Dance of democracy on a razor’s edge


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The Indian electorate has begun to vote in what promises to be the most fateful election in the country’s history. This is because its democracy is beginning a 90-degree turn in the road down which it has travelled so far. The turn has been preceded, and triggered, by three years of increasing turmoil in Indian politics, an unending spate of revelations of corruption and cronyism involving some of the most powerful politicians in the country, a rising anger against a corrupt, inaccessible and unaccountable bureaucracy, and a progressive disempowerment of the poor by predatory exploiters, which have brought the government to a standstill.

The strife has acquired a keen, bitter edge because it has coincided with a virtual collapse of its industrial economy and the end of India’s short-lived dream run of growth. This has bankrupted iconic companies such as Kingfisher Airlines and Suzlon, left scores of other large, and fast-growing companies facing insolvency at home and abroad, and sent others rushing out of India, in search of more investor-friendly environments that do not suffer 40 percent depreciations of their currencies.

At home, it has led to the closure of thousands of small- and medium-sized enterprises all over the country. It has brought job growth outside agriculture to a standstill in the past five years, against 7.5 million a year growth in the previous five, and left around 40 million youth who have entered the job market facing a bleak future. Economic distress has focussed the public’s attention on the predators — the land-grabbers, speculators and shady industrialists who have continued to prosper. A distressed public has concluded that all of these have done well because they have developed “connections” in the Central and state governments who help them to bend existing laws and bureaucratic procedures to their will. And since all this has been presided over by the Congress, it is the party that has had to bear the burden of the people’s wrath.

These developments have brought long-simmering discontent to a head. This General Election is, therefore, not being fought on the traditional grounds of inherited loyalties that demand obeisance — caste, religion and ethnicity — but around two issues that have never been in serious contention before: the economy and social justice. These have cracked the mould of Indian politics wide open and out of the fissures, new lines of conflict are emerging day after day. No one knows how these will intersect with the traditional lines of caste, religion and ethnicity. A big question mark, therefore, hangs over the results, and indeed over the country’s future.

Three things are apparent as the campaign ends: the Congress is being held responsible for the disintegration of the economy. Try as hard as it might, it has failed to convince the people that raising interest rates to all-time highs was the right antidote to worldwide recession and the cure for a three-year, near-zero rate of industrial growth. As a result, it is facing a defeat that could place its very existence in jeopardy. Second, despite CPM leader Prakash Karat’s best efforts, the Third Front has remained stillborn. And third, according to pollsters and popular wisdom, this has left the BJP as the sole contender with nationwide presence and a national agenda in the field.

Or has it? For a maverick party, the Aam Aadmi Party surfaced from nowhere and stole 28 percent of the vote in last December’s Delhi Assembly election. It achieved this against an overwhelming tide of scepticism among pundits (including me). And it has done so on a single-point programme: that the current political system is closed, criminalised, exploitative and unjust. It has to be changed radically, through democracy if possible, on the streets if not.

AAP’s sudden and unexpected rise is the first, unequivocal signal of the change that has begun. For its message could not be in starker contrast to those of the past: “We do not care what caste, what class, what religion or which part of the country you belong to. If you want to end cronyism and corruption in politics and government; if you want to pry open our closed, criminalised and predatory democracy and bring justice to the common man, then join us.” And although it has contested only one Assembly polls so far, it is clear that AAP has made a hole at the bottom of a very large, and very full jar of public discontent. Today, the fluid of discontent is jetting out with a pressure that cannot be ignored any longer.

In the comfortable living rooms of the metropolis, AAP is being described as a bunch of spoilers who have already exposed their inexperience and lack of staying power, and will soon disappear from the political scene. Nothing could be further from the truth. For AAP’s message is that of revolt. It has been articulated with increasing urgency in the streets in bandhs, demonstrations, protest marches and hunger strikes. In the Maoist corridor, it has been articulated through violence. What AAP has done is to give this gathering protest an outlet that is within the democratic system. And the Delhi election has shown that the poor have welcomed the opportunity. The pattern of voting during polling day in Delhi showed clearly that it was the poor who came out in their legions to vote for AAP. Subsequent surveys of the voting pattern in the jhuggi colonies in outlying Delhi have confirmed this impression. And when the General Election was announced, almost 1.5 lakh voters who had not been on the lists took the trouble to register as voters. It is a safe bet that the majority will vote for AAP.

