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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 39, September 20, 2014

Blindman’s Buff

Monday 22 September 2014, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

While the national and international focus is naturally rivetted upon the uncertain future of the Charan Singh Government, the significant point is that every one of the major political groupings is also faced today with the prospect of serious instability and is not sure about the way it would go by the time Parliament reopens. This by itself is a measure of the dimension of the present political crisis.

The Janata Party has been trying hard to put on a brave face as the leading Opposition, ready to overturn the new government as soon as the Lok Sabha meets on August 20. Jagjivan Ram has never been so active in the last two years as he is today. From hot line to Indira Gandhi, to trunk call to Jyoti Basu—he is literally leaving no stone unturned in his final bid for Prime Ministership. There is a touch of pathos in his heroic efforts because he knows that he has reached the point of now-or-never in his life’s ambition to be the Prime Minister of India.

Many a commentator has been writing with supercilious disdain about Charan Singh’s hook-or-crook efforts, that have enabled him to become the Prime Minister. Jagjivan Ram’s record is no less painstaking on this count, and therefore any hitch will indeed be heart-rending at least to him personality. Jagjivan Babu’s therefore is a restless soul, despite the saturation point he has reached in terms of material benefits that he has been able to amass from over three decades of ministerial tenure, the longest record for any politician in India. Power itself has its own pull, and ultimate power pulls inexorably.

Even under such an astute leader, highly energised by the momentum of personal ambition, the Janata Party is faced with internal difficulties of no inconsiderable magnitude. Fro one thing, Morarji Desai, despite all the fanfare of political renunciation—will this help to defuse the attack on his son Kanti’s misdoings?—has in public statements not spared Jagjivan Ram as having contributed to the forcing of his retirement from Prime Ministership and later from the leadership of the Janata Party. Obviously this has not helped towards closing of the Janata ranks at the moment of the party’s displacement from power. It is noteworthy that in this desperate Janata drive to recapture power, prominent Congress-O members (the immediate followers of Morarji) are conspicuous by their apathy or inaction.

Chandra Shekhar seems to be working overtime to assure the public that all is lovely in the Janata garden. Few can believe him. Those who have been watching the rather extraordinary developments in the Jana Sangh over what has come to be known as the Vajpayee controversy cannot afford to underplay its importance. From his hospital bed, Vajpayee wrote off an article with the significant caption, “All responsible for Janata Crisis”. It ways held back for a week by a leading daily whose proprietor is known to be friendly to Nanaji Deshmukh. After recapitulating the usual Janata version of the crisis, Vajpayee came to the point of RSS responsibility: “... I must also add that the RSS, claiming to be a social and cultural organisation, should have taken greater pains to demonstrate that they did not seek a political role. Patronising a press that takes sides in the sordid politics of power, involvement in youth bodies that interact with political parties, participating in trade union rivalries such as the one which recently brought enormous misery to the people of Delhi by callously cutting off the water supply—these do not help an organisation to establish its apolitical credentials.” He also asked why the RSS did not opne its door to the non-Hindus and wanted a “clear enunciation by the RSS that by Hindu Rashtra it means the Indian nation which includes non-Hindus as equal members.”

While this self-critical approach had an immediate impact insofar as it has helped to demarcate the hard-core RSS from its fellow-travellers, there is little doubt that the RSS bosses like Nanaji Deshmukh have become sore with Vajpayee’s patently revisionist line by RSS standards. About the same time has come into circulation a published exposition of the RSS stand by one of the hard-liners, Dattopant Thengadi, General Secretary of the RSS-run trade union body, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh. George Fernandes, commenting on the Vajpayee stand as being “not enough in itself”, quoted a telling section from Thengadi’s thesis: “The ultimate vision of the Sangh is that both the Sangh and Hindu Nation should become identical, the entire Hindu society becoming an organised state of affairs and the Sangh merging itself into the society.” This authentic voice of unalloyed Hindu communalism makes its clear that with all the quibblings and sophistry of Janata leaders like Chandra Shekhar, there is no question of any revision of the RSS stand for the sake of obviating the hurdle over the so-called dual membership of the RSS and the Janata which is primarily responsible for the revolt that has led to the formation of the Janata-S.

The significance of Vajpayee’s stand lies in his realisation that the Indian polity can never be run by men with a narrow sectarian approach whether from the Right or the Left. The need for recognising the national ethos if one has to aspire to national leadership is understood by Vajpayee in contrast to the narrow-groove approach of his RSS comrades, whose activities, according to him, are such that they “cannot mobilise support from a country like India where there is so much diversity of religion, language, caste, etc.”, despite their well-knit organisation of dedicated cadres.

With such questionings initiated by the foremost salesman of the Jana Sangh within the Janata, it would be idle to think that the Janata Party today is a cohesive entity. Whether it can mobilise votes in the Lok Sabha is another question, but to think of the Janata Party under Chandra Shekhar as a viable political organisation is bound to lead to miscalculation. So far as Jagjivan Ram is concerned, his loyalty to the Janata cannot be stretched beyond his ambition to be the Prime Minister.

Is the combination behind Charan Singh in better shape? The fact that it broke away from its parent body on a common issue, at least on the formal plane—whatever might have been the personal motivation of Charan Singh himself—has given it some semblance of a common approach, namely, bitter antipathy towards the Jana Sangh-RSS. There is little scope for it or its ally, the Bahuguna group, to compromise or prevaricate on this issue at the moment. Among the Socialists, Madhu Limaye, from the very inception of the Janata Party, was demanding the dissolution of the RSS. George Fernandes’ latest indictment of the RSS ends up with the warning that “the parting of ways is final and irrevocable” under the present circumstances. The sharpening of these diferences on the isssue of the RSS is expected to draw in quite a few of the Socialists and the Congress-O to the anti-RSS grouping now represented by the new alliance of the Janata-S and the Congress, though it would be premature at this point of time to say that these vacillating Socialists would all vote in favour of the Charan Government in the coming confidence debate in the Lok Sabha.

