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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 14, March 21, 2009

Meaning of ‘Instability’

Saturday 21 March 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty


The general elections have already come and the political parties have been getting ready how they will enter the mass campaign in the next two months or so. Here is an election that has been forced upon us because the parties that returned to the Lok Sabha could not elect a leader from among themselves who could command the majority in the Lower House of Parliament, and as such its leader, I.K. Gujral, had to tell the President that he had ceased to command the majority that he had enjoyed in the House. In other words, as soon as the Congress decided to stay away, the party in power—that is, the United Front—had to go to the President to tell him that it had ceased to be the majority in the Lok Sabha.

As far as the United Front was concerned, it did not agree to ditch the DMK, while the Congress, on whose support base it could survive, was determined to get the DMK out of the Central Government on the plea that Karunanidhi and his DMK were arraigned in the Jain Report having favoured the LTTE which was made responsible for Rajiv Gandhi’s extermination. Although Justice Jain could hardly substantiate that the Tamil people or the DMK were instrumental in bringing about Rajiv Gandhi’s ghastly end, the fact that Karunanidhi and his party were made the target of attack for the liquidation of Rajiv Gandhi, there was no other means by which the Congress could show its face or avert a split inside the party’s leadership. The result was obviously the very same at the Centre in particular, that is, the Congress had fallen out with the United Front and as a result the Gujral Government could not hold on as it was promptly divested of the Lok Sabha majority which alone could keep the party together.

Such a sordid picture of squabbles in public display could hardly be seen in the momentous general elections of 1946 that had brought the Congress to power in the Central Assembly which was later turned into the Constituent Assembly and over which Dr Rajendra Prasad presided. This Assembly drew up the memorable Constitution of India which has become the charter of Indian democracy and which, despite amendments, could survive for five decades. The present writer was one of those who was witness to the 1946 elections, which incidentally were not fought by universal suffrage (which came with the new Constitution) but had been drawn up by the British Raj as per the Government of India Act of 1935 which had been passed by the British Parliament.

It is well to remember the difference in the situation in 1946 and the present day and to note that despite differences, what really stirred the people of India. It was known at the time that the British would soon hand over power. If this had stirred the Congress, it shook the Muslim League as well, because it understood that the Muslim population, particularly in northern India, was ready to follow Jinnah and the partition which led to the birth of Pakistan. The weeks that followed were a real nightmare for the Indian people, but overshadowing everything was the realisation that freedom could not be far away. Although there was communal tension allround, nobody had predicted that there would be such hideous killings by Hindus and Muslims, particularly in the Punjab and the neighbourhood.

The leaders began their campaigning in the old style—moving from village to village, in their bare feet, without having the advantage of luxurious automobiles. Gandhiji did not campaign but wherever he went he moved in his well-known Third Class. There were no aircraft by which the leaders could fly from one point to another. Although they got the support of the affluent, they did not go in for any of the luxuries that the rich could bring. The badge of political activism was swadeshi, and naturally everybody put on the khadi dhoti and kurta., and this was true of Panditji as well as the other famous leaders of the Congress in those days.

There was no Sonia Gandhi in those days, though there were quite a few non-Indians among them, who had taken to the life of the Indian freedom fighter: Nellie Sengupta and Mira Behn, among others. Incidentally, Nellie Sengupta spent the last years of her life in East Pakistan, which had then been partitioned from India. Mira Behn lived long after Gandhiji, but she was away from the dazzling limelight of the glitterati to which some had been accustomed.

The cynical joke at that time was that the Congressman would call for the meeting-ka-poshak, that is, the uniform for the meeting. Out of the plush comforts of the rich, there arrived the Congress leader who dared not go to the meeting except when he had put on the rough khadi—not the smooth polyvastra of today. The technological growth had hardly taken place under the Raj. So, for the premier political party that contested for power fifty years ago, it was only the microphone and nothing more. If Nehru could rouse the crowd, it was not because he was better off with the instrument, but his voice, the strident voice of freedom, could ring out loud and clear.

Panditji was not popular in the Bengal of those days. That was because only six years before that, he was with the Congress High Command which had thrown out Subhas Chandra Bose from the Congress and thereby began the rift that the Congress High Command could hardly find its feet within the Congress, which at the district level was by and large the mouthpiece of militant nationalism. Subhas escaped to Germany and then to Japan where he picked up his Azad Hind Fauj. The Congress leaders, embittered by the British mendacity, had no escape but to join the ‘Do-or-Die’ movement that engulfed the Congress in 1942. This was a great leveller, and it saw how Subhas had a deep impact on the mind of the Congress.

