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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 20, May 10, 2014

Suggestions to the Victor of General Elections - 2014

Monday 12 May 2014, by Pritish Acharya

The ensuing general elections (GE) have witnessed the participation of a large number of parties and political outfits, with many significant and important players in the fray. However, the central players remain the Congress and BJP. Whatever may be the election results, the government cannot be formed without the direct and active involve-ment of either of these two parties. The Congress has remained in power for most of the length of India’s independence, and whenever it has not, the BJP (with its previous version the Bharatiya Jana Sangh) has filled in the gap. This suggests that despite the provision of a multi-party system in our democracy, by and large, informally and effectively, the system has turned into and has remained a two-party system at the Central level.

India is a country of varieties, sometimes appearing to be a land of paradoxes. On the one hand, either of these two main parties becomes indispensible for the formation of the govern-ment at the Centre, and on the other hand, there are many significant and large States where the presence of either the Congress or BJP is almost nil. In such States, like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, governments are formed without the active involvement of both these parties. Moreover, in most such States, even the seat of the principal Opposition is not occupied by any of these two parties, either in the Assemblies or in public view. Both the Congress and BJP seem to be at the mercy of the regional political parties to win a few seats in these States.

As we all know, one of the basic differences between the Congress and BJP is that while the latter is a Right-aligned party, the former is a Centrist party combining the traits of many political strands. In order to have a clearer idea about what these Rightists and Centrists are, we need to bring the Leftists into the discussion. In common parlance, the Communists and Socialists, with their various radical and milder variants, are known as Leftist parties. The Leftists advocate radical social transformation; champion the cause of the downtrodden; want to give power to the representatives of the general masses, sometimes even by the use of force. On the other hand, the Rightists are for maintaining the status quo in society; want to preserve the old in the name of tradition; take the side of the dominant upper class, for they believe that this class could alone lead society and usher in progress. The irony is that even the Rightists, like the Leftists, claim to be the champions of lower and deprived classes, for openly opposing these classes in popular politics would be tantamount to political oblivion and self-annihilation. The Centrists have a very different plank. They follow the middle path, by appropriating certain tenets of both the Leftists and Rightists. They are for social change, but not for radical and quick change. They respect the traditions, but would prefer to desert a few, if they are not time-tested or have proven to be irrelevant with the passage of time. They want to accommodate both the upper and lower classes in them. Their position has some ‘positives’ and some ‘negatives’ to both the Leftists as well as Rightists in the country. Apparently, being Centrist is an opportunistic position, which tends to appease all. However, it is a pragmatic and time-tested position, which works successfully and yields handsomely. This can well be seen in a country like India, which is a land of ample varieties and plentiful variations in terms of its diverse religions, varied cultures, multiple languages and colourful geographical features.

In national politics all these strands have their own relevance. They work as necessary checks and balances to one another, which is absolutely good for the well-being of any democracy. Unfortunately today when the GE-2014 are being hotly deliberated and discussed, the Leftists have failed to be a force to reckon with. In the 1970s the Socialists had been eclipsed from the political scene, and now the Communists are fast fading out being on a downward drift, a fact which their staunchest advocates will also not refute. Hence, only the Rightist BJP and Centrist Congress get the status of ‘main parties’ and win attention in the media and in all other forums of public discussion.

In Indian politics, the ideologies of the main political parties seem to be intrinsic to the time of their birth. The Congress was founded in 1885 at the early nationalist phase of the freedom struggle. The BJS (the forerunner of the BJP) was formed in 1951 and is younger to the Congress by about seven decades. When the Congress was born, the need was to organise a movement against a perceived bigger evil, that is, British imperialism. This could have been done only by taking together all the native classes and political strands of the land. There were differences within, but highlighting them would weaken the main movement against imperialism, the then leaders felt. The Communists, who had formally started their party as early as in 1925, and the Socialists, who had formed their party in 1934, resolved to pressurise the nationalist movement and its main carrier, the Congress, to go in a Leftist direction without diluting the main struggle of nationalism. Then they were radical Congressmen, though some intellectuals may disagree today. Hence, they remained within the Congress most of the time till the end of the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle. Many Rightists also accepted the Centrist Congress’ leadership, especially during the phases of mass upsurge, lest the main goal, that is, the attainment of independence, would be delayed. The Congress, on the other hand, carried the responsibility of taking all and worked as an umbrella organisation of all political strands. Had the Congress not realised this responsibility and had the other political groups not accorded primacy to national liberation, then probably the leadership in the nationalist struggle would not have been in the hands of the Congress and, in the absence of a Centrist organisation, the achievement of independence would have been delayed further.

