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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 6, January 31, 2015 - Republic Day Special

The Great Suicide

Saturday 31 January 2015

The following article was published precisely twentyfive years ago in the Mainstream Republic Day Special (January 27, 1990) after the Congress’ defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha poll and created a stir in political circles. It is being reproduced in full now when the Congress is facing a much deeper crisis in the wake of its rout in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

by Congressman

The dust of the Lok Sabha election is settling down.... Well, not quite, because the Assembly elections several States to be held shortly will be the final act after which the country will hopefully settle down to the performance of a term—full or less than full, as the case may be.

It is, therefore, a bit premature to embark on a comprehensive forecast of the political situation—as to which way the camel will sit, as they say. But surely a recapitulation of what happened—or might have happened, in the last five years is possible; it has a clear bearing on the future course of events. Hence this article, tentative though to some extent.

Indiraji’s re-accession to power and her assassination were the two most important events in the 1984-89 term. This tragedy, however, turned a rather bleak—at the most a narrow—electoral prospect into an unprece-dented landslide for the Congress. Everyone here and abroad knew that the essential element in the 1984 Lok Sabha poll was the “sympathy wave“. The sympathy in this wave was two-fold: first, for Rajiv Gandhi; and second, for the Congress Party. Both these sympathies would have been absent had Indira Gandhi been alive and at the helm at election time. The unity and integrity of the country also seemed to be in some kind of jeopardy after the assassination: had Indiraji been alive, this element too would not have been there. And finally, a tally of 415 seats in the Lok Sabha was obviously too high to be taken as realistic, natural or genuine—for the Congress, or any political party for that matter in Indian politics at any time. In any event, no one in the Congress in his sanity could have claimed that the party’s achievements in the term 1980-84 merited any such runaway victory. Indira Gandhi thus served the Congress in death as much as she did in her lifetime. Indeed more, according to some.

Naturally, therefore, when victory came, no one quite knew what it signified and what to do with it. Most of all, Rajiv Gandhi became a victim of this new bonanza. The intoxication was too high. From that dizzy height, his view of the political terra firma consequently got blurred. Moreover—and this was rather unfortunate— the sudden emergence of a 415-strong leader and Prime Minister definitely trepidated senior Congressmen and advisers. If Rajiv Gandhi got an exaggerated notion of his own prowess, the advisers were also similarly influenced and tended to accept the same notion about him. So what he thought, they thought too. His disproportionate pre-eminence was assumed on his side, acknowledged on theirs... The dual absurdity was complete.

It was at the time—very soon after the election—that the first seeds of the downfall were sown in the ground. Pranab Mukherji’s jettisoning some time later provided the necessary deterrence to others who could have spoken out... Thereafter Rajiv Gandhi was right— right all the way, whatever he said or did. So there were no limits any more to what he said of did... What he heard day in and day out from his young coterie was nothing but fulsome praise. He became a praise addict. The elders either joined the chorus or just looked on, not knowing what to do.

The earliest blunder Rajiv committed soon after he became the Prime Minister was to insist on becoming the Congress President also. He failed to recognise that while he could be accepted as the Prime Minister, he could never be accepted as the Congress President, which is a post with a connotation of elderly wisdom. It was clear that he could never be at ease with the old-world style of the party Presidents: the two were simply incompatible. No wonder that within a few months came the diatribe on “power brokers” at the Congress Centenarly from Congress President Rajiv Gandhi. It was a stunning speech from one whom some saw as the messiah of the new age, others as an intruder posing as a know-all for all his ignorance—compounded by arrogance. Whoever drafted that speech for Rajiv Gandhi had not done him a good turn, whatever his intention. No “power brokers” have since been either in identified or dealt with as promised in the speech. Reason: No one could define a “power broker”. The epithet could mean no one; it could mean almost everyone except perhaps the acccusing Congress President—while he is the President!

The momentum of the 1984 elected verdict would have normally lasted for two, even three terms, perpetuating Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership (in his own right, not as Indira’s son) for a long spell such as his grandfather’s of mother’s. But that was not to be. The meteoric rise plummeted to virtual zero some time in 1987—at about mid-term. Thereafter the hero of young India became almost a source of derisive entertainment to the kids in a million homes. Rajiv’s hum dekhenge ki....  became a joke in the Hindi-speaking world. It was not his fault that he chose an English expression and rendered it literally into Hindi, with hilarious consequences. Yet, none of the Hindi pundits in his camp had the guts to tell him. Samayadar was another similar howler. It was thus a distorted beginning. Rajiv Gandhi seemed remote, alien. He did not seem to “belong”, except as Indira Gandhi’s son.

