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Jaimini Bhagwati: Why India needs a robust national opposition

Governance turns arbitrary, disingenuous or worse if there are no credible alternatives

Jaimini Bhagwati 

Jaimini Bhagwati

It is abundantly clear after the Lok Sabha and subsequent state Assembly elections this year that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is by far the dominant national party. By contrast, the Congress party's national footprint is shrinking with each election. India's experience of single-party majority Congress governments after 1971 and 1984 indicates that governance turns arbitrary, disingenuous or worse if there are no credible alternatives. Consequently, India needs at least one all-India opposition party.

The Congress can no longer legitimately claim to be a party with a nationwide presence even though it has the second highest tally of 44 members of Parliament (MPs) in the current Lok Sabha. In the latest Lok Sabha elections, the Congress drew a blank in Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Delhi. It came in fourth or lower in the large states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra, and was third in Punjab, Haryana and Assam. It won just two seats each in Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, and four in West Bengal. The two states that the Congress had somewhat higher tallies were eight out of 20 in Kerala and nine out of 28 in Karnataka.

According to media reports it is a foregone conclusion, as preparations are afoot for Assembly elections in Delhi, that the Congress will come in third. The Congress embarrasses itself when it explains that it is anti-incumbency that is impacting its electoral fortunes negatively. In the 1977 post-Emergency debacle, the Congress was facing 30 years of anti-incumbency and yet it won 164 Lok Sabha seats, remained dominant in the south, and did reasonably well in Maharashtra and Gujarat. In 2004, the Congress formed a coalition government at the centre with just 159 seats.

The Congress is taking false comfort that it will automatically bounce back as it did in 1980 when it won 353 seats. The country is much better informed and the BJP under the unchallenged leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is more cohesive than the tenuous Janata Party coalition that won 302 seats in 1977. The Congress is refusing to acknowledge a welcome change, namely, that caste and religion although important are no longer that crucial for those below 30 years of age. Further, those who are 13 today will be eligible to vote in 2019. Average voters, whether young and aspirational or not, want governance that pays effective attention to increasing employment opportunities, and improving availability of water and housing.

The Nehru-Gandhi hyphenation suggesting uninterrupted family succession since the era of our first prime minister is factually incorrect. After Jawaharlal Nehru but for the sudden passing away of Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966 another Nehru family member may have never become prime minister. In the first decade after independence, India was riven with communal, linguistic and social differences and inequities. A few of Nehru's policies related to primary education, the economy and defence preparedness, formulated in this difficult environment, can be second-guessed with the benefit of hindsight. Overall, Nehru was key to holding the nation together while building institutions and laying the lasting foundations for higher education, heavy industry and an enduring constitutional democracy.

Subsequently, in the 1970s, this grand old party of our freedom struggle was over-centralised by Indira Gandhi. Elections within the Congress party were stage-managed and independent thinking was discouraged. Indira Gandhi's cynical errors of commission in shackling the country, camouflaged in socialist rhetoric, set the economy back by two decades. By contrast, her decisive role in the war with Pakistan in the run-up to the birth of Bangladesh was highly impressive. However, whatever she ever achieved was washed away by her action of imposing an unjustified Emergency that led to all manner of excesses. Her open endorsement of a brash and insensitive Sanjay Gandhi was inexplicable except on the grounds of progeny before all else.

It is with Indira Gandhi that family succession became a Congress hallmark and now this weakness afflicts several regional parties. The hollowing out of leadership in the Congress was caused by Indira Gandhi sidelining those who had a political base of their own. The resulting lack of contact at the ground level was sought to be compensated by stoking resentment, at times legitimate, against majority communities or higher castes. This strategy does not work that well any longer, and the Congress cannot rebuild party cadres without appealing to idealism, which needs to begin transparently at the top.

A disproportionately large number of current Congress leaders have never won a state Assembly or parliamentary election. Those in the Congress who have the longer-term interests of the country in mind and have the determination to stay the course need to disassociate themselves from those who benefit from coterie politics. Such individuals could play a constructive national role in an India, which is increasingly less impressed by identity-based politics. The proposed coming together of Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United), Samajwadi party, Rashtriya Janata Dal led by Lalu Prasad (currently out on bail) and others will not work as a national alternative. Their binding ideology is to look backwards in time and take advantage of community and caste insecurities.

Rahul Gandhi with his episodic outbursts was projected as a champion of probity in public life and the downtrodden. However, the Congress governments of 2004 and 2009 had some ministers with established reputations for sleaze, and officials with dubious records were appointed to head executive, regulatory and crime investigation bodies. The Congress vice-president's lack of work experience in government or the private sector and limited understanding of the harsh realities that confront the nation was starkly evident in his January 2014 interview on the Times Now television channel. Additionally, his apparent lack of appetite for the continuous grind of Indian politics means that the Congress needs to look for alternative leadership.

To sum up, the Congress needs to reform not just in its own interest but more importantly in national interest. Ideally, a national alternative could be made up of the non-cynical in the Congress who do not balk at contesting elections, constructive Aam Aadmi Party constituents who do not subscribe to sweeping anti-establishment views and forward-looking elements in Nitish Kumar's party. Of course, this suggestion will be condescendingly derided as naïve and wishful thinking by exponents of realpolitik. However, the fear of stumbling or failing should not stand in the way of building an inspired national opposition.

The writer, a former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a World Bank Treasury specialist, is currently RBI Chair Professor at ICRIER

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First Published: Thu, November 20 2014. 21:50 IST