Despite some similarities with the political environment that catapulted V.P. Singh to power, the leadership vacuum makes the run-up to the next general election significantly different

The year 2012 has begun to increasingly resemble the tumultuous months before the countdown began to the 1989 general election. Then too, as now, there was disenchantment and resentment simmering against the ruling party accused of corruption and inspiring political formations to harness these sentiments to dislodge it from power. Then too, as now, divisive communal issues were appended to the political agenda to broaden the appeal of the campaign against corruption. Then too, as now, there was anger and fear and hope in the air, creating an ambience in which every voter, particularly in North India, was swayed to cast his ballot in very different ways than he or she had in the past.

Yet these thematic similarities gloss over the remarkable differences between the Indian political reality of 1989 and 2012. Then, unlike now, coalition governance hadn’t established roots in a system over which the Congress dominated. Then, unlike now, the political landscape didn’t have a multiplicity of small parties which were willing to support the Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre in exchange for governing their respective States. Then, unlike now, the Indian voter was averse to rooting for coalitions, believing unstable governments at the Centre were inimical to national interests.

Corruption

These differences raise the question: could the return of two Cs — corruption and communalism — before the 2014 general election usher in sweeping, even cataclysmic, changes similar to what the 1989 election produced?

But first, the thematic similarities. Irrespective of the explanations the Congress has been trotting out for its 2G and coal mine allocation policies, it is unlikely to persuade people into believing in the innocence of the Manmohan Singh government. Remember the script of the pre-1989 months? The more the Rajiv Gandhi government denied commissions were paid in the Bofors deal, the more suspicious people became. Again, as in 1989, the coal scam has discredited the Prime Minister’s Office, rendering it vulnerable to direct attacks from the Opposition. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his team have also taken to adopting a belligerent posture against Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai, reminiscent of Rajiv Gandhi’s snide and caustic remarks against V.P. Singh, who had spearheaded the campaign of corruption then. It generated a groundswell against the Congress.

And communalism

Closely entwined with the issue of corruption in 1989 was that of communalism. In the weeks before the country went to polls, the Sangh Parivar sought to redefine the idea of India through its decision to launch the shilanyas ceremony for building a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Consecrated bricks were ferried from around the country, consequently fusing the political and the religious. Simultaneously, the Sangh provided organisational support to V.P. Singh in his election campaign and deftly combined corruption and communalism in a volatile mix of politics.

There are some telling signs of what the Sangh’s game plan could be for the 2014 election. For one, the increasing murmur in the Sangh to project Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate aims to combine Hindutva with corruption, particularly as a veritable myth has been created around his penchant for development and his presumed incorruptible style of governance. The alacrity with which the Sangh-BJP tried to exploit the ethnic/communal clashes in Assam underlines its adamant refusal to eschew its socially divisive policies. These will remain on its agenda as it adopts the corruption issue to broaden its appeal.

Yet 2014 is unlikely to witness a repeat of 1989. For one, V.P. Singh’s campaign had a decisive edge because emerging as a whistle-blower from inside the Rajiv Gandhi government, he was hailed for abnegating the charm of office for upholding probity in office, and becoming both a contrasting figure to those accused of corruption as well as a rallying figure for mass disaffection. It was the reason why opposition parties veered towards him.

In the absence of a Singh-like whistle-blower in 2012, the mantle of leadership of the campaign against corruption should have been the principal opposition party’s. This presumes the party must boast credible credentials, or at least a new leadership which hasn’t yet governed to sully its image. This advantage the BJP forfeited during its six years of governance, between 1998 and 2004. Worse, its government in Karnataka has become a symbol of crony capitalism, corruption, and poor governance. It can scarcely speak of Dr. Singh’s complicity in the fraudulent allocation of mines at the time its own government in Chhattisgarh has been accused of the same.

Civil society

The disrepute of the political class explains why the campaign against corruption in 2012, unlike 1989, has become the civil society’s preserve. The BJP had hoped to piggyback Team Anna to reap the electoral dividend, but was outmanoeuvred as the latter decided to float its own party and adopt the anti-BJP, anti-Congress stance.

Nervous that Team Anna could eat into its urban vote, the saffron brigade has propped up Baba Ramdev who can combine the two Cs in his campaign. But even Ramdev’s credibility has been eroded considerably over the last one year, evoking mirth rather than an inspiring impulse.

Unlike in 1989, the BJP countenances an acute problem. While its campaign against corruption sounds hollow in the backdrop of its deplorable record, its perennial desire to reinvent Hindutva runs the risk of alienating its allies. As seen already, the attempt to project Mr. Modi triggered open and stiff resistance from Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, as will perhaps its attempt to harp on the issue of “illegal migration” from Bangladesh.

Indeed, despite the sound and fury on display in Parliament, the anti-corruption campaign suffers from a veritable leadership vacuum. The Left, unlike 1989, is neither visible nor appears keen to contribute its mite to this campaign beyond Parliament. No doubt, Team Anna enjoys credibility but palpably lacks the organisational structure and political experience to spearhead a mass movement. It was for this reason that it was keen to lure Mr. Nitish Kumar, hoping to make him the face of its campaign if he were to sever his link with the BJP. Perhaps a more realistic estimate of Team Anna will have to wait till it launches their Bharat yatra from October 2.

Considering the Congress’s strident criticism of Mr. Vinod Rai, who can tell whether he would resist the temptation to emulate Gen. (retd.) V.K. Singh in entering the political arena? This much, though, can be said that it would be difficult as of now to rediscover the magic of the 1989 anti-corruption stir. At best, it is likely to remain confined to urban centres, its impact confined to making a difference between winning and losing for the parties in the fray.

(The author is a Delhi-based journalist. Email: ashrafajaz3@gmail.com)

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