The weakness of the new alliance however lies in the perceptible disarray in the Congress ranks. On two counts, the Congress leadership has been under fire from its own ranks: first, that the list of Congress Ministers was drawn up without referring to the party members in Parliament; and secondly, the obvious depen-dence of the new government on the Indira Congress support, and its consequential implications for the future. Although the names in the Congress list of Ministers belied the Janata canard that it had to be vetted by Indira Gandhi, the grievance of the Congress ranks is of two types. Some are sore over being left out of the spoils of office, and so they are drifting away towards the Indira camp. Their number is small as compard to the other group which resents the very idea of dependence on Indira Gandhi’s support. How strong are the rumblings it is yet too early to gauge, but one can neither overlook nor minimise the extent of this tension, in which some of the old hands like D.K. Barooah reportedly figure. This disunity in the Congress ranks has indeed added to Charan Singh’s worries.

Besides, the new alliance has yet to unify its own stand on such burning issues as bonus for railwaymen, not to speak of the need to thrash out a common economic programme or, more specifically, the mechanism of price control, so urgently needed for the very survival of the Charan Government. The successful handling of the threatened strike of the Reserve Bank employees, the promise of price lowering of pharmaceuticals, priority for coal production and transport, the initial steps towards gearing up the railways left in a mess by the Janata Government, the move to lift the ban on the history textbooks blacklisted at the RSS’ behest, the overhauling of the CRP command and the announcement that the Centre would ask the States to ban RSS drills at public places—these provide the contours of the Charan Govern-ment’s policy projections, though there is an admittedly cynical disbelief in whatever politicians of different denominations say, and even good measures are with good reason regarded as merely a vote-catching device, now fast getting worn out.

In the changed context of political destabi-lisation, the importance of being Indira Gandhi is naturally the talk of the town. Charan Singh, up till now, has to depend on the voting support of the Indira Congress, to keep himself in power. Equally understandably Jagjivan Ram is badly in need of the support of her 71 members in the Lok Sabha to get into power. Nothing could have been more favourable for Indira Gandhi if one goes by the game of numbers alone. But politics—even in New Delhi—is something more than a mere game of numbers.

Indira Gandhi’s problem with regard to Charan Singh is that she could not make his outfit as subervient as she and a number of her more aggressive supporters would like to make it. For one thing, in the matter of choice of Congress members of the Charan Cabinet, there is no reason for her to feel happy. Secondly, the appointment of the new Law Minister, Kacker, after the resignation of Khanna, and particularly his pronouncements since assuming office, would naturally disturb her as the Special Courts set up for Emergency excesses do not seem to be negotiable—at least till now. Raj Narain’s bluff sometimes becomes inscrutable even for Indira Gandhi.

At the same time what option has Indira Gandhi but to support the Charan Government? If this government falls by her party remaining neutral in the crucial confidence-vote in the Lok
Sabha less than two weeks from now, would the situation be favourable for Indira Gandhi? Jagjivan Ram can make any amount of promises but she knows he can break them with equal felicity or just forget them as he has often done with his income-tax returns. Besides, Jagjivan Ram is not the master in the Janata house. The truncated Janata of today is more under Jana Sangh domination than the original one which Indira Gandhi used to attack as virtually a Jana Sangh circus. With her claim to be a crusader against the Jana Sangh-RSS, her support for Jagjivan Ram or neutrality in his tussle with Charan Singh is bound to erode her credibility in the eyes of the public. Not that Indira Gandhi is in principle averse to supporting a Jana Sangh-infested Ministry as the performance of her party in the Bihar Assembly has amply brought out. But to do it at the Central level may be too hazardous for her.

The dilemma before Indira Gandhi is that while her public image will be tarnished if she supported the Janata in this crucial tug of war, she realises that the continuation of the Charan Government would help to consolidate the Congress position, particularly those in it who are her proclaimed adversaries. The coming Banglore meet for Congress unity is a move, in her calculation, to isolate her, and her Man Friday, Antulay, has reacted along expected lines against the move.

Many tend to believe that Indira Gandhi is keen on a mid-term poll while other parties are not. By superficial calculation she is supposed to gain out of a mid-term poll more than the others. A closer examination of the issue will show that Indira Gandhi is as uncertain of the outcome of any election today as anybody else.

Because, whichever party goes to election today with the expectation of getting into the power-structure, will have to form alliance with some other party or grouping of comparable strength. The days of one-party hegemony are over, and Indira Gandhi knows this as much as Chandra Shekhar or Charan Singh. The problem for her in the event of an immediate mid-term poll would therefore be: with whom to join hands—with Jagjivan Ram or Charan Singh, the Jana Sangh or the Congress? She knows that the choice is as difficult for her, if not more, as for the other parties in the field. Some of these would prefer to treat her as an outcast at the time of the elections, no matter what they may do in the Lok Sabha lobby.

Leaving aside the unmanageable disturbances that may break out during any election cam-paign today, all the three major groupings—the Janata, the Charan-Congress alliance and the Indira Congress—would find it difficult to work out their election strategies. Circumstances may force them into a mid-term poll; on their own they would prefer to stave it off as long as they can.

The situation today presents the classic example of a political checkmate, with every party playing blind-man’s buff—oblivious to the grim economic realities and thereby fast losing credibility to the point of irrelevance.

What next? 

(Mainstream, August 11, 1979)