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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 22

Musical-chair Politics

Friday 23 May 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty

Must things have to get worse before they turn better? This is the question that confronts people in all walks of life barring those who have been making big money on the sly.

It is not that the prospects are bleak in India today. Compared to many other countries, we have much to thank ourselves for. But it is not very elevating for our self-confidence, both as individuals and as a nation, to claim that we are not as badly off in terms of political functioning as, say, Thailand or South Korea, Uganda or Saudi Arabia. A great nation, rich in resources and the quality of its people, has to suffer because of the utter bankruptcy of its leadership—a bankruptcy that encompasses the entire political spectrum, from the Right to the Left.

Excitements come and go. After its impressive Azamgarh by-election victory, Indira Gandhi’s flock seems to be keeping to an unusually low key and itself spreading the rumour that she might be picked up for prosecution after the release of the Shah Commission reports on some of the misdeeds during the Emergency.

Off the tangent goes long intellectual dissertation whether the Shah Commission was worth all the pother, forgetting that the fault lies primarily with the Janata Government itself with its totally lackadaisical functioning, interspersed with ham-handed actions and pronouncements which have invariably boomeranged. A perusal of the two interim reports of the Commission placed before Parliament by the government after weeks of futile cogitation, brings out that Indira Gandhi’s boycott of its proceedings could provide her with no alibi whatsoever, at least on two most important counts—her imposition of the Emergency in total disregard of all norms, constitutional or political; and the installation at the power-centre of her son, a rare combination of a goon and a hoodlum.

More disgusting than even these is the inescapable impression borne out by the Shah Commission reports that the Emergency was virtually the offspring of sickening sycophancy by a whole contingent of politicians, some of whom are today strutting about as intrepid crusaders against Indira Gandhi. Minus these sycophants, Indira Gandhi with all her heroics of being courageous, would have had neither the guts nor the means to clamp down the Emergency. The fact that her stable of flatterers and johukums was larger than any Prime Minister, including her great father, could ever command, is the measure of the degeneration of Indian politics. T.T. Krishnamachari’s famous joke—that Indira Gandhi was the only man in her entire Cabinet—turned into a monstrous reality during the Emergency.

Here lies the answer to the question, what, if any, follow-up action is possible after the release of the Shah Commission reports? What the officialdom can or is willing to do is embodied in the inanities of their note after examination of the reports. In fact, the officials were made to scrutinise them only after the Cabinet itself could come to no decision on the subject. This is nothing surprising because the corrosion of our political values to which most of our politicians have amply contributed can be repaired neither by some cases of police prosecution nor by a cascade of pontifications and platitudes in which the Janata leaders from the Prime Minister downward can compete with equal ineffectiveness as the Congress leaders of different labels.

If Indira Gandhi’s Emergency has shown up what the sycophants and operators can do with disastrous consequences for the country, there is no dearth of these two dangerous species under the Janata dispensation. The value-system under the Janata is no better than under the Congress, with this difference that the Janata is a ramshackle outfit compared to what the Congress was while in power; as a result, the operators and the sycophants have to reckon with exposures through infights which the Indira hegemony could cover up, at least up to a point.

The degeneration of political life that the Shah Commission Reports have underlined for the period of the Emergency, is brought out sharply by the present-day goings-on in New Delhi in the Janata camp. The current item of interminable speculation in the Janata parlours is about the health of Charan Singh. Is he irreparably incapacitated by his present bout of severe illness from holding again the sceptre of the powerful Home portfolio? Those who seem to be charitably disposed towards the so-called iron man of the Janata Cabinet, concede that, if at all, he might be retained as a Minister without portfolio more as a gesture than as a political asset. In normal course, this might mean that the Prime Minister himself might be taking over Home.

But things are certainly far from normal. Indications of this could be available even before Charan Singh was taken to hospital. If gossips are to be given credence, the RSS chief, Deoras, had intervened sometime ago in patching up the rift that was widening between Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nanaji Deshmukh. Soon after came Nanaji’s bombshell proposal—made with the knowledge and consent of the Janata President, Chandra Shekhar—that leaders over sixty must retire from the government. The target was obvious: the three Big Guns, Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram and Charan Singh.