One may not agree with Satyapal Malik’s allegation in the Lok Sabha that Rajiv Gandhi did not know the difference between Yadav and Ahir. That was perhaps a crude oversimplification to decribe Rajiv’s “alienness”. Being an expert on caste cannot be a hallmark of Prime Ministership. Yet there is a hard-core element of truth in the allegation that he was not taken as part of the Indian ethos—unlike Jawaharlal, the “Panditji”, and Indira Gandhi, the Amma... His computer image, first propagated disapprovingly by many of his own disgruntled partymen, did him immense harm. So did his too visible association with the “Doon set” and the “whizkid” coterie... The worst part of this association was that his “alienness” was seen not only as socio-cultural, but in the economic sense also. An impression went round that all his ultra-morden chums represented the rich: so Rajiv was not the poor man’s Prime Minister, unlike his mother. The pity is that Rajiv did not deserve this image. He is not, after all, as “alien” as his pals made him appear.

Side by side, Rajiv began to attract criticism for his “style of functioning”—an expression which means many things to many people and translates in simple language to brief and blunt “I don’t like him...” Rajiv’s monopoly projection on the Doordarshan screen gave rise to an almost hostile distaste for him, despite his otherwise presentable personlity and fair performance. Except, of course, the hum dekhenge ki stuff.

An important factor in his “style” was accessibility. All the Prime Ministers of India have been invariably accessible. That was part of the mass character of freedom struggle and the close identification which always existed between the leaders and the people. “Dharma Darshan” (general interview) became a regular item in Indira Gandhi’s life and literally millions of her photographs with visiting groups are adorning the drawing rooms in the country today as souvenirs handed down from father to son and so forth... This practice, very satisfying to the masses, suddenly got broken when Rajiv became the Prime Minister. People did not mind this in the beginning, in view of the assassination and the enhanced security needs. But gradually, as some kind of coolness developed towards him, his tight security began to grate on the nerves of the people, especially in the cities. It was also overdone, or clearly seeemed to be overdone. The feeling gave rise to considerable resentment at traffic hold-ups, frisking through metal detectors, etc. The fact that Indira Gandhi’s assassins had been her own security men and not from the general public tended to intensify the resentment. As a net result of this Rajiv became remote and remoteness bred the feeling of alienness.

The other important factor that contributed to Rajiv Gandhi’s downfall was a peculiar sense of political insecurity skifully induced in his mind by whom? There is not single answer to this question. A leader, with such a massive majority in Parliament, would normally have no complex of this nature; he would exude self- confidence at every step. He would not suspect his own shadow. He would not see a potential rival in every colleague. He would not see a potential rival in every colleague. He would not be in a frightful hurry to throw people out of the party on some phoney pretext or the other.

Yet this is precisely what he did. Those who advised him lost sight of one profound truth, that is, that with all his 415, he had not yet attained unchallengeable strength, legitimacy and credibility (all different but equally necessary); they did not seem to understand the value of this combination of factors, in particular credibility. In fact, he should have shown humility and consolidated his position in the first five years of his Prime Ministership, keeping those whom he considered rivals at bay but in good humour within the party; none of them would dare oppose him anyway, with the figure of 415 looming large. And after five years, there would in fact be no one to challenge him... By his wrong strategy, he thus unwittingly created a challenge against himself and made the challengers fight him with their back to the wall, throwing them out eventually and making them heroes and rallying points for a disparate and very weak Opposition.

But that was not all. He also irritated the other political parties (which were by no means too hostile to him, at any rate in the beginning) by insulting them openly. Even Chief Ministers became victims of his lashing tongue. It was not mere criticism; it was humiliation couched in language unbecoming of a Prime Minister. To those insulted, as to those who witnessed the scenes, the contrast between mother and son, or grandfather and grandson, was too glaring to forget. Many of his own party men felt embarrassed at his brashness... The 415-tragedy made the party extremely intolerant and overbearing. There was no respect for anyone, notably the institutions sanctified by the Consti-tution such as the CAG, the Election Commission, etc. Some of Rajiv’s Ministers openly insulted the judiciary also. While there could be no objection to expressing difference of opinion, the tone and tenor of the Congress party caused great resentment in thinking circles.

