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In need of a party system

What India needs is a party system that goes beyond caste and religion, that focuses on performance, on ideas and on stability, writes Vir Sanghvi.
PTI | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON APR 07, 2004 05:04 PM IST

So, which side are you on at the General Election? Who will you be voting for? Which party will you support?

I'll tell you my own view: the general election will only be a success - no matter which party forms the next government - if the election is actually fought on ideas and issues, if a single party gets an overall majority and if the government that emerges  is stable and performance-focused.

My views are not new. I've held them for nearly 20 years now. In 1985, when Rajiv Gandhi won his historic mandate, an intellectual  journal asked me to write an assessment of the victory. I was then a Bombay journalist in my 20s, so I was somewhat startled to be taken so seriously by so high-brow a publication.

But I knew what I wanted to say. Throughout the 1980s, I had been perturbed by what I saw as the development of a parallel politics (just as we had a parallel economy). We had a functioning democracy, an impressive parliament and a full-fledged party system but increasingly, or so it seemed to me, a new kind of politics was taking place outside the formal structure. In Bombay alone you had the example of Dr Datta Samant, a trade union leader who had taken lakhs of workers away from the traditional party-affiliated unions. You had Bal Thackeray whose Shiv Sena (which was then still considered beyond the pale; nobody thought that it could ever form a government in Maharashtra) could shut Bombay down. Elsewhere in Maharashtra there was Sharad Joshi whose Shetkari Sanghatna had appealed to farmers over the heads of political parties.

In other parts of India, there was a tendency toward violent agitation. Punjab was in flames. The political system had failed completely to address the demands of the Sikhs. In Assam, students were agitating against foreigners.

Few of these movements, I believed, had the stamina to last very long so they were not, in themselves, necessarily significant. But they were symptoms of a deeper malaise.

My view was that more and more Indians believed that the political system, embodied by men like Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s, had failed to deliver. Oh yes, we had all the formal trappings of democracy but the system was simply not responding to the needs of people. Cynicism about politicians and their integrity was at an all-time high (or so I thought: it is actually much higher today). Because politicians were perceived as shysters, elections had actually become exercises in throwing out governments to punish them for their broken promises. (Later, this came to be called the anti-incumbency factor).

In the first half of the 1980s, this dissatisfaction with the  system had manifested itself as a parallel politics. But such was the nature of India that, in the long run, parallel politics could only go so far. Bal Thackeray could organise as many bandhs as he liked but whoever ruled Maharashtra would always have the upper hand. The Indian state would not allow any violent agitation to succeed so a combination of military might and political blandishments would eventually end the Punjab/Assam-type agitations. So parallel politics  would either enter the mainstream (as the AASU agitators and Bal Thackeray did) or it would die out.

But even if the parallel politics failed - and this, I said, would happen in the 1990s - the basic dissatisfaction with the system would remain.

History has demonstrated that when political systems based on ideas fail, then people go back to the loyalties that preceded the emergence of those systems.

In the Indian context this meant that if ideology was seen as having failed then people  would return to religion, caste, and ethnicity. To some extent, Punjab and Assam represented the beginning of that trend. But if it continued, I said, then we were in deep trouble.

One of the fundamental  achievements of our democracy was that India was moving towards a society where caste mattered less and less and where Hindus and Muslims could work together. If people returned to religious and caste loyalties then this trend would mimic the 1980s parallel politics. First there would be extra-parliamentary movements   based on religion and caste and then, these movements would move towards the political mainstream and hijack the parliamentary system. Ideology would count for less and less;  caste and religion would count for more and more.

The significance of the 1985 election was that the victory was founded on hope. This had not happened since 1971. In 1977, people had voted against the Emergency not for anything in particular. In 1980, the electorate had brought Mrs Gandhi back out of frustration. She represented the only alternative to the squabbling old men of Janata.

But in 1985, involvement with the political process was total. People actually dared to hope that electoral politics, based on ideology, could make a difference. There was an air of optimism, a willingness to suspend cynicism. It was, I suggested, the last chance for the party political  system envisioned by our founding fathers.

Therefore, I wrote, it was in everybody's interests to hope that the Rajiv Gandhi government  succeeded. It did not matter which side you were on. What mattered was that the system, as a whole, survived.

If the Rajiv experiment failed, I said, it would be the end of electoral politics as we knew it. No party would get an overall majority for years to come - public disillusionment would be so high. And as the government's failures became evident, people would return to religion and caste loyalties.

As a thesis it was - I can see in retrospect - against the intellectual orthodoxy of the time. Delhi's intellectual class does not like to be reminded of this now, but in the late 1970s and the 1980s, so visceral was its hatred of Indira Gandhi that it was unable to see any good in the Congress at all. Instead it patronised the  Janata-wallahs, a motley collection of caste leaders, Kulaks and wooly-minded socialists who had come together once to form the disastrous Janata party and still hoped to recapture power in Delhi. (In 1985, the BJP was not a major player).

Given all this, I should not have been too surprised when my piece was rejected. Of course, it was all very civilised. One of the editors wrote me a slightly patronising note to say that it had reached them too late (which it hadn't) but could not resist adding, "In any case, whatever your views on the Congress, we know that there can never be any social justice in India till the men responsible for the Delhi riots are arrested..."

Of course, I was as agitated about the Delhi riots as anybody else (just as I was later to be agitated about the massacre of kar sevaks in Godhra and the riots that followed) but it seemed to me that Delhi's intellectual class had missed the point.

Sure enough, throughout the Rajiv-era, the steady clatter of sneering abuse continued. Rajiv's men were 'baba-log', they were idiots who thought that computers were the answer, they were too  pro-American, they didn't realise that the real India lives in the villages and has no interest in the free-market etc etc.

And, what do you suppose happened?

Pretty much what I had feared. Rajiv's government failed for a variety of reasons (inexperience, sabotage from within, ineptitude etc) and caste-based, religion-based movements mushroomed. The most notable was, of course, Ayodhya. In 1985, only a handful of Hindus had even heard of the  Babri Majid. By 1989, it had become 'the most important spot in Hinduism'. But DS4 - a forerunner of the BSP - also emerged during this period. The Muslims began defecting to the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav.

The intellectuals, of course,  saw none of this. They cheered V.P. Singh on. Many accepted posts in his Planning Commission and few protested when Singh moved caste to the mainstream by implementing Mandal. The BJP responded with a rath yatra over Ayodhya. And Indian  politics was never the same again.

Since then, no party has  won a majority at a General Election. Politics is now all about religion and caste; unprincipled alliances are a pre-requisite to electoral success; and ideology has vanished from Indian politics.

This reality is slightly obscured by the nature of leadership. Because Sonia Gandhi leads the Congress we still perceive a  historical link to the Congress of yore. But try and think of the  anti-BJP forces without the cover of Sonia's Congress. Basically, you have the forces of ethnicity and caste fighting the forces of religion.

Similarly, Vajpayee's stature blinds us to the reality of the BJP. Take him out of the equation and what do you have: a party composed of people who condone mass murder, rewrite history books, seek political advice from sadhus and leave electoral strategy to tent-wallahs and fixers.

Which is why I don't think it is important to back any one side in this election. What India needs is a party system that goes beyond caste and religion, that   focuses on performance, on ideas and on stability.

Whoever forms the government, I don't think we'll get that at this election.  Regardless of who wins, India will lose.

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