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Commandeering change

Harish Khare
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With just a lacklustre UPA and a partisan BJP to choose from, the country must vote for inclusiveness, compassion and harmony in 2014

A month away from India, without Indian newspapers and television, can be a deeply detoxifying experience. Without the clutter of daily chatter, the big picture becomes clearer. The country is in the mood for change. The status quo is no longer very inspiring; it does not engage society’s collective attention and does not even agitate us enough to look to the political arena for reassurance.

Just think: for the last 15 years the country has had just two Prime Ministers. There was a time between 1996 and 1998 when the country had four Prime Ministers and we deeply yearned for “stability.” In fact, when it came to power in New Delhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had even thought of tinkering with the Constitution to produce “stability.”

Collective dissatisfaction

Now we are tired of stability, as we declare that the stability of old men has not exactly been the answer to our collective prayers. Meanwhile the country just gets younger and younger and a whole generation has come of age knowing only two Prime Ministers.

The yearning for change is not against this or that government; it is a collective dissatisfaction with the political class as a whole and its institutionalised indifference. While we have empowered our citizens with more and more rights, talked incessantly of “democratization” and tirelessly invoked the aam aadmi , the gap between the citizen’s expectations and satisfaction has only widened.

It is in the nature of political contestation and its modern techniques of marketing and persuasion, that we are often lured into believing that all our accumulated problems would get resolved overnight if only this or that person replaces this or that incumbent.

On Modi

Narendra Modi has understood this yearning for change and is promising a change from the tired and compromised United Progressive Alliance (UPA). But he has already scared sober and sensible middle class Indians. The country has watched with apprehension how a provincial and deeply divisive actor has not only hijacked a national political party but has also forced one and all — some of them proud and sensitive public leaders in the BJP — to fall in line with his ambitions.

However, Mr. Modi may have won a battle against the BJP, but he has yet to convince the nation that he represents the change that it needs or wants. In the process, the BJP has made a grand miscalculation: that the Lok Sabha election would be held in November 2013. It was this miscalculation that propelled the party's strategy to bring Parliament to a grinding halt and to frogmarch the UPA leadership towards a dissolution of the Lok Sabha and early elections.

That did not happen. And now Mr. Modi has peaked too early; he is no longer looking the bright, unsullied, sparkling thing that he was three months earlier; his “model” is already under scrutiny, and is being contested in city after city, in a thousand conversations across the land. The “feku” will not be allowed to get away with half-truths. Indian democracy has developed a healthy capacity to see through those who make spurious claims.

To be fair to him, Mr. Modi has not promised any grand or dramatic departures from the presumed elements of “national consensus.” He is only saying he will take forward the same agenda (including toilets) but with much greater vigour, greater honesty and without “corruption,” compared to the UPA. He has yet to identify a single programme of the UPA that he categorically promises to scrap.

It may be worth recalling that during the National Democratic Alliance’s “golden era,” Atal Bihari Vajpayee never once broke ranks with national consensus. The only time he could not live up to the obligations of this consensus was when he failed to show the door to the man responsible for the Gujarat riots in 2002. It was because he failed to safeguard the basic interests of the Indian state that the voters showed him the door. Now the same man who ensured the end of the Vajpayee era is asking for our indulgence, without any of the Vajpayeean refinements.

So, the grand question is this: has the country changed so much that it has suddenly become sanguine enough about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to accept its nominee as Prime Minister?

Arguably, democracies the world over breed distrust and dissatisfaction with the government of the day. We in India have made a habit of changing and challenging governments every five years. Indeed the only exception was when the UPA was voted back in 2009. That victory had perhaps as much to do with the UPA’s politics of becalming the nation and healing our collective wounds, as with the nature of its opposition. At nearly 80, L.K. Advani could not be the answer to a 77-year-old Manmohan Singh. Mr. Advani was too familiar a face, his pluses and minuses were all too well known to appropriate the mantle of “change.” His only claim to attention was that he was not a Manmohan Singh. And Dr. Singh’s advantage was that he was sought to be replaced by an Advani.

The Congress and Rahul

And so, in 2014, the country will again make a choice, and that decision will hinge on the citizen’s sense of who can produce a desirable change without unsettling our established sense of comfort and order.

The Congress has a difficult task. It has been ruling the country for 10 years, with a governing model that has never fully been appreciated nor entirely accepted. Its performance, at best, can be described as a mixed blessing.

It now has to anchor itself in this gathering desire for change. Rahul Gandhi has on his hands a delicate task: how to put some distance between the Congress of 2014 and the UPA of 2004-2014. He began that process very clumsily and inelegantly when he rubbished the “criminal” ordinance. In the process, everybody, including his mother, the Congress president, and the Prime Minister, stands diminished.

This unsteady start can only be a beginning. Mr. Gandhi has to assure the nation that he is here to stay and has the stamina of a long-distance runner. So far his “leadership” has been erratic, at best. Leadership is not a matter of private convenience, nor is it a personal hobby to be pursued at random. It is a lifelong commitment, with both rewards and frustrations.

And if he is here to stay, the country will want to know how, if at all, Mr. Gandhi will be different from his mother and Dr. Manmohan Singh. Will he, for example, continue with A.K. Antony, that king of inertia, as a senior minister and even more respected a counsellor? Will he remain in awe of the Kamal Naths and the Anand Sharmas, of petty practitioners of petty arrogance? Will he be able to assure the nation that he will have no compunction in discarding non-performing Congress leaders and their less than wholesome instincts and tactics?

On the other hand, the BJP has been out of power for 10 years now. Addicted as it is to righteousness, the party has not come to terms with the loss of 2004; its leaders did not have the grace to accept the voters’ choice; the loss of 2009 only deepened the bitterness and propelled the party on a path of unbridled partisanship and confrontation. Now, if the Modi-led BJP does not get a chance to rule, the party could turn its back on parliamentary democracy, just as the Jana Sangh had done after the 1971 loss.

For now, neither Mr. Modi nor Mr. Gandhi has pan-Indian acceptance. Both of them face two dozen counter-narratives of competence and performance. A prime ministerial mascot can only marginally help his party overcome its organisational infirmities and its ideological confusion. Yet the country needs to change out of its current matrix of too much confrontation and too little harmony, too much contestation and too little consensus, too much institutional overreach and too little institutional synergy. If we have to survive as a vibrant nation in an unforgiving world, then our polity must change and cure itself of the present fascination for cultivated divisiveness and joyful ugliness. The change the country needs is a rediscovery of inclusiveness, compassion and harmony as the first principles of statecraft.

(Harish Khare is a senior journalist and a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow.)


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