Sunday, December 13, 2009

Muscular Instability

Byline by M J Akbar: Muscular Instability

Can a stable government be a weak government? Yes. There is no compulsory correlation. Strength comes from concern, purpose and commitment, while fragility is the first manifestation of complacence — and sometimes the popular mood kicks in, turning the first into the second. Defeat in the China war punctured the strongest government we have had, Jawaharlal Nehru’s.

Mrs Indira Gandhi’s tenure can be divided into three phases: January 1966 to the 1971 general elections; then up to the Emergency and the elections of 1977; and the final, tragic term between January 1980 and October 1984. She inherited a government with the lowest ever majority, and then proceeded to turn it into a minority by splitting the Congress. Bangladesh apart, the most decisive period was when she was in a minority. She reshaped the domestic agenda, breaking almost as many moulds as had been nurtured in the previous two decades. Ironically, it was when she became a near demi-god, after Bangladesh in December 1971, that she lost control of the tides of public opinion. By 1973 India was in ferment; by 1974, in revolt.

Opposition parties have rarely been the principal architects of challenge to government, even if they do end up the principal beneficiaries. In 1972, the Left was defeated and sulking in Bengal; the Socialists were bickering and split [that has not changed] and the Jan Sangh was a flickering lamp in pockets of Hindu-Muslim antagonism without much oil. Mrs Gandhi returned to power in January 1980 with an astonishing majority, but her government never got into second gear and finally stalled over Punjab and Assam. In this phase too, the traditional Opposition parties had little to do with the establishment’s disarray. Rajiv Gandhi led the most powerful majority in Parliament’s history but in three years his government was defensive, and by the fourth year, immobile. Each time, the people mobilized, in one way or the other, while the regular Opposition leaders spent time in self-important confabulations.

Narasimha Rao, in contrast, never had a majority, even after he purchased one. He stumbled from crisis to calamity, propelled largely by cynicism. But despite instability in both Parliament as well as on the street, he managed to navigate economic reforms through turbulence, leaving an important legacy.

An election victory does not necessarily breed complacency in the sinews of authority, but re-election almost certainly does. The high-five of a renewed mandate persuades politicians to believe that they are sitting on a peak from which they cannot be moved for twenty years. I have no idea why they believe they have been given twenty years of eternity; maybe the human imagination, restricted by the limitations of lifespans, cannot be self-delusional beyond that. But the moment you step into that self-satisfied zone, your descent begins.

The Andhra crisis is a self-inflicted wound. When Telangana leader K. Chandrashekhar Rao began his fast unto death, or at least unto partition, he was treated with such supreme indifference that no minister in Delhi even bothered to treat it as a problem. The earth was warming in Hyderabad, but the statements and newspaper headlines were only about climate change in Copenhagen. Rao was dismissed as an irritant without a cause. After all, the Congress had just triumphed for a second time in the state. I suspect that the complete disconnect with Delhi multiplied the anger and brought Osmania University’s students out. Youth provide critical mass to any momentum and, as we have seen in the past, there is enough volatility in the state to induce the ultimate sacrifice of suicide. Rao himself could no more have ended his fast than he could have abandoned his dream of a separate state; it would have been political suicide. Those with a memory know that the Telugu speaking areas of Madras Presidency were merged into the Nizam’s Telugu domain as a result of a fast, by a Gandhian called Potti Sriramulu. Nehru allowed him to die, by 15 December; but even the enormous credibility of Nehru and Congress in 1953 could not stop the realisation of the demand. Sriramulu achieved in death what he could not in life, and forced Nehru to accept the principle of linguistic states. Rao has achieved what he may never have obtained without a Russian roulette gamble. The Congress of 2009 had neither the wisdom to negotiate on the first day of the fast, nor the strength to let the fast continue. The high command succumbed with startling speed, signalling to Gorkhaland, Vidarbha, Harit Pradesh and Bundelkhand that if they keep their eyes open and focused the government will blink.

Is this the point at which the Manmohan Singh government begins to bleed from an Achilles heel? Much depends on how well the Prime Minister and Mrs Sonia Gandhi bandage the breach, but the Andhra story is going to be in play for a while and will expose the contradictions inherent in a unitary national party that was unable to manage an epochal change. If the Andhra Congress bleeds from a local civil war the stain will spread.

Tension is good for governance; taut nerves keep your body on its toes, and the mind alert. After this year’s general election, the tension fizzled out from government, and rushed directly into the Opposition. Tension, by the way, is not good for Opposition, as is pretty obvious, isn’t it? If the government does not recover its balance we could have a very curious dilemma: authority is in disarray, and the Opposition spread-eagled. But the Indian people will be in array.

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