Peeling the onion of political ideology in India is an assault on reason. You have rabble-rousing Hindutva hordes, which held sway from 1998 to 2004 and were booted out. Then there is the intellectually bankrupt Left that met its Waterloo on the Indo-US strategic partnership agreement. Sitting on the Opposition benches, their one-point agenda is to defeat (difficult) or cause problems (easy) for the Congress. It is a matter of wonder how closely these two so-called inimical forces, the BJP and the Left, have combined time and again to oppose the Congress for short-term political gain.
There also are 1960s-style anarchic groups that include the Anna Hazare autocratic clique and Mamata Bannerjee’s socially and intellectually challenged Trinamul Congress. Plunk into the mix the personality cults of Mayawati; the dynastic setup of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Karunanidhi and Naveen Patnaik; the slippery appeal of Jayalalitha and the holier-than-thou stance of Nitish Kumar. These are mercenary formations that will sway whichever way the wind blows, depending on the political advantage they can derive.
It is not clear what any of these groups stand for except opposition to the Congress. In 1974, the great anarch Jayaprakash Narayan talked of “total revolution” and called on the army to revolt against the Indira Gandhi government; today Hazare has subverted his fight against corruption into an anti-Congress political movement. Talk about déjà vu.
The foolishness of the Hazare band of civil society buccaneers was exposed when the moving spirit, candle-in-the-wind Arvind Kejriwal, was forced to issue a statement they are not anti-Congress. Earlier, when cornered by thinking people on a television show, Kejriwal said that India’s much-admired parliamentary democracy is a fraud. Such increasingly shrill utterances suggest he is completely out of his depth on the national stage. His natural audiences are low-level bureaucrats and politicians in the central, state and local government.
Meanwhile the BJP’s jack-in-the-box leader L K Advani led a “rath yatra” against money in Swiss banks in a none-too-subtle bid to cash in on the Hazare’s teacup storm against corruption. He is of classic RSS vintage in that he believes no one remembers his other 1990 “Ram temple” effort that left thousands dead in communal riots. So where is the “glorious” temple he promised? He served as home minister and deputy prime minister for the six years the BJP-led coalition was in power. Advani’s confusion was complete when he went to Karachi and lauded Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a secular leader.
There are many ideological fig leafs that political formations wear in their relentless grasp for power: socialism, casteism, social justice, identity, chauvinism, Hinduism. Scratch the surface and it all turns out to be an anti-Congress position. As such, political analysis in India is best conducted on a dyadic presumption: there is the Congress and there is everyone else.
So let’s look at the Congress record. It has been the default option for the electorate. In the past quarter century, it suffered seminal defeats in the elections of 1989 and 1996. In each case, it was voted of out of power on allegations of corruption. Each time, a coalition of parties was hastily put together that stood for nothing except opposition to the Congress. In both those defeats, any objective analyst could conclude the Congress lost because its governments undertook significant reforms that hurt the status quo.
In 1989, an agglomeration of forces came together to restore the status quo of inequity and discrimination that Rajiv Gandhi had challenged. The motley crew of political parties that formed the Opposition put together a makeshift government that that did not last the full term; nor did they pursue the charges of corruption that brought them to power. In the ensuing decade, the BJP’s unbridled appeal to communalism brought it to power: first, for 13 days in 1996; then in two desperate coalitions in 1998 and 1999.
The saffron dispensation lasted until 2004 and was then showed the door because of its misplaced nationalism that saw India conduct nuclear tests that were replayed tit-for-tat by Pakistan and because of its insensitive “India Shining” hype.
Since then, Congress has held sway. The key difference is the Congress’ approach to social harmony and economic development: the phrase “inclusive development” was introduced to the political vocabulary. In the interim, India, warts and all, grew to be a big player in the global dialogue; most important, economic growth was accompanied by the largest-ever reduction in poverty. Today, thanks largely to the growth of the middle class, the Indian voice is heard in world forums.
Unmindful of these achievements, the anti-Congress brigade has spread several falsehoods: the Prime Minister is opposed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi; Manmohan Singh is weak; Sonia Gandhi is the real power.
The truth is different: both Singh and Gandhi are on the same page as they have always been. There has been in the history of the Congress no better combination. The one pushes reform in foreign and economic policy; the latter is the conscience to ensure there is a local sensitivity to these reforms. That is the operational definition of “inclusive growth.”
Ironic that the anti-Congress formations should denigrate Singh and Gandhi: Singh is a highly respected economist who forsook academic achievement to serve the country first as a bureaucrat, then as finance minister and Prime Minister; Gandhi who adopted this country as her home, foreswore the office of Prime Minister in 2004 and became the conscience of the government.
An edited copy of this article appeared in The Times of India on January 10, 2012.