At first, this proposal was taken as one of the periodic stunts in which all politicians occasionally indulge. But it has assumed considerable significance after Charan Singh’s illness and his likely incapacitation. Before Morarji Desai can regroup his team trying to maintain the precarious balance that has marked his Cabinet from the very outset, the initiative for a new alignment has come from the BLD-Jana Sangh combine. Reports current in New Delhi say that the lead in this respect has been jointly taken by Biju Patnaik and Atal Behari Vajpayee, but they have been careful enough to make their own choice from among the Cong-O in the person of Ravindra Varma, the Labour Minister, and from among the Socialists in the person of George Fernandes, the Industry Minister. Conspicuously left in the cold, is the former CFD.

This is the genesis of the so-called unity move of eight Central Ministers. Patnaik who may be regarded as the leader of these new Turks, has been forthright: he publicly stated that the three at the top should work together, or clear out—that is make room for the others. Although Morarji Desai has reportedly frowned upon it, there was nothing that he could do to forestall it. Meanwhile, Jayaprakash Narayan’s blessings have been secured, and if there is JP’s clearance, it is obvious that Chandra Shekhar has to be very much in the picture.

The plus point of a renovated Janata Cabinet which the more impetuous among the new Turks are trying to sell is that Chandra Shekhar has to be made the Prime Minister, for apart from JP’s blessings, he commands a quantum of charisma, Vajpayee, representing the most well-knit unit of the combnine, namely, the Jana Sangh, could be the Deputy Prime Minister, continuing in External Affairs. Between Patnaik and Fernandes, Defence and Home can be settled. The rest of the portfolios would be a matter of adjustment between the other five of the eight. Bahuguna might be offered a minor portfolio, so that he would be compelled to refuse it.

This arrangement, very neat in appearance, is taken by those opposed to the BLD-Jana Sangh axis as a determined bid on its part to consolidate its position in the government in the crucial phase of uncertainty to which the Ministry has entered following Charan Singh’s incapacitation. Outwardly, the advertised explanation would be that the rot in the Janata could be stopped only by a streamlined and cohesive Cabinet of like-minded elements, and only if the Centre is made stable, the State governments in their turn could be made to function better.

However attractive all this may sound on paper—granting that a man like Chandra Shekhar would be ready to be roped in—the snag lies in the fact that the minus points of the Janata Raj are not confined to mere inaction of the Morarji Government. Even with a good food reserve and a comfortable hard currency reserve, the government has had to take recourse to police violence on a large-scale whether on workers, the poor peasants or the minorities. Pantnagar, Kanpur, Bailadila are its bloody landmarks as much as Belchi, Bishrampur and Sambhal. Its chauvinist policy with regard to Hindi is matched by its studied neglect of Urdu. The concessions to Big Business cannot be covered up by serving quit notice on IBM and Coca-Cola.

All these are not just the stock-in-trade of the Congress propaganda, but part of the grumblings of a good section of the Janata ranks, apart from the open criticism of its ally, the CPM. The wide response to President Sanjiva Reddy’s unorthodox criticisms of the government is a significant pointer. A musical-chair Cabinet reshuffle in a situation riddled with forbidding socio-economic issues is as enduring as cheap-quality cosmetics on a hot summer afternoon.

The Janata Government has far too long banked on a plethora of platitudes ranging from rural bias to barefoot doctor, from small-scale industry to prohibition. What it seemed to have missed is that this type of populism can no longer work. Indira Gandhi, who made populism into a fine art, ended up by losing power. The Janata leaders who still lack her finesse and the style to hoodwink the masses, have to realise that their brand of populism has less chance of credibility, and this one year’s record has convincingly demonstrated it.

A crisis of imponderable dimension thus faces the Indian people. It can be tackled neither by a refurbished Janata Government nor by an unrepentant Indira Gandhi. Exploiting these repulsive alternatives between the discredited and the disreputable, any adventurist may surface cashing in on the prevailing instability, to force things into a dangerous direction.

More than ever before, this beloved country of ours must cry out for a leadership that it deserves. Somewhere beyond this cesspool of sordid politickings, has to be found the assertion of new values based on dedication and wisdom, on fidelity to the cause of the toiling millions who constitute the backbone of this great nation.

There has to be a new connotation of patriotism impelling a regeneration of our politics.
(Mainstream, May 20, 1978)

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