The result could be seen in 1945 when every campaign for the release of the Azad Hind prisoners was the signal for a massive Congress gathering, and whatever the leaders might have thought, the Congress ranks were swept into huge mass actions for the release of the Azad Hind Fauj and later on for the INA prisoners. Actually, this set off the conflagration which made the British Raj quit India. Within that titanic wave came the general elections of 1946. There was no need for a slogan for the general elections. This was amply provided by the overcast cloud of the time—the time for the foreign ruler to quit these shores.

Then the issue was decided by the event and not that the event was contrived by men in power—the demand for a change in the power-structure was all over the firmament. It was not a mechanical putting the ballots into the box, the electorate was all agog for the change of guards: instead of the White man, it is the native who would come to rule. The mechanism of that transfer of power was yet to be decided. And that decision was taken by the dissonance within those who were destined to inherit power in this far-flung land. The issue of the elections was, therefore, foreclosed by the transfer of power.

Compared to the tumultuous elections at that time, the present seems to be placid. There is talk about the uncertainty of the times, that the government here is without any stability etcetra etcetra. Compared to the situation that prevailed when the transfer of power took place, there is on the one hand plenty of stability in the present situation. One knows that whatever happens, this country would not fall a prey to any foreign power—and marauder across the border. Whateverf happens, there is no question today of any occupation of any tract of Indian soil by any hostile power. Where then is the instability in the country? The British Empire which was the mightiest at the beginning of the War was shaken to its very foundations, and there was no question of its continuance in any form after it was forced to declare that it would quit. Secondly, the Indian people were restless that the White supremacy still continued. They wanted their own leaders to govern the country—a unique development unprecedented in history. Such a formidable empire as the British had build up, was shaken to its very foundation. Putting the leaders in prison did not help as it made them the accredited heroes for all times to come. The time had come for the British to quit India—a remarkable feature of the Indian revolutionary situation. The empire over which the sun never set, found itself reconciled to the might of the people and the foreign power did not have to rule. Could there have been greater instability than this? Not the outsider knocking at the gate but the people inside were unreconciled to the continuation of the foreign rule. Its days were numbered. There could be no greater instability than this.

Historically, the fall of the British Raj ended the glory of the British power. Not long afterwards, the well-known “East of Suez” was declared—an ignominy of the Raj which one after the other had to give up power, and Tony Blair, the British Premier now, is ready to refer for a settlement of the vexed question by which the British tenaciously held on to a portion of Northern Island when it was found that the Irish independence could not possibly be delayed any longer.

Compare this with the situation in India today. We have a structure of governance: we have a civil society and the rule of law. The bureaucracy is intact and so are the armed forces, what more is wanted of stability in a country?

In modern times, when we talk of instability, one has to take into account the inner stability of the system. Whatever might have been its origin, the inner stability of a system lies in the promises made to the people. And here we fight shy facing the reality. It is not the parliamentary system or the bureaucracy that is the sign of the durability of a system. More important is the promise of a better life that has been ensured to the millions of the country. When millions are deprived of its benefits—by the artificial contraption of the so-called “poverty line”—there is naturally an ominous uncertainty in the country. Affluence at one end and impoverishment at the other—that is what the new system of the market has ensured for the people. When the common people get restless at this patent inequity of the system, it is not surprising that the polity of this country is forced into instability.

When we think of ths instability of governance, it is not the question of Prime Minister Gujral not having sufficient backing behind him. He may or may not get the benefit of the permutation and combination of numbers in the Lok Sabha. More imperative than that, the government over which he presides has to provide the leadership to this nation that has 900 million in the basket of the deprived. It is this army which shall strengthen the arm and provide him with stability. Minus this, he and his government shall remain the effete and the unstable that it has been for long. The agenda of today is the banishment of poverty—when that is achieved, the golden jubilee of Indian independence shall be realised. Without this promise, we shall be the unwelcome host for the new century as it dawns over the greater part of the Third World from Latin America, to Africa, right upto Asia. Here is the task chalked out for the leader of India whatever may be his complexion or his ideology.

(Mainstream, Annual, December 20, 1997)

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