Eventually, the party had to pay the price. No one claims that this was the only, or even the main, reason for the downfall. But when the chips are down and there is no favourable wind, every small factor counts.

Now, the media. For about a year after his assumption of Prime Ministership, Rajiv Gandhi got copious encomiums from the Indian press. Even Ramnath Goenka once waxed eloquent on how Rajiv was much better than his mother; that was his way of paying a tribute to the son. Rajiv was depicted as dynamic, forward-looking leader representing the younger generation who could take the country into the twentyfirst century with its head held high. Congressmen, however, made the entry into the twentyfirst centry something of a slogan and a ritual. The slogan, manifested sometimes as extreme intolerance, introduced the generation gap, perhaps for the first time, in the country’s ethos. The old generation was seen as a set of useless people and the young ring around the leader masqueraded as the sole repositories of wisdom. Their arrogance soon exceeded the limit beyond which it becomes unendurable, even allowing some margin to inexperience and over-enthu-siasm. A reaction ensued. Even then the press gave the benefit of doubt to Rajiv and blamed those around him: Indira Gandhi never had this alibi. It may be interesting to recall that the first among Rajiv’s men who were constantly criticised for arrogance was Arun Nehru who is now safely in the other camp and presumably immune from the erstwhile odium.

The last straw on the press camel’s back was the Anti-Defamation Bill introduced thought-lessly, pushed forward recklessly and withrawn spinelessly—all in one ridiculous spell. Rajiv’s image has never recoverd from the after-effects of this ill-conceived move. The whole thing smacks of immaturity, pure and simple. The withrawal of the Bill, right as it was, made Rajiv even more vulnerable than before; the press never really forgave him. Rajiv and the Congress came out of it with badly burnt fingers.

The main issue which, taking the term as a whole, largely tarnished Rajiv’s image was that of the Bofors kickbacks. How much of the story regarding his own sharing of the kickbacks was believed by the people at large, it is difficult to determine accurately. If it is argued that it was belived in one part of the country, it could also be argued that it was not at all believed in the other part. That aspect apart, it is quite clear that a categorical statement from the Prime Minister that there was no middlemanin the transaction is, on the face of it, irresponsible and reckless in the extreme. The least he should have done was to peg his statement to the assurance given by Bofors or by the then Prime Minister of Sweden. This much ordinary prudence could have saved him from the later ordeal. As it was, his categorical statement denying the existence of middlemen, in the light of the subsequent discovery of agents and kickbacks, struck many people as a falsehood. This impression kept getting confirmed in the course of all that followed. Not many believed that Rajiv himself had taken the kickbacks money; the idea was rather too far-fetched. But what appeared more probable and was readily believed was that Rajiv was concealing something, or shielding someone—no one knows what or who. It may be fairly accurate to state that this general supicion was what really the people harboured at the time of the Lok Sabha elections—and do even now.

Today the Bofors issue, after causing a lot of irritation to the national psyche, still remains unresolved. For the first time in the history of free india, the Prime Minister of the country has been personally charged with corruption. From any standpoint, this is an extraordinary issue. Form the lackadaisical statement of the new goverment that the law will take its own course, it is fairly clear that the names of the actual beneficiaries are not all ready in Sweden, just waiting to be called for by the Government of India and eager to leap into their lap. The new government is as much in the dark about this matter as the old one was. The only difference is that some parties have been able to garner full electoral benefit from Rajiv Gandhi’s immature initial statement and all that followed it.

And here is the real point. The Bofors issue is by no means dead, much as either the new government or Rajiv Gandhi might want it to be. Indeed it has become more crucial now than at any time since it exploded. If... If the names of the Bofors beneficialess come out now and a clear nexus with Rajiv is traceable, that would be the end of his political career. If, on the other hand, the “course of law” leads to the discovery of unconnected names, Rajiv’s position would be vindicated, by and large. If, again, the discovery reveals the name of one who was with Rajiv at the time of transaction and is on the other side now, a piquant situation would arise in the ruling Front. In all prabability, V.P. Singh will promptly sacrifice that person and prove his own honesty even more dramatically. If, however, the thirty-day period prescribed for itself by the new government to unearth the said names becomes too elastic and the names still remain a mystery, the goverment will be thoroughly exposed as incompetent and all that those gentlemen did during the previous term when they were in the Opposition will be dubbed as mere gimmickry and unscrupulousness. Even now it is well- known that the then Opposition had in mind a definite linkage of Bofors with the 1989 election, the way they timed and dragged the issue. It was too good a godsend to let go... And Rajiv Gandhi fully obliged them.

