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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 25

By-elections and Beyond

Saturday 9 June 2007, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Indira Gandhi certainly had good reasons to be satisfied, if not elated, with the results of the string of by-elections held this week.

Spread over several States, the contests for seven Lok Sabha and twentythree Assembly seats constitute a sort of mini-General Election. Judging by the scores, the commonly accepted adage that a party in power faces by-elections with a handicap—as these become the ventilator for popular grievances—seems to have been falsified for the Indira Congress at the national level and for the CPM at the West Bengal level.

By and large, these results were not unexpected. The conspicuous success of the Congress-I is to be ascribed to the discredit and devaluation of the so-called Opposition parties: even if they had the common sense not to oppose each other, there is no reason to believe that they could have given a better showing. The irrelevance of this motley, masquerading as Opposition, has obviously been accelerated in the last seventeen months since Indira Gandhi’s return to power in January 1980. The glib diagnosis of the Opposition’s progressive degeneration as being due mainly to clash of personalities within the menagerie, does not hold good: the real reason is that these parties claiming to be Opposition have nothing to offer that Indira Gandhi cannot, while the Janata experiment in power was such a miserable experience for the people that the voter is reluctant to gamble for the return of any assortment like the one provided by such redoubtable disreputables as Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram. Much in the same way, the lumpen Opposition in West Bengal knocked together against the Left Front Ministry could command neither respect nor confidence of the electorate, whatever might be the level of public grumbling over the sins of omission or commission committed by the State Government.

This eclipse of the Opposition is not a passing phenomenon. Rather it indicates a direction of development in the present-day Indian politics. Carrying their signboards, old and new, these may straggle along for some time longer, but the future of one and all of these outfits, outside the pale of the Congress-I and the Communists, is bleak.

No matter the heroics indulged in by them, they are in the main the doomed battalions of Indian politics. Perhaps the Bharatiya Janata Party, with a leadership determined to put on a new look, may prove to be the exception. That is because it represents a distinct ideology with a following of its own. Despite all the veneer of Gandhian semantics put on it by the BJP leadership, that ideology based on Hindu obscurantism can thrive only up to a point cashing in on the feudal relics in the fast-changing Indian scene. If the parties committed to modernism are true to their salt, Hindu revivalism cannot sustain a political party.

It is precisely on this score that the leadership of the Congress-I has to think seriously whether it is wise and wholesome for the nation’s good to indulge in short cuts like pampering to caste or communal propensities or resort to gimmicks like demonstrative deity-worshipping at temples galore. No doubt these may seem paying in electioneering seasons—otherwise there would have been no need for going in for them by the high and the low, as could be seen during the latest by-election campaign. If anything, such practices reinforce the raison d’etre of the ideological base of the BJP.

Indira Gandhi has also to realise that this electoral success provides no guarantee against the welling up of popular discontent in a manner that may be unnerving. Ten years ago, her spectacular election triumphs in 1971-72 made her and her party dizzy with success: but in three years she had to face the brunt of popular discontent so much so that this was made the plea for clamping down Emergency in 1975. It is risky to be dizzy with success over actual performance, but may be disastrous to be so over electoral success, because these enjoin promises to keep. In her first thanksgiving message after the sweeping by-election victories, she has claimed that the people have voted for the Congress-I “because of their faith in the principles and programmes of our party”. Faith in any programme wears out fast unless these are implemented or there is tangible evidence of serious endeavour to implement them. To say endlessly that inflation is a worldwide phenomenon and therefore the price rise cannot be halted does not answer why measures to discipline the economy, to tighten the belt of the affluent and provide relief to the distressed, have not been taken so far in right earnest. Under our mixed economy, the profligate at the top extracts concessions from the government while the have-not in the lower rungs has to face the squeeze all the time—either in the shape of fall in real wages or joining the lengthening line of the jobless.

By all indications, Indira Gandhi has opted for a foreign-policy strategy that demands hard decisions coupled with consummate skill at diplomacy. Her recent visit to the Gulf countries and the despatch of Foreign Minister Rao to Pakistan are meant to fetch dividends in the long run, though these may be dismissed by the superficial observer as of little consequence. The emergence of the new-style diplomacy which can take in its stride Pakistan and China, refusing to be overawed by the new bunch of bullies in Washington—this demands a stable rear, a reasonably responsive domestic front. No serious foreign policy can be sustained on the quick-sand of populist promises at home.

If Indira Gandhi has reasons to be uneasy while wearing the crown, the Left has to be all the more introspective about its achievements and responsibilities. The Socialists have had to bear the consequences of boarding such sinking ships as the Janata or the Lok Dal. The Communists have to measure hard about their prospects and perspective. It will be ridiculous if they are reconciled to electoral success in one or two States, however creditable these may be. Must they abandon the wider arena of national politics? To join hands with all and sundry in the name of fighting authoritarianism has proved to be short-sighted and counter-productive. If questioning voices are heard, they are as yet too feeble: courage demands of the Communists to speak out bold and clear; for, allies cannot be found in the company of the unscrupulous and the discredited just because these happen to be in the Opposition. Recent weeks have also witnessed the disturbing re-emergence of angry polemics between the two Communist establishments—a development which can only gladden the hearts of those pledged to fight them both.

Discarding outworn shibboleths, it is time for the Communists to re-assess the balance of forces on the national scene. This requires bold decisions, based on ruthless re-examination of current postulates. This need not be vulgarised into implying hanging on to Indira Gandhi’s sari in place of Charan Singh’s kurta: but it certainly demands the devising of ways and means by which millions upon millions who follow her are approached as friends and allies in the common task of building a new socio-economic set-up. It is for the Left to return to the mainstream of national endeavour instead of choosing to rot in the sullied backwaters of sectarian politics.

The opportunity is here and now; to miss it would only invite danger for the Left and disaster for the nation. It is time for the Left to wake up.

(Mainstream June 20, 1981)

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