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A sense of drift pervades Indian democracy

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — As the largest democracy in the world enters into the campaign phase for its 15th parliamentary elections, it seems preoccupied with trivialities: Which Bollywood actor will contest? Which Nehru-Gandhi family scion will be the prime ministerial candidate? Will various regional satraps come together? Who will leave which coalition and align with whom?

The great Indian Tamasha (show) as the Indian elections are fondly called have genuinely become all spectacle this time where the Indian electorate appears to be waiting to be entertained by the tricks up the sleeves of Indian politicos. Elections have been reduced to electoral jugglery where the main debate is about who will join whom, thereby shaping the coalition architecture and the next government.

These elections might just turn out to be the one of the most banal exercises this country has ever undertaken. The electoral scenario of today’s India would be comical if the stakes were not so high. India will get its next government by default and such an outcome is never good for the health of a democracy.

Five years back the present Congress-led United Progressive Alliance had begun with so much promise. The Congress had won against all odds and Sonia Gandhi, by renouncing the most powerful office in the country, had become the most powerful political figure. She had given the prime ministership to one of the most respected public figures of the last 20 years, to someone who had taken some tough decisions at a time when it had seemed nothing could go right for the country. So it was natural that it was seen as the beginning of a new functioning phase of the Congress party, and it was expected that after being out of power for a long time, Congress would be governing with a renewed sense of purpose, especially with an efficient Manmohan Singh at the helm.

But none of those rosy assumptions has come to pass. The Congress party soon returned to its geriatric ways. The enthusiasm that the electorate had felt when they watched a number of young parliamentarians emerge from the Grand Old Party was soon deflated when once again the young blood was sidelined. The Cabinet ministers and the party functionaries continued to be the same old tired faces that have given such a tawdry reputation to the party all these years. The political capital that Gandhi had so painstakingly won was spent fast and furious as the party returned to its grand old ways and the government became crippled by the Communists refusing to allow any meaningful governance measure to be undertaken. Gandhi continued to play it safe, leaving the old guard unchallenged and preferring to keep the status quo.

The prime minister, despite his noble intentions, singularly failed to either manage the country well or provide a vision for the nation’s future. Yet, it is not his fault.

Singh didn’t earn the political capital in the last elections. Gandhi, as the leader of Congress, however, did. Yet she failed to use that hard-earned capital to carve out a vision of where Congress should be leading India. The main reason for this is the deference that Congress functionaries reserve for the Gandhi family. Deference is never good for democracy. Democracies should not have a royal family, as the decline of Congress under the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty illustrates.

For Congress, the collapse of courage is total — a failure that comes from the very top. It has done nothing to project its own narrative in the last five years. Surrounded by its feckless allies, it has begun to look like the stupid party, a movement with nothing substantive to say and no base to protect. Its identity has been rendered sterile by decades of unavailing tactics and compromises. And yet Congress might return to power given the failure of the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to offer a credible alternative.

The leader of the BJP, Lal Krishna Advani, had the opportunity of evolving his party into a center-right political formation, away from the extremism that tends to dominate the party. To be a conservative doesn’t necessarily mean one has to be racist, communal, retrograde or close-minded. Advani could have made his party a progressive conservative force by modernizing and widening the party, reinforcing the need for economic reforms and giving respectability to the word nationalism by rescuing it from its Hindu variant.

But Advani never articulated a governing philosophy. His politics has been all about tactics with no strategic framework to describe the state of the country or the needs of the voters. And so the face of the BJP for the nation today is that of a bigot: Varun Gandhi, who has made Muslim bashing his claim to fame.

Meanwhile, another defeat for the BJP would mean extreme right ideology taking center-stage with grave repercussions for the party and the Indian polity.

Neither of the two main parties offer a vision of where India should be heading in these crucially important early years of the 21st century. This failure of both parties has opened up a space for smaller regional parties, but they have little or no sense of the nation as a whole. More than any other time in India’s history, we need leaders whose interests are general and not specialized, those who can understand and treat the country as a whole.

At this juncture, as much as than anything else it needs to be reaffirmed that India is an organic entity, that no matter, class, or section is either separate or supreme above the interests of all. At the crucial points of a nation’s history, it needs a leader who can inspire, who can rally the populace, who can infuse a country with confidence. Regrettably, there is none in sight. Is it any wonder then that India continues to look to the film industry and its cricket pitches in search of idols. They may be faux gods but at least they have talent!

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.