All the above possibilities seem to be jostling with one another in the shroud of the future; it remains to be seen which of them emerges as the ultimate fact.

We now come to the issue which popped up immediately before the 1989 election and contributed to the Congress defeat in the North. Factually speaking, the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute is nearly half-a-century old. Yet it sprang into life overnight, made short shrift of the Congress and will presumably go to sleep again, if the behind-the-scene efforts one hears about are any indication. Many people assert that the issue was “mishandled” by the Rajiv Gandhi Government, even though it is not clear what exactly should have been done. It was clear from the very beginning that the matter would lead to a no-win situation for the Congress. A religious question was thoroughly politicised. In the first place, no one has so far elucidated the special religious significance of November 9, 1989 as the day for the shilanyas of the new Ram temple. Hindu scriptures seem to be unanimous on the verdict that such an auspicious act—the building of a sacred temple for Lord Ram expected to stand for thousands of years—should not be performed in the admittedly inauspicious period of dakshinayan which corresponds roughly to mid-July to mid-January. Is it not quite obvious that if the shilanyas had waited for the uttarayan period (after makar sankranti, January 14, 1990) it would have been too late to yield any electoral advantage to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad/ Bharatiya Janata Party in the Lok Sabha poll?... So who was exploiting Sri Ram and the Hindu religion for political benefit even flouting the sacred scriptures? It is well known that even for the shilanyas of a small hut in a village, the average Hindu insists on an auspicious day sanctified by the Agamas. How then was the utterly political motivation behind choosing November 9, 1989 for the shilanyas of the Sri Ram temple lost on the Hindu population of Northern india? Why did they let themselves be fooled?

So far as the Muslims are concerned, in all probabillity they believed that the Babri Masjid had already been demolished. Statements from the Pakistan Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, from Saudi Arabia, from Iran and to cap it all, incessant assertions from the BBC—all this massive “evidence” could not have gone in vain. There is, of course, no point in pointing out where the evidence came from.

The charge that could be levelled against the Rajiv Gandhi Government is in respect of its naivete in trying to thrash out an “amicable” settlement of the question, not realising (or despite realising) that an amicable settlement was not wanted by the political parties (and therefore not possible) just then; the election stakes were too high. While the Congress Government could do nothing beyond trying for an amicable solution, hoping to earn the goodwill (and the votes) of both communities in case it succeeded, it was equally natural that it should lose the support of both communities when the solution did not materialise... this is being called “mishandling”.

The crucial point here is not as to who got the Hindu and the Muslim votes and who lost them. The distressing point to be noted is that the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue has been callously politicised, perhaps as never before. The Janata Dal and the Left parties, with all their secular credentials, looked the other way, to say the least. The Hindu community, known for centuries for its catholic approach and reformist zeal has been fanticised for political ends... And once the majority community gets so fanaticised what remains of secularism?... The question of questions is: Was the game worth the candle? When communal atmosphere prevails every-where, no political party is, or can be, totally immune from it. We have seen umpteen communal riots in India, in all regimes before and after independence. We have seen numerous cases where a procession of one community gave rise to tension, stone-throwing, etc. and a temporary law and order situation which is eventually controlled. We have seen local political workers trying to take electoral or other advantage of communal differences in a varitety of situations in life... Nevertheless, all these did not detract from the overall secular credentials of the country.

But unfortunately for the first time, a countrywide movement based on the deep religious devotion of millions upon millions of Hindus has been organised with an out-and-out political purpose in view, with amazing skill and astounding subtlety so as to touch the Hindu psyche deeply. While the temporary electoral advantage at one election may not be important, what is going to be disastrous is the possibility of the permament communalisation of Indian politics and of national life. Neither V.P. Singh nor Rajiv Gandhi—nor the VHP/BJP and the Muslim Action Committees—will be able to control the spread of this poison... And worst of all, the leaders do not seem to realise this. They are trying to postpone the solution to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue so as to fester till some other occasion when they hope it will again come in politically handy to them. This is an extremely short-sighted and suicidal approach.

The next factor which is believed to have influenced the result of the Lok Sabha poll is Rajiv Gandhi’s orders to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18. It is not known under what circumstances the decision was taken, but judged from the grumbling heard everywhere, there was a considerable volume of political opinion opposed to it. Many Congressmen in the North felt that their party had been ditched by these new voters whereas the reaction in the South was just the opposite. There is an element of truth in the observation that these young voters, by and large, went against the Establishment everywhere and therefore on balance, their votes went against the Congress in the country as a whole.

