Envious Casca, Noble Brutus

Ever since an envious, over-ambitious Sonia Gandhi yanked Atal Bihari Vajpayee out of South Block for the offense of doing a fairly credible job, the nation has been subjected to intense polemics on the pedigree of our politicians and their right to rule. As is natural in the circumstances, the debate has tended to focus on the Congress president’s foreign origins, the justice of her claim to the Prime Minister’s office, and the propriety of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s refusal to let the anti-BJP conspiracy come to the desired fruition.

Signora Gandhi’s bards in the media have surrendered nationalism to some invisible compulsions and are indulging in sterile literalism on the nature of her citizenship. Worse, they are trying to project a constitutional lacuna as the considered opinion of the Constituent Assembly, when it is well-known that the founding fathers had not remotely envisaged a European bidding for the nation’s top job!

To this day, the Signora has refused to clarify whether she holds dual citizenship of India and Italy. Instead, the issue is being obscured through comparison with incentives offered to Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) to attract foreign investment. The truth is that the debate over Sonia Gandhi’s claim to power is an open issue. It touches the raw emotions of citizens who do not have such exalted cosmopolitanism as to be able to countenance this development without feeling betrayed. Indeed, to this class, the Samajwadi Party leader is no spoiler who tripped an effulgent Signora on her way to the swearing-in ceremony, but the ‘noblest Roman’ who refused to collude with the schemers once the original aim of the conspiracy (the government’s fall) was achieved.

To my mind, however, the current debate overlooks the quantum jump in national perceptions in response to the breathtaking events of the past few weeks. The scandalous manner in which the government’s fall was planned triggered a major shift in the nations’ consciousness even as the plot was unfolding. This is why certain events unfolded the way they did in the run-up to the vote of confidence, and why the BJP-led alliance held firm after its defeat, to the surprise of expectant politicians and observers alike.

My point is simply that there was no apparent need for Karunanidhi to rush to the rescue of the Vajpayee government. The argument that he did so to save his own government is specious. In the wake of the Supreme Court judgement in the Bommai case, the President’s decisions in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and the Congress party’s own flip-flop in Bihar, his government was in no danger. That he nevertheless felt the DMK had a stake in the BJP coalition indicates a major shift in consciousness. This is why his vote for Vajpayee was no one-time event, and is likely to be cemented by a formal alliance at the polls.

This kind of change was first noticed last year when Chandrababu Naidu, Farooq Abdullah and Om Prakash Chautala broke ranks with trusted friends to support the government, though this was camouflaged by talk of issues, state interests, and so on. But the relationship was real, and barring some wavering by Chautala, all were committed to the regime’s survival. Later, only Abdullah offered cooperation to a successor government (if any); but he also sacked the recalcitrant Saifuddin Soz.

As for partners like the Biju Janata Dal, they did not collapse at the first whiff of trouble. Instead, the Janata Dal in Bihar and Orissa is tending to split in favour of the BJD-BJP. The Samata and Lok Shakti, despite problems of their own, are winning friends for the alliance; Mamata Banerjee is a one-woman army. Many of these parties enjoy the support of the Muslim community (which they are keen to retain), so their decision to consciously ally with the ‘communal’ BJP must have a deeper significance.

The latest to desert the ranks of the anti-BJP forces is Mulayam Singh Yadav. His defection has caused the greatest surprise to politicians and intellectuals alike. To me it makes profound sense, and validates the developments of the past three decades. Mulayam Singh is leader of rural backward caste groups in U.P. However, like some of the BJP’s allies, he enjoys considerable support from the Muslim community. Those familiar with the history of northern India would know that this social grouping posed the first successful challenge to Congress hegemony and scripted its debacle in 1967. It was the first effective harbinger of a non-Nehruvian viewpoint on the political panorama.

At that time, our intellectuals, programmed to think in sterile leftist or western liberal stereotypes, viewed this as a development that would fragment society and politics. Unfortunately, caste became a mantra for quick political mobilization, resulting in a plethora of caste-ethnic-regional parties, with all-India parties seeking accommodation with the new reality. This gave rise to the middle class revulsion for small parties and a yearning for a neat two-party system.

But leaders like Mulayam Singh have a deeper historical relevance. They are the guerrillas of independent India; men who challenged the debilitating communism-in-disguise of Jawaharlal Nehru, who denigrated every authentic expression of the national ethos. To this day I cannot understand the refusal to demarcate state boundaries on linguistic basis, when language remains the basis of state identity. Today, as we discuss the break up of large states for administrative convenience, we should realize that when Nehru put the fear in us that legitimate local aspirations would break up the nation, he was really indulging his passion for collectivization – a pure Stalinist notion if ever there was any.

In this intellectual atmosphere, leaders like Lohia and Charan Singh demanded recognition for an authentically Indian institution like caste. Many of us view caste in terms of shameful atrocities on lower classes. Yet it is essentially a source of identity, self-respect, and self-assertion. Nehru tried to destroy all traditional forms of identity – linguistic, caste, and especially the Hindu civilizational ethos – while magnifying minority consciousness of the Muslims for electoral purposes. Ironically, the Muslim-as-votebank became the legacy of parties that challenged Congress supremacy in local sinecures, and for a while gave an apparent brittleness to Indian politics.

The major lacuna in the challenge to the Nehruvian framework was the lack of an overarching alternative. The BJP made a breakthrough when it espoused the Ram Janmabhoomi cause; but the temple was only the branch of the tree. The BJP discovered the roots unwittingly when Prime Minister Vajpayee formed a coalition government. Whatever the regime’s merits or failings, it gave its partners seats of honour, not just  according to their electoral muscle, but in deference to their perceived status. This is the old Indian concept of the chakravarti samrat and the circle of kings. It accepts the legitimacy of regional leaders, but they must know their limits (only Jayalalitha transgressed the norms).

The Congress system, in contrast, accepts local leaders grudgingly, and strains every muscle to destroy them. It is equally uncomfortable with the rights of states, even those ruled by its own party units. The recognition of this basic difference has broadened Vajpayee’s alliance in the wake of his unexpected defeat. This call from the bowels of Mother India has made the allies risk the minority votebank in the hope that a larger societal realignment will bless the emerging political faultline.


The Pioneer, 11 May 1999

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