In a state that had been pampered with public and private money, whose domestic product had grown at more than 10 percent a year despite the economic collapse of the rest of the country, and had a popular chief minister, 28 percent of the electorate voted for AAP when it was a complete unknown. This is the true measure of the discontent that exists in even the fastest-growing parts of modern India. How many more will vote for it when they have come to know its potential for bringing about fundamental change?

Whatever the Delhi elite may want to think, AAP will not fade away. It is admittedly too new, and too inexperienced to more than dent the current political configuration. It has not had the time to think beyond the immediate present and develop a long-term strategy for democratic reform that combines freedom with justice and security. It will therefore almost certainly not tap its full potential in this election. But it has shown that it is possible for the poor to breach the walls of power and usher reform via the ballot instead of the bullet. It has therefore done our country an inestimable service — one for which Arvind Kejriwal will be remembered for all time to come.

But AAP is not the only party that is seeking to change the locus of politics in this election. The other agent is Narendra Modi’s BJP. Modi’s message is equally simple: vote for me and I will restore India’s lost economic growth, create jobs and restore India’s prestige abroad. This message too has little to do with caste and creed and community and relies upon the promise of good governance. And it too is resonating throughout India, especially among the propertied classes. But does it really reflect a break with the past? Or is it just a convenient cloak, borrowed from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to hide a return to Hindutva behind a new face?

If asked, nine out of 10 Indians will say with varying degrees of approval and disapproval that this is indeed the case. For Modi is also known as a Hindutva hardliner who, through calculated sins of omission, allowed the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in February-March 2002 and then extracted political capital from it by advancing the Assembly election. Moreover, Modi did not express even verbal sympathy for the bereaved at the height of their trauma. Nor has he ever apologised in later years for the failure of his government to protect them. But notwithstanding this, there is an abundance of evidence that neither he, nor the BJP, have remained unaffected by the change that is sweeping through India.

The clearest indication is the party’s decision, almost a year ahead of the election, that Modi would be its prime ministerial candidate. Behind this lie not one but two overturnings within the BJP. The first occurred when, despite the rapid recovery of the Indian economy in 2003-04, when it recorded an 8.4 percent growth of gdp, an 8.2 percent growth of industry, and a 150 percent rise in share prices, its ‘India Shining’ campaign failed to bring the party back to power. Although Vajpayee’s government had been an exemplary one in almost every other way, this failure discredited his espousal of pluralism and diversity, sidelined almost all of the moderate leaders who had been part of his team, and put even LK Advani on the backfoot. It was virtually a palace revolution of the “mofussil” against the metropolis and when it ended, all of Vajpayee’s policies — his determined effort to drag the Sangh Parivar to the political centre by making it accept that India’s religious pluralism and ethnic diversity were sources of strength — stood discredited.

But in 2009, the party paid the price. Having sidelined the leaders whom the public remembered and rejected everything that Vajpayee had espoused, the BJP found itself unable to claim any of the credit for the prolonged boom in the economy, the spate of new jobs that it created, the skyrocketing price of equity shares and the rise in India’s international standing reflected by the Indo-US nuclear treaty. All of the credit went to the upa. As a result, the BJP’s vote slipped further from 21 to 18 percent and it suffered a humiliating defeat.

In 2010, when the UPA’s fiscal stimulus programme had pulled India out of the global recession within a year, the BJP found itself a national party without a single nationally recognised face, except for that of the now venerable Advani. A policy change was therefore imperative, but the BJP did not know where to turn until the Congress came to its rescue by destroying industrial growth and putting the future of not only millions of unorganised sector workers, but also virtually the entire, newly rich, newly empowered entrepreneurial class in dire peril.

To the BJP, the Congress’ fumbling ineptitude must have come as god’s answer to its prayers, for among its new leaders was just the man who could engineer a return to Vajpayee’s policy of appealing to the electorate on the basis of performance, credible without being immediately accused of having betrayed Hindutva. That was Modi.