But two issues really emerged out of the youth vote, that is, unemployment and a resolute opposition to reservation. It is well known that the employment opportunities being created in the country fall far short of the actual require-ments. But what complicated the matter was the Rajiv Government’s order, just before election, that the recruitment in respect of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes be resumed forthwith in order to remove the backlog of several years. It was obvious that these orders were meant specifically to get the benefit of the SC/ST votes for the Congress party; no amount of protestation of altruism will cloud this motivation... So came the backlash from the non-SC/ST youth—much more vocal and powerful in the society. They promptly voted against the Congress party to show their disapproval. Also as a sequal the anti-reservation sentiment—which had wrought havoc in Gujarat in 1980 and is still being felt everywhere in the country to some extent—erupted in many States at election time and has continued thereafter. On this issue too, there is a no-win situation for any govenment; it amounts to siding with one section of the people and running the risk of the wrath of other sections. After all, the concessions to the weaker sections of society provided in the Constitution originally had the support of all sections of the Constituent Assembly; they were not incorporated on the basis of a divided vote.

But today the situation seems to be different, after repeated extensions of the concessions several times over. While the extensions are entirely justified on objective conditions, they are no longer willingly supported by all sections of the people. That is why while Members of Parliament unanimously voted for concessions, some parties, if not all, allowed their field workers to propagate against the reservations and incidentally (or primarily) to garner the anti-reservationist vote in the election, thus having the best of both worlds... Further, while some political leaders were mounting the reservation slogan, their sons and daughters were leading processions of anti-reservationist agitations in the streets... Such duplicity can only lead to utter confusion and more tensions in the society. The Lok Sabha election has thus left much bitterness in its wake, particularly among the country’s youth. There is also a growing preference for reservation on economic criteria which is being stoutly opposed by those sections who are enjoying caste-based reservation at present. It seems that the tangle could be resolved only if the spirit of accommodation informs our decisions; vested interests, of whichever kind, will only aggravate matters... And a partisan approach will never solve the problem.

Then there is the commitment of the National Front to implement the recommendations contained in the Mandal Commission’s report. Only time will show how this will be done, and with what consequences.

Now to conclude. The 1989 Lok Sabha election was unique in many respects. It was probably the most no-holds-barred election in recent years. A threat of dynastic perpetuation was perhaps sub-consciously felt in some circles. There was therefore on one side the determination to throw Rajiv out by hook or crook, not to let him consolidate himself; on the other, even a stronger factor was his own immaturity which effectively prevented him from consolidating himself. It was bodyline from one side and hit-wicket on the other.

This election has left the bitterment trail behind, which will not abate easily or quickly. It has permanently fragmented the Indian society and thrown up centrifugal forces which will take a herculean effort to reconcile or control. It is doubtful if they can be controlled at all, or lead to greater disasters.

1. The Hindu-Muslim cleavage is serious, at least psychologically. This has been festering for some years and suspicions and estrangement have been on the increase. The election has only given them a special spurt. Almost all parties, including the Congress, have fallen a prey to the estrangement in considerable numbers. Now with both the communities going against the Congress in the North, the fracture in secularism has become really deep. There are indeed other parties which also swear by the secular ideal, but they happen to be getting sustenance from the communal forces or have some understanding with them at the moment. They are therefore least fitted to control these forces, whatever their claims and the hopes of well-meaning supporters.

2. The backward-forward confrontation has attained a new height in bitterness. It is unresolvable, except by an altogether overpowering goodwill from both sides, which is absent.

3. The SC/ST versus non-SC/ST hiatus is being manifested through the anti-reservation agitations by young men and women whose parents are in all parties endorsing reservations for the record. No one has the guts to find an honest and peaceful way of resolving the question. Result: No solution in sight.

4. The rich-poor chasm has increased and crossed the point where the Indian society cannot endure further disparity. The Naxalite/radical groups seem to be emerging with greater power and acceptability, thus undermining our parliamentary democracy.

These features had indeed been there in earlier elections also, but never in this accentuated form. They were marginal, at best partial, earlier; they have been predominant in this election. Indeed they got a chance to feed upon the exigencies of the election and have become infinitely more difficult to tackle. From all accounts, they have come to stay.

A Frankestein stares us in the face.....

The author is a leading figure in the Congress-I.