, people would have sympathy for him. He did not realize that in the countryside he had not done adequately. While there was no power cut in Hyderabad and some urban areas, the farmers suffered. He projected a larger-than –life image in urban areas and outside the State, even internationally. But his voters were in rural areas.

He also centralized power too much. No one else mattered in the government or the party except him. While it seems a good thing when the going is good, in the battle of the ballot, you need layers and layers of cadres who will go out in the heat and fight. Centralization kills initiative at lower levels and breeds dissidence below the surface. Naidu nurtured an illusion and that was his undoing. He became a prisoner of his chosen babus. They did not – indeed could not -- correct his thinking and policies on crucial matters. It is the bureaucratic embrace that killed him.

Another factor that went against him was the inability to see the strength of the sentiment for a separate Telangana State. The hearts of people of Andhra and Telangana have never met. Some prominent leaders of Telangana had reservations about the creation of Visalandhra. The States Reorganization Commission did not recommend it straightaway. But somehow it was pushed through. Whenever the demand of Telangana is raised seriously, it finds touches a responsive chord amongst the people of the region. Even the people of the coastal areas are not very happy carrying on with a disgruntled region.

Vajpayee's feet of clay

What killed NDA was Gujarat. It was no ordinary rioting. It was carnage and was seen as such not only by Muslims, but a majority of Hindus too. It was a massive failure of administration. Unfortunately, instead of admitting it as such and taking remedial action, they sought to condone and even glorify it. Narendra Modi did not show any remorse. His party lionized him. If Narendra Modi had resigned after the riots, NDA would have secured a moral victory. If Vajpayee had sacked him for his failure or alleged connivance, his party and his alliance would have romped home. It was the lack of moral fibre, which threw out a party, and a leader who was being projected a statesman.

BJP and NDA also became victims of their own illusion, much like Naidu in AP. The slogan of 'India Shining' was, if any thing, an urban phenomenon. It meant little to people in the countryside who had seen no improvement in their standard of living. The government in Delhi did not seem to be doing any thing. The Dalit daughter went on her spree of collecting money and no one could touch her lest she should go to the other side or turn openly hostile. People saw a decline in moral values of a vast magnitude. The Tehelka episode was another thing, which besmirched the image of government. The Defence Minister resigned and then when the inquiry was taking too long, he came back. That did not add glory to the ruling coalition. The parliamentary principle of vicarious responsibility of the minister for the sins of omission and commission of his ministry was upheld to begin with -- and then jettisoned.

The result of the new elections is a new coalition of parties. As I said in one of my earlier articles in this magazine, coalition politics is based on compromises. It is a game of survival in power. It is smitten in its approach to issues by a consideration of not offending anyone. It is government by expedience. But we seem to be condemned to be governed by coalitions.

Sonia's noble gesture

While the vote was decidedly against the BJP, it was not decidedly in favour of the Congress. What it definitely rejected was the issue of the foreign origin of Sonia Gandhi. She got the largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha. But she did not get absolute majority. The Congress had therefore to depend on some other parties and groups. The Left was a prominent part of this group being the third largest party in the Lok Sabha.

The most moving part of the elections was that when the crown was offered to Sonia Gandhi, and she, in a rare and dramatic gesture, declined it. She said she had never pursued power. She wanted to lead her party to victory. Having done that, and promising to continue to do that, she stepped aside and offered the crown to one of the least political of persons in the Indian politics. The man, Manmohan Singh, is known for his expertise, his integrity -- and despite all that -- his humility. That gesture by Sonia Gandhi shocked her supporters and baffled her opponents. The one-point agenda that they had against her was rejected. Their biggest guns of BJP were silenced. Their ammunition was rendered useless. They – and other cynics -- have put uncharitable interpretations on one of the noblest acts of self –abnegation in history. They alleged that Sonia Gandhi would rule indirectly, by remote control a la Bal Thackeray and thus enjoy power without responsibility. That is the prerogative of the president of the ruling party. All said and done, the noble aspect of the decision of Sonia Gandhi needs to be acknowledged as something extremely rare.