Modi is regarded with something close to horror by the secular, liberal intelligentsia and the Muslim community. But today, he is making statements that even Vajpayee would have gladly made. On the age-old BJP demand to delete Article 370 of the Constitution (which gives a special status to Kashmir), all he had to say in Jammu was that he was prepared to debate the issue. And on the BJP’s most emotive issue, the construction of a Ram temple on the site of the Babri Masjid, he said he would “look into the possibility of doing so”. One does not need to be a politician to recognise the careful avoidance of commitment in both statements.

Just as AAP has tapped into the discontentment of the working poor, the BJP is harvesting the insecurity of an all too new propertied class, the threat it faces of bankruptcy and the absence of any social security net that can help it to tide over its woes. For it, the resumption of rapid growth is the only hope, and Modi’s Gujarat model the only beacon to follow. This so-called model has become the centre of political acrimony in recent weeks. The Congress and the Samajwadi Party have pulled out all the stops in their propaganda machines to show that there is no such model; that Gujarat is doing well industrially because Gujaratis are an entrepreneurial community, but that Modi’s other claims and his data are bogus. AAP has concentrated in pointing out that to Modi the Gujarat model only means handing over the country to Ambani, Adani and the like, and that these are predators par excellence who are already using Modi to acquire land at throwaway prices for their much-vaunted highways and refineries.

But to Modi, the Gujarat model has another, broader meaning. At an unrehearsed Q&A session during the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in October 2007, long before the party had even thought of him as a possible future prime minister, Modi took pains to explain that to him the Gujarat model meant picking out points of strength and excellence in the economy and systematically reinforcing them, but at the same time identifying the areas of weakness and using the full power of the state to remove them. It was clear from the way he spoke then that to him these were inseparable parts of a single whole. What he made equally clear was his conviction that the latter could not be done without extracting a far higher degree of follow through and accountability from the bureaucracy than it is used to.

In sum, this election has brought class conflict explicitly into politics, and the dramatic weakening of the economy has intensified the conflict in a remarkably short period of time. This will confront Indian democracy with challenges that it has not had to cope with so far, and is poorly equipped to meet. India’s founding fathers coped with ethnic, and later caste, challenges to national unity by making space for the challengers in the existing federal power structure. This was formalised by the linguistic reorganisation of the states in 1957, the creation of a third tier of democracy in the Autonomous Development Councils and the rise of tacitly or explicitly caste-based political parties such as the BSP and the Samajwadi Party. Over the ensuing decades, there was a horizontal bonding of ethnic elites that has proved a durable cement for the unity of India.

But class conflict divides societies horizontally, so the bonding that is required to contain it has to be vertical, between the propertied and working classes, between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. Unlike federalism, which was readily adapted to serve the purpose of ethnic accommodation, the Constitution contains no mechanisms that can help leaders to bridge the class divide. The structure that Europe created to achieve this was the welfare State. But this would not have been possible had there not been powerful trade union movements to push it through. But in India, the trade union movement is almost moribund, and four out of five persons employed in the nonagricultural sectors are not unionised and have no protection whatever.

What is more, although Kejriwal has shown the poor how they can use democracy to fight for social justice, the disparity in power and consolidation between the propertied and working classes today is too great for democracy to be able to play a balancing role and moderate conflict. If this balance is to be created, the next government will have to exercise restraint in order to give AAP the space to develop into an Indian version of the British Labour Party of the 1880s. This will require the next ruling coalition not to target its critics, and instead carefully protect their freedom of expression. Above all, it will require it to refrain from hounding its opponents by abusing the infirmities of the judicial system and the corruptibility of the police to lock them up for months without a trial.

One has only to look at the BJP’s past record to see that if Modi comes to power, he will find this even harder to do than Vajpayee did. In 1998, when Vajpayee left the Far Right of the Sangh Parivar out of his Cabinet and of all but a token handful of the positions that are filled at the prime minister’s pleasure, the VHP and its offshoots retaliated by launching attacks on Christians nurses, missionaries and tribal converts. The only weapon that he was able to deploy against them was to go on a hunger strike. He was similarly unable to exert any influence on Modi during the Gujarat riots. If Modi is voted into power next month, he will find it even more difficult to control his cadres, let alone the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, than Vajpayee did.

But for the sake of India’s future, Modi must be given the chance to do so. If he does not, or if he fails, it must be his coalition partners and the electorate that must judge him. Demonising him, as the Congress and the secular intelligentsia are doing, will make his task more difficult by robbing him of the will to do so.


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