Governance, after Gujarat

REJOICING THROUGHOUT the realm. The prince of paranoia therapy has ascended the Gandhinagar throne. "Gaurav" has been reclaimed. A great ideological victory has been won against the secular camp. The pseudo-secularists, especially in the English media, have been shown their place. Total bliss. The BJP's national executive was converted into a massive celebration. The party president, Venkaiah Naidu, is promising the kingdom more of the "Gujarat spirit". Every winner is entitled to a spot of crowing. But then, all good things must come to an end and reality makes its presence felt.

Indeed, the reality reasserted itself within days of the Gujarat results when the National Development Council met last Saturday, where the Prime Minister had to note "the political diversity reflected in the Governments at the Centre and in States". Neither have the numbers in the Lok Sabha changed to the BJP's advantage nor has the number of non-BJP Governments decreased. The political arrangements remain deeply divided, making the task of governance no more amenable to the deshbhakts' ministrations than it was before the presumably ideological victory in Gujarat.

A plethora of governance-centric problems are nipping at Atal Behari Vajpayee's heels. Will it, then, be fair to expect that the "Gujarat spirit" would energise the paralysed Vajpayee Government into taking decisions, at least some soft ones. For example, now that Lal Krishna Advani is not battling the scourge of pseudo-secularism, will he apply his mind to selecting gubernatorial nominees for Hyderabad and Srinagar? Will the vacancies in the National Human Rights Commission be filled, even after two years? Should the debate over disinvestment within the NDA be presumed to be over in the true "Gujarat spirit"? Will the Cabinet meetings, which now resemble "zero hours", be more purposeful and coherent? Will senior Ministers stop working their Palm Pilots during Cabinet meetings? Will the Shatrughan Sinhas and the Vinod Khannas start attending office? In other words, the country would want to know whether the NDA crowd will find itself sufficiently enthused with the "Gujarat spirit" to live up to minimum standards of collective responsibility. Then, there are hard decisions and hard calculations to be made. Will Nepal, Bangladesh or even Bhutan be more solicitous of our security concerns, now that we have stumbled upon a formula to tame our minorities? Will terrorist outfits be sufficiently overawed with the return of the "Hindutva ideology" as the guiding spirit?

No citizen would have any reason to complain if the proposed invocation of the "Gujarat spirit" were to enhance the capacities of the Indian state or to deter our enemies. There is little scope for optimism. It is one thing to use the Intelligence Bureau to manipulate the release of "terrorists" in Jammu and Kashmir and then to accuse the Congress of being "soft on terrorism", and it is altogether a different proposition to change the paradigm of violence and counter-violence in the Kashmir Valley. The Modi rhetoric has fetched votes but it has its limits in matters of governance and geostrategic calculus.

It may be entirely coincidental but someone does seem to be recognising the limits of the Modi formula. For example, just when the Gujarat results were coming a frantic search was undertaken for a visible "Muslim" face in the bureaucracy in New Delhi; Wajahat Habibullah was asked post haste to come down to New Delhi to become a Secretary (in the Department of Consumers Affairs). Also, rather quietly, it was announced that the PMO had sanctioned extension of the Haj subsidy regime; in fact, Nagpur and Gaya are to be added to the expanding list of cities for subsidised Haj flights. But this set of preferences will be challenged by the Gujarat-centric aggressiveness.

Going by the noises heard at the BJP national executive, the "Gujarat spirit" comes down to two new attitudes: partisanship towards political rivals and populism in economic decision-making. The party has programmed itself into election mode, very much like the Congress did after its defeat in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in 1994. It is a different matter that the Congress still lost in 1996. In the Gujarat campaign, Narendra Modi argued — and argued successfully — that "security" was the highest priority, and that issues of governance, development, delivery had to take the backseat. The "Gujarat spirit", if it gets replicated outside Modiland, would induce a kind of populism that distracts from the dharma of fiscal responsibility. The convulsions within the BJP over the Kelkar "Consultation Paper" reveal the populist itch.

If this populist itch is to be extended to next year's elections, then the temptation — irrespective of success or failure of the replication of the Gujarat experience — would be to take it up to the next Lok Sabha elections. This means a virtual halt to Arun Shourie's disinvestment plans. This means no reform of subsidies. At the NDC meeting, the Prime Minister had exhorted: "We need to be clear in our minds for what purposes the subsidies are meant, for whom, to what extent, and how we can make sure that they reach the poor and are not siphoned off by others. Where the existing subsidies do not fulfil these objectives, we should put in place a firm roadmap for applying correctives in a time-bound manner." The "Gujarat spirit" will only accentuate the absence of any consensus within the party, the Sangh Parivar or the NDA.

Second, as the BJP pumps itself up for the next electoral round, the Centre will find itself hamstrung in forging the requisite "consensus" outside the NDA; neither Mr. Modi's victory nor Mr. Naidu's shrillness changes the fact that there are 18 non-BJP State Governments. Petty partisanship such as naming Madan Lal Khurana to be the head of the Delhi Metro is excusable, but partisanship in allocation of resources will not work. As the Karnataka Chief Minister put it politely at the NDC meeting: "Politicisation of the allocation decisions in an open economy will only be detrimental to healthy growth." If the Centre were to allow itself to be guided solely by the "Gujarat spirit", it will find itself stranded in the quagmire of irreversible partisanship. A victory in Gujarat has not given the BJP any mandate to rearrange the country's landscape.

Whether Mr. Naidu likes it or not, governances for years to come will have to be negotiated through constitutionally-sanctioned institutional constraints as well as through a divided political spread. The post-Gujarat aggressive denunciations of the "media" and the Central Election Commission are attempts at browbeating democratic institutions whose job it is to slow down any kind of ill-liberality. It is understandable that the Advanis and the Naidus should be exhorting the people to show their patriotism, but it does not mean that the civil liberty watchdogs should stop protesting police excesses or the National Human Rights Commission should cease its vigil against administrative high-handedness. Arbitrariness does not ipso facto add to a ruler's effectiveness, nor to his creativity, imagination or credibility; neither does it make up for the paucity of talent.

After Gujarat, the real struggle is bound to be between the right-wing and the far-right wing within the Sangh Parivar; but, the Congress can be relied upon to be equally unthinking in its approach. Be that as it may, the "Gujarat spirit" should ensure that for the next 20 months the Vajpayee regime will be denied any space or equanimity; neither rapprochement with Pakistan nor peace at home. Unless Mr. Vajpayee digs his heels in and shows a stamina to roll back "the Gujarat experiment" we can only compound our strategic and economic difficulties.