Prescription for the Nineties 

M.L. Sondhi

The Statesman, January 1, 1990

The question of the stability of the Indian political system and the impact of new social relationships in the transition from one epoch to another have recently attracted much attention.  The Rajiv Gandhi era has demonstrated convincingly that we cannot reach the 21st century by talking of human needs, ideas and capacities in the abstract.  It is through our civilizational values that we can provide continuity between the past, the living present and the future generations.

Again, we cannot achieve political and social cohesiveness by merely promising the application of modern technology.  The up-gradation of technology, no doubt, has important consequences for securing social and material objectives but it has possibilities for both freedom and oppression.  For instance, technology can be misused to manipulate public opinion through the electronic media or through the ballot box, and thereby undermine the democratic order.

Reform of the Indian Party System:

Democracy can be strengthened only if political development generates dynamic and cohesive forces which have integrative potential.  For this it is necessary that there should be political parties which address themselves to the Indian nation as a whole and not to small segments of the population.

Social change inevitably creates special interest groups which in turn give rise to splinter parties, and these can become a threat to the democratic process.  What is required, therefore, is reform and rejuvenation of the Indian party system with the following objectives: to free Indian political life from the dominant influence of money; to integrate traditional values with the idealism of the younger generation; to strengthen integral humanism against the twin dehumanizing dangers of Communism and fascism; and to strengthen parliamentary institutions by linking them to the social and economic interests of the masses.

Unfortunately in the name of social change, the Congress party has led the country into inflation and economic crisis, which in turn has intensified the level of social and economic conflict in the country.  By imposing her personal rule at the cost of the viability of Indian parliamentary institutions, Mrs. Indira Gandhi weakened not only her own party but the entire Indian party system.

In the 1980s the Indian party system has not been based on nationwide cohesive and effective political forces, but has been in the grip of industrial and agricultural elites, which have penetrated almost every Indian party.  If the fabric of national unity is to be preserved this process must be reversed.  National political parties will have to come forward to integrate divergent and conflicting interests into a collective whole attuned to the nation’s genius for self-renewal.

The decision of Mrs. Gandhi in 1970 to make the Congress party her willing and subservient tool by refusing to hold intra-party elections summed up the decay of the Indian political process.  Again, by refusing to honour the principle of collective decision-making by the Cabinet, the well-known tenet of collective responsibility of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers was sacrificed to the cult of personal power.  The attack on the Press and the misuse of state-owned media were not isolated factors.  There was an arbitrary approach to the bureaucracy, to the judiciary, and to other institutions.

In answer to the political crisis of 1974-75, the political process of democracy was suspended for a year-and a-half and the country was ruled by ordinances.  It is true that there was a reaction against this extremely reckless policy, and the ascent to power of the Janata Government resulted in the repeal of the 42nd amendment to the Constitution.  To some extent, the democratic system has been strengthened by narrowing the options for declaring Emergency in the future and by restoring the independence and integrity of the judiciary.

With her return to power in January 1980, Mrs. Gandhi again made a determined effort to consolidate personal power instead of seeking the support and cooperation of democratic elements.  In 1982, when the Congress (I) lost in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, the party encouraged defections in order to hang on to power.  The subsequent defeat of the ruling party in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka showed that even with wholesale political corruption the electoral battle could not be won.   

The political succession from Mrs. Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi took place under extraordinary circumstances of acute national shock.  As a result, in the general election that followed, the political forces could not work out realignments in answer to the real contradictions inherent in Indian political society.

In a brilliant article titled “India: Awakening and Decay” Professor James Manor pointed out the following contradictions which are with us even now:  “In many, perhaps most, parts of India, daunting impediments stand in the way of this sort of cleansing of the Congress party.  The would-be cleansers usually cannot find an alternative leader who is both honest and powerful.  And even when they do the unsavoury elements are so formidable that there is greater risk in excluding them from the party than in including them. 

“This was true, for example, in the State of Haryana.  Many observers were shocked when the Prime Minister included in his Cabinet Bansi Lal, a Haryana politician who had been a hard line member of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime between 1975 and 1977.  It was then learned that Rajiv Gandhi had appointed him to the Cabinet to check the power of the sitting Chief Minister of Haryana, Bhajan Lal, who also had a highly dubious reputation (he had led mass defections from party to party, and he had made constant questionable intrusions into his bureaucrats’ actions).

“Why did Rajiv Gandhi not dismiss the Chief Minister to avoid having two such unattractive figures in the front rank of party leadership?  The answer was that there was no reliable figure in Haryana with enough power to stand up to the destructive anti-party actions these men would mount if they were excluded from powerful, posts.  At such moments, Rajiv Gandhi appears to be as much the prisoner of unsavoury elements in his party as the leader.”

Mr. V.P. Singh is bound to face similar constraints as the situation unfolds.  It is only by learning the lessons of previous failures that the political system can be put in proper shape.  It is not too late to realize that the mafia groups which cast an ominous shadow over the Indian political parties and have recently introduced violence on an unprecedented scale into the electoral process are the result of a much broader and more basic process of social disintegration.

Modernisation of Political Process:

Political regeneration is possible, but to succeed it is necessary to overcome the polarization between vested interests and the broad mass of the people.  All parties need to function along democratic lines with office-bearers elected through organizational elections.  Until this becomes the general practice, the spirit and ideals of democracy will not permeate the party system, and the participatory demands of the Indian people will not be met.

There are certain important problems relating to the modernization of the political process which are imperfectly understood by those who over-emphasize the technocratic aspects of modern life.  Thus, many believe that television, as a powerful medium, can help create a new type of politics and computerization can create solutions for the complexities of development.  Such views are based upon the wishful thinking of policy-makers who have lost touch with political realities.

Democratization has meaning only if it brings in increasing measures of economic democracy.  In a country where the problem of mass unemployment and chronic under-employment has not yet been seriously tackled, superficial talk of modernization introduces an element of hypocrisy and makes the public increasingly sceptical about political performance.  The basic priorities of development must be geared to fulfilling the interests of those who have remained underprivileged and deprived so far.

New social and economic groups are searching for and must find expression in the political system.  Similarly, local and regional identities demand attention along with the national identity, and the political system needs skilful handling so as not to come in the way of mass awakening and social transformation.  Political modernization cannot mean over centralization but should involve the fullest satisfaction of the legitimate demands of the people of different regions and areas consistent with the overall requirements of Indian unity.

The age-old ideals of Indian culture have to find the fullest expression in Indian federalism.  The Indian State has no place for the fundamentalists who are plaguing West Asia and causing violent convulsions.  India has the most ancient heritage of local self-governing bodies.  There is no reason why these should not again function effectively and give India the foremost place among the genuinely democratic nations of the world.

<< Back