Mainstream, VOL LII No 19; May 3, 2014
No Paradigm Shift in Sixteenth Lok Sabha Elections
Monday 5 May 2014
by Abhijit Ghosh
I intend to argue here that whichever political party or alliance comes to power in the sixteenth
Lok Sabha elections, there is no possibility of a paradigm shift in Indian politics. But the sixteenth Lok Sabha could be, as the present strength of small and regional political parties taken together indicates, the high time to shake the basic foundations of the political structure of India. As far as the understanding of the ongoing political process is concerned or the prediction of opinion polls suggest, no single party will be able to touch the magic figure of 272. Though all political parties, in trying to reach that figure, are manoeuvring strategy in the last lap.
However, politics being the ‘art of possibility’, many equations, as in the last two decades, will emerge in the post-poll scenario. But the issue of paradigm shift in Indian politics remains absent in the ongoing political debates. Political opportunism has been dominating ideology and issues. The ongoing debates make us believe that ideology has no place in politics; rather, all parties try to secure as many seats as possible for botstering their strength. There is no harm in enhancing one’s political strength through the political process. But there is an impasse in the political agenda. Indian politics does not lack in agenda, be it the question of FDI in retail trade, dynamics in foreign policy or the neoliberal economic agenda. The parties, cutting across all ideological foundations, largely fail to uphold their own agenda.
Coalition politics has become inevitable over the last three decades in Indian politics. But the gut of coalition has changed drastically over the years. In capturing the historical trend and pattern of coalition politics, the period could be divided into two parts: pre- and post-1991-92. The Congress-I faced the first major political blow since the first general elections in 1967, when it emerged a relatively weaker force at the Centre and in many States. After coming to power in the States, the anti-Congress parties, ranging from the Right to the Left, urged for a new approach to the political, administrative and economic aspects of Centre-State relations. However, in 1971, Indira Gandhi restored the power of the Congress party amidst colossal inner-party conflict and established her full command over the party. This resulted in the debate of a new approach to Centre-State relations being sidelined. The declaration of the Emergency in June 1975 brought the opportunity to the anti-Congress parties to move together for the restoration of democracy. The Indira Government tried to reduce the States’ autonomy by introducing several constitutional amend-ments. The movement against the Indira Government was so intense that it finally dislodged her from power.
The first non-Congress Prime Minister at the Centre took oath in 1977, marking a new turn in Indian politics. The Congress (Organisation), Jana Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal and Socialist Party, in spite of their ideological differences, merged into a new party—the Janata Party. The urge for greater autonomy to the States got a new fillip and this encompassed all the political parties. But in 1977 the parties forming the Janata Party Government were representing different class interests.
In 1980, Indira Gandhi again became the Prime Minister. But this time the question of restructuring Centre-State relations could not be avoided. This period witnessed a larger unity among the anti-Congress parties for greater autonomy of the States and restructuring Centre-State relations, for favourable fiscal devolution and greater autonomy for the State governments. This unity compelled Indira Gandhi to set up the Sarkaria Commission in 1983. The terms of reference of the Commission were to examine the relationship and balance of power between the States and Central Government and suggest changes within the framework of the Constitution.
Consequently, coalition politics before the 1991 period was centred on the restructuring of Centre-State relations and devolution of greater resources to the States. In the late eighties, two major phenomena propelled Indian politics. The first one was related to the Mandal Commission Report. The demand for the implementation of the report embroiled national politics leading to the formation of V.P. Singh-led National Front Government. The second phenomenon that heated national politics was the “Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid” debate. These two major issues could be marked as a paradigm shift in Indian politics.
With these two phenomena, the perspective of coalition politics entered a new era. The intro-duction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1991 added an economic dimension to anti-Congress politics. The debate reached a climax after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. The two incidents—implementation of the Mandal Report and demolition of the Babri mosque—changed the focus of the Indian polity. However, the outcome of the incidents might be best described as the result of two faces of the same coin. India’s official embarking on the neo-liberal regime also brought about a change in the political arena. On the one hand, regional parties were emerging with greater strength than before. On the other hand, the role of finance capital became so strong that it started dictating the political agenda. But, surprisingly, major political parties, including regional parties, failed to take note of the role of finance capital in politics in their agenda. Though the Left was organising some movements here and there haphazardly, these could hardly be called as organised ones. The Babri Masjid demolition clearly divided all the political parties into two camps—secular and non-secular. During the same period, the global political scenario went through historic changes. Communism in the Soviet Union and many East European countries collapsed. Global politics moved towards unipolarity, in favour of the USA. The economic philosophy underwent drastic changes. Nonthe-less, the principal debate was between the secular and non-secular camps.
At the same time, regional politics emerged as the main political force in most of the States. Now, provincial governments enjoy greater autonomy. The Central Government cannot impose Article 356 of the Constitution at its whim. On the contrary, opportunistic alliances have been able to capture power in the regions. The neo-liberal regime has helped a vibrant middle-class to emerge. Indian economy has received world attention for the growth it registered despite the series of meltdowns in the global economy. But simultaneously the present regime has accentuated poverty and inequality.
Apart from the role of finance capital, by accepting the neo-liberal framework without question as the only means of development Indian politics has bypassed a major issue. The present system has allowed monopoly capita-lism to puruse its goal of making profit without any restraint. Consequently, there is unprece-dented pressure on land, natural resources etc. in the name of growth and development. The recent large scale corruption of the ruling class may be termed as the outcome of pursuing the neo-liberal policy. In this political agenda the agony of the working class is totally ignored. On the other hand, the urban middle class is also in despair because of misgovernance and corruption. There is a growing mistrust in the traditional parties. This has led to the emergence, though very limited, of a new political force. The political parties failed to address the problems and aspirations of the people and supported the agenda of the ruling party. The principal contradiction of the Indian society has not been addressed properly. Even big political parties of both the Right and the Left, could not tackle the diverse issues at the State level. The 14th Finance Commission is working now. There is no evidence of any intention for greater devolution of resources from the divisible pool of the Centre to the States.
As a result, different alliances are emerging without programmatic unity. There is an increasing trend (or competition?) among the parties to let non-political personalities contest the elections. Thus the major political and economic questions remains unaddressed. Do the political parties wish to hide their weakness by fielding film stars? As the present election campaign clearly shows, candidates mostly address the three issues of ‘bijli, pani, sadak’. No differetiation is being made among separate elections, be they to the Vidhan Sabhas, Panchayats/minicipalities or Lok Sabha. How resources will be mobilised for ‘bijli, pani, sadak’ is unaddressed. And there is also little debate among the parties regarding foreign policy, economic policy or other agenda relevant in the Lok Sabha elections. Is it deliberate? Or can we say, they do not want to catch the issues? Electoral understandings lead to opportunistic alliances being set up to ensure greater electoral success and winning of more seats. Therefore, whichever Front comes to power, the 16th Lok Sabha elections are not going to transform the political system.
There is no question of a paradigm shift in Indian politics, at least in these general elections. It is the people, and only the people and their collective consciousness that can compel the political parties to change the direction of Indian politics. Are we, the people of India ready?
Dr Abhijit Ghosh is an Assistant Professor of Economics, A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna.