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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 24, June 7, 2014

Mandate and After

Monday 9 June 2014, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Nineteen-Eightyfive has begun in this country with a New Look government formed after a phenomenal victory of the Congress under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi. With the unprecedented Congress score of 400 seats in the Lok Sabha, the Rajiv Government commands a majority which never came to the lot of any previous Prime Minister, not even of his illustrious grandfather, while the votes secured this time by the Congress-I crossing the majority of total votes polled, is also unsurpassed. No government since Independence enjoyed the support from so many in the electorate.

How did this happen, this unexpected turn-out in favour of a party which was left without an ally, assailed by all the Opposition parties, and not having at its command the monolith of an organisation? At the same time there is no denying the fact that a tremendous voter support has swept it into power, while the Opposition is virtaully buried under the avalanche. Many theories are current about this amazing outcome of the Lok Sabha poll, and among them two are hot favourites. First, that it is a “sympathy vote” that has come in abundance to the Congress-I, and the other is that a “Hindu backlash” accounts for its success. As half-truths both are misleading.

What is meant by sympathy vote? To say that millions voted for Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress out of compassion for him just because his famous mother was cruelly done to death would be doing an injustice to the voter’s political response, that his vote was only the manife-station of sympathy. The fact of the matter is that Indira Gandhi for the last two years was repeatedly warning the nation about the threat to the country’s security and the danger of destabilisation—warnings which were pooh-poohed by all the Opposition parties as her scare stunt to dragoon the electorate to vote for her party. And so when she herself was gunned down by her own security guards, the public was shocked into the realisation that what she had been all along warning the country about was very true, that the country was well and truly facing danger from both within and without.

What stirred millions all over the country is the concern that the country itself is in danger—a concern which over-rides every other consideration before a nation which has always been swayed by the memory of how it had won its hard-earned independence from the biggest imperial power of the day. It is this undying memory of the freedom struggle that has manifested itself in an upsurge of national unity over and over again—in 1962, 1965, 1971—that is, every time the country had to face a threat to its security.

Granted that the electorate was made conscious of the threats facing the nation by Indira Gandhi’s tireless warnings and her ultimate death, why was it that more votes poured on the side of the Congress and not of any other party? After all, no party in India has claimed to be a Quisling. Here lies the shrewed political sense of the Indian voter. The over-whelming majority of them could not possibly rely on any other party to provide the government that could defend the country from external and internal threats. Even if all the Opposition parties had united, the nightmare of dissensions under the Janata Raj (1977-1979) would have held back the voter, while actually there was no unity whatsoever among the Opposition parties to assure him of a viable regime that could ward off the enemy threate-ning the nation’s security and integrity. In the perception of the Indian voter, the military dictatorship in Pakistan, overarmed by US bounty, is the main threat to India’s security, while the backing that this dictatorship has provided for the Khalistani secessionists has doubly confirmed the danger from that quarter. Against this background, the record of some of the stalwarts of the Opposition could not possibly have enthused the electorate about their political will to defend the country—especially when they have unashamedly given good conduct testimonials to General Ziaul Haq, riding roughshod over the mood in the country.

And added factor in this situation that helped the majority of the voters to make up their mind was what happened immediately in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Most of the Opposition leaders even after condemning her brutal killing, did not care to unmask the ramifications of Khalistani infiltration into the Indian situation nor did they bother to warn of the immediate danger that the removal of the leader of a one-pillar government posed for the country’s security. There was no rallying point left for the country except the Congress-I and the quiet firmness displayed by Rajiv Gandhi during the critical days following Indira Gandhi’s sudden disappearance from the scene, enabled him to win the confidence of vast sections of the populace—a position which leaders of many other parties could have shared with him had they displayed the sagacity to mobilise all patriotic froces at that moment of grave threat to the nation.

From all this it is not difficult to understand how superficial is the view that the Rajiv Congress has been the lucky recipient of the so-called Hindu backlash. Obviously in any national mobilisation, the Hindus being the majority community are the dominant compo-nent of it. At the same time, one must not underplay the patriotic concern for the nation’s security and integrity among large sections of the minority non-Hindu population. A critical analysis of voting will bear this out, insofar as the Congress-I vote pile included significant contributions from minority groups particularly the Muslims. To call it a Hindu mandate, as the RSS organ has claimed, is to cast aspersions on the Muslim community. Moreover, the record of BJP luminaries from Vajpayee downward, shows their bias for General Ziaul Haq and their persistent maligning of Indira Gandhi as a warmonger. Since these leaders have staked their exclusive claim to represent the Hindu political ethos, it is obvious that the poll verdict in favour of the Congress-I can hardly be construed as a Hindu mandate. If anything, the massive support that the Congress under Rajiv has received from the electorate is undoubtedly a vote for keeping India together, a vote for its defence and integrity—and not the vote for one community against another, which in fact would have meant a vote for the disintegration of the country.

There are however pockets where the tidal wave of support for the Congress-I could not submerge islands of Opposition success. Of these, three are conspicuous. In the east, the CPM stronghold of West Bengal and Tripura did not collapse, though it was badly battered. Particularly noteworthy is the serious inroad made by the Congress-I in West Bengal where its success in winning Lok Sabha seats almost equalled that of the CPM. This brings out an old and tested political dictum—that organisation is not the decisive factor if the policy approach is wrong. The myth of invincibility of the CPM organisation in West Bengal has been broken largely because of the party’s distorted under-standing of natioal realities—a shortcoming which has cost it very heavily in its other bases in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.

