Vajpayee’s Victory

M.L. Sondhi
on the election results

The Hindustan Times, October 9, 1999

The results of the 1999 elections have upset many expectations of the political pundits who predicted a confused outcome, if not victory for the emerging ‘largest party’.  So much accustomed to the triumphalism of the past, they failed to perceive the new psychological equilibrium produced by Vajpayee’s active role model in Indian politics.

Leaving aside UP and Punjab as special cases of pathological infighting, the prudence and deliberation with which the BJP has defied apocalyptic predictions in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, and has crossed declared ‘red lines’ almost everywhere else, is a tribute to the masterful integration of ‘strategy’ and ‘conscience’.  This is the Vajpayee factor that makes his policies distinctive from the abrasive real politik of other political dramatis personae.  The number of votes for the BJP, right up to the Andaman islands, is cause for trepidation for the other all-India party, the Congress.

Many illusions are being fostered to save the Congress face, but it is clear that the strength and impact of this party have been grossly overstated.  The grotesque exaggerations of many of the party’s spokesmen and sympathisers during the election campaign created a polarised environment in which the Congress leadership played a spoiler’s role.  The outstanding exception was Dr. Karan Singh who conducted a scholarly and sophisticated campaign.  They underestimated the challenge from a Prime Minister whose confidence stemmed not only from his government’s international reputation as an outward looking force, but who, despite pockets of resistance from his own side, came through as the vehicle for India’s political and cultural adjustment to scientific, technological and economic advance.

The Congress is no longer an ideology-driven organisation, it does not represent the Indian mainstream, and it has failed to democratise itself.  Hence it would be premature to talk of a real resurgence in a systemic sense of the Congress in UP, Karnataka or Punjab, since its dynastic model will exacerbate political feuding at both national and regional levels. evels.

Surveying the developments under way, there are grounds for cautious optimism in favour of the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance.  The task of running a coalition might indeed appear formidable, but the outcome will depend on the speed with which the mandate for economic reforms and strategic independence is translated into practice.  Let us look at the following five items and how they relate to the political scenario:

1.                   Respect for the electoral mandate: The platform of the NDA promises to provide impressive momentum to the processes of economic reform and modernisation.  The NDA takes a robust attitude to a dramatic economic turn around whereas the Congress and the Left, nostalgic for the pre-glasnost days in the Soviet Union, still speak a language opposed to the economic underpinning of a civil society.  They draw heart from the Chinese experiment in marrying incompatibles, which will lead, according to China watchers, not to synthesis, but to chaos.  The electoral verdict and its pattern is overwhelmingly in favour of democratic values.

2.                   The mandate to consolidate institutional structures for economic reforms: Vajpayee has clearly stated in a recent interview that he wishes to take reforms ‘to a new plane’: indeed he has hinted at a ‘hundred days’ programme.  Some policy recommendations could be adopted immediately to meet the multiple objectives of high and efficient growth, low inflation and rapid poverty alleviation: a) get the Finance Ministry out of determining interest rates, b) get the market in and c) let the Ministry of Finance and the Reserve Bank coordinate policies to make interest rates market-determined. As economic writer Surjit S. Bhalla has observed “Freeing the interest rate regime would be a win-win policy for Vajpayee’s government.  Growth will go up enormously.  Inefficiencies will be eliminated, jobs will increase, poverty rates will go down, inflation will stay low, and India’s competitiveness and exports should witness a boom.” d) To prevent inter-ministry battles either a reform-czar ministry or individual should be set or appointed to give a cohesive framework to reforms, as well as (e) an advisory committee of the best professionals on various aspects of reform.

3.                   Mandate to consolidate a strategic vision: The Vajpayee government clearly has a mandate to stablise India’s external environment, which can be firmed up by garnering support across the political spectrum.  A domestic consensus is coming into being for a new strategic direction for the next five years, composed of both a peaceful regional and global environment, but also for immediate security issues.  His policy spectrum of underground nuclear tests, missile development, withstanding the pressure of sanctions, ousting the Kargil intruders and ensuring the diplomatic isolation of Pakistan has been most impressive.  India’s interests will continue to include a nuclear inventory of both quantity and quality. The CTBT is not an end in itself.  India’s identity and federal cohesion can be secured by broadening the base of its strategic reliance.

4.                   Mandate for India as a mature and outward looking internationalist force: Even as a ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister, Vajpayee worked with vigour and success in taking crucial economic and strategic decisions disproving the thesis of a ‘power-vacuum’ at the Centre.  In the controversy over India’s telecom policy implementation, he was guided by the needs of reform and liberalisation.  When facing external military threats he reflected the strength of India’s democracy system and his own pragmatism and discretion in behaving like a responsible decision-maker leading a nuclear India.

His great moral achievement has been to restore India’s image as a mature and outward-looking internationalist force.  With the US he has opened a political space for both domestic prosperity and international leverage, but will have to manage the Indo-US relationship for it to function as a factor for stability and resist the allure of ‘appeasement’.

5.                   Mandate for legitimising ‘Indian’ secularism and strengthening democracy:  The Indian identity has been problematic since at least the last century, moving between tradition and modernity, secularism and culture, mainstream and subaltern.  The last BJP-led government began the process of legitimising an alternative version of Indian secularism – sarva dharma sambhava i.e., recognising the religious ethos of this country as expressed through no matter which religion, community or sect.  

Despite the brouhaha created by the dispossessed Congress and left elites, the functioning of the BJP-led government has been neither ‘theocratic’ – there are no Hindu priests with a canonical right to wield political power – nor fascist.  The only spell of fascist rule in this country, with suspension of the right to habeas corpus, full media censorship, suppression of all political freedoms took place under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, and she remains an icon for many Congress leaders.

We may indeed congratulate ourselves for following a relatively peaceful electoral procedure for changing governments.  But there are disturbing trends pointing to a devaluation of the spirit of democracy – an obsessive concern with a numerical majority to the exclusion of norms, institutions and restraints.  Politicians