After independence, the formation of political parties with distinct Leftist or Rightist ideologies for opposing the Congress and for leading the country was a necessity for our democracy. Otherwise, there was a major possibility that the Congress would have grown unbridled and undemocratic. The Jana Sangh, the earlier version of the BJP, and the Swatantra Party emerged as the Rightists on the scene. The Socialists and Communists, who had worked as Left pressure groups within the nationalist stream until then, also developed into distinctly non-Congress and, sometimes, anti-Congress parties. In 1977, barring the Communists, they all merged to fight the Congress, which had grown autocratic then. The Communists overtly allied with this anti-Congress political formation. In the process what emerged was a Centrist and inclusivist party, on the lines of the pre-1947 Congress, with the name of the Janata Party.

The success of the Congress as the party in power and the victory of the Janata Party over the Congress in 1977 show that only a Centrist and inclusivist political formation can be accepted for leading the country. Others tend to get alienated to be pushed to the fringe, with specific, sometimes niche, roles. The long history of India, in the forms of Maurya emperor Ashoka and Mughal badshah Akbar are the best examples denoting a Centrist formation and an inclusivist position being more success-ful. It is so largely because of the diversities in all spheres of life and society, which outwardly look like paradoxes, but prove to be the real strengths of the land. Caring and nurturing these diversities is intrinsic to a Centrist political formation. The fact that despite some palpable hiccups, the Congress has been victorious more times in electoral politics is mostly because of its Centrist approach, and not due to any magic wand or any family blessings. In other words, any political party that plans to dislodge the Congress from its present position has to integrate this Centrist and inclusivist approach in its belief system. Otherwise, occupying the seat of power at the Centre because of certain specific incidents and reasons, is likely to be a short and brief interlude.

In the past, the BJP has been in power at the Centre between 1998 to 2004. As a component of the Janata umbrella, it was in the Central Government between 1977 and 1979. On both the occasions it had shown the tendency of becoming a Centrist and amalgamating party. In 1977 it had merged with other parties, whereas during 1998-2004 it had formed the NDA along with about two dozen national and regional parties. However, the irony of the BJP is that when it is out of power it tends to be inclusivist and Centrist, but when it occupies power, it raucously tries to further its Rightist ideology. Such virulence paves the way for it to be driven out of power and in sending it to the fringe. Instead of learning lessons from tradition and history, it tries to change the history, sometimes even resorting to changing history books!

The results of the GE-2014 may not be satisfying to the Congress; it may be seemingly good for the BJP. This needs to be taken in stride in conformity with the democratic virtues of the land. After all, either of the two main parties has to be in the driver’s seat. The ousting of the Congress, as predicted and analysed by many, should bolster the traditions of democracy. The Congress should not be continuously in the driver’s seat at the Centre. However, this should also be a lesson for the BJP which seems to be too much in a hurry to dislodge the Congress from power.

Coming to power is not a guarantee for its sustenance in power. It has to become a truly Centrist, federalist and inclusivist party and it should become a ‘caretaker’ of all faiths and cultures. Further, the party should realise that any one-man leadership, which may seem somewhat dictatorial, resorting to discounted rhetoric, is distasteful to the party which nurtures the ambitions of occupying the seat of power for a longer duration. Otherwise, the much aspired electoral victory, if it at all comes, will be transient and ephemeral, as has been seen many a time in the past.

Pritish Acharya is a Professor of History in the Regional Institute of Education, Bhubaneswar. He writes short stories and essays in Odia. His short stories have been translated into Hindi and published in journals such as Vagarth, Samakalin Bharatiya Sahitya, Kathadesh, Naya Gyanodaya, Janasatta, etc. He has edited Selected Writings of Madhusudan Das for NBT, India. His book, National Movement and Politics in Orissa: 1920-29, has been published under the Studies in Modern Indian History of SAGE India in 2008. He can be reached at pritishacharya0123@yahoo.co.in