In Andhra Pradesh, the success of N.T. Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam has throughout been largely the result of the internal factional squabblings of the Pradesh Congress compounded by smart but short-sighted operators from the Centre. If NTR’s charisma was waning after a year of his striking victory in the Assembly poll, it got a new lease of life when he was arbitrarily removed by Governor Ram Lal at the instance of manipulators in New Delhi, and then had to be subsequntly restored to office because of the nationwide hue and cry. It was the after-glow of this mini-martyrdom that has enabled NTR this time to send 28 Telugu Desam members to the Lok Sabha, while the Congress score remained at a paltry six.

Similarly, the Governor’s intervention in J&K was the result of pressures brought to bear upon the Governor through the manipulation of some local Congress bosses in league with a clique at the Centre unseating Farooq Abdullah but could not cut into his popularity as he could bag all the three Lok Sabha seats in the Valley. In other words, the Lok Sabha results have amply confirmed that the electorate has been vigilant and did not spare the Congress-I wherever arbitrary action offended democratic norms.

With the massive parliamentary support behind him, Rajiv Gandhi formed his Cabinet on the New Year’s eve in the midst of the celebrations of his party’s memorable electoral triumph.

It is a Cabinet composed of the old and the new, but having the stamp of a compact team. Some of the old hands were mercifully expelled by the electorate, while Rajiv himself did not hesitate to do a bit of surgery shocking some of those who thought their own position secure. If the poll verdict helped to outst Vijayabhaskar Reddy and Shive Shankar, Rajiv on his own removed no less than four prominent members, Jagannath Kaushal, N.K.P. Salve, Pranab Mulherjee and Ghani Khan Chaudhary. While Kaushal talked his way out by pledging to fight for Chandigarh’s separate identity, the black-mark for Salve seems to have been provided by his unsavoury links with the business world. The double purge of Bengal’s paper tigers could hardly be unexpected, though many would wonder where lay the prime folly of Pranab Mukherjee—over-accommodating non-resident investors, or his ambitions of becoming the interim Prime Minister, or his anxiety to collect veterans within the party to counterbalance the young in power, or his role in keeping out Siddhartha Shankar Ray when the Prime Minister was keen on getting him. Ghani Khan’s removal will of course be welcome beyond the Railway Board as he had come to be regarded as a bit of a goonda in poliitcs. On the other hand, the elevation of Vishwanath Pratap Singh as the Finance Minister and Narasimha Rao as the Defence Minister would be regarded as the right choice, while Mohsina Kidwai’s conti-nuation in the Cabinet has been widely appreciated. The Prime Minister’s action in removing Sheila Kaul and replacing her by K.C. Pant as the Education Minister underlines his anxiety to take bold steps in the sphere of education as part of nation-building. The appointment of Vithal Gadgil as the new Minister of Information and Broadcasting has been the right choice long overdue. The induction of two distinguished Foreign Service men—K.R. Narayanan and Natwar Singh—had been expected, though the allocation of their portfolios Planning for the former and Steel for the latter—baffles logic. One also wonders why Janardhan Poojari has been attached to the Finance Ministry after the mess-up he has made of the nationalised banks. It is obvious that very soon a few more will be made Ministers to man at least the important portfolios of Commerce and Industry.

The appointment of Arun Nehru as the Minister of State for Power under Cabinet Minister Shankaranand, has caused surprise to those who had a larger-than-life view of him. For no fault of his own, he came to be regarded, perhaps mistakenly, as the power behind the throne, and Rajiv Gandhi has done the right thing in removing that misconception. In other words, all indications—including R.K. Dhawan’s departure from the Prime Minister’s entourage—point to Rajiv Gandhi emerging as his own master, with a mind of his own.

At the same time, one has to guard against the danger of being dizzy with success. The sweeping electoral success has to be taken as the measure of expectations that the public has come to entertain from the Rajiv Government. While the vote was primarily for the defence and stability of the country, the expectations are going to be far-flung. The temptation to do something new and dramatic is inescapable. If populist measures are not in the offing, there may be other drastic steps to deal with red tape. But in a situation of great expectations, a cautious approach—however undramatic it may sound—is bound to pay.

In the last ten years what has happended is that the proper rapport between the political leadership of the government and the responsible officialdom has been damaged, and as a result, the bureaucracy has been corroded and personal loyalty has replaced integrity and commitment. To rehabilitate the bureaucracy is very much as urgent need particularly in the governance of a great country like ours beset with complex problems.

Obviously, the popular expectation from the Rajiv Government will be in the direction of measures that will uplift the life and living of the downtrodden. But the economic scene already betrays the onset of difficult days ahead, in which no soft options are open—shall we have inflation or cut in development programme or go for a determined drive to raise resources? A massive electoral mandate can be gainfully used by the Prime Minister to impose drastic measures in national interest, but the imperatives of impending elections for State Assemblies by spring may come in the way.

Meanwhile if the new government drifts without direction the spell will wear out and a Prime Minister, impatient of doing something striking, may easily be led up the garden path by any civil service that professes johukum loyalty. The awesome responsibilities that lie on Rajiv Gandhi’s shoulders need to be understood by him and all his countrymen as he leads the nation into a year of fearsome prospects. Premonitions about tomorrow need to be deciphered along with the accolades that have already been earned.

The youngest Prime Minister of India faces the most formidable challenges—both at home and abroad.

(Mainstream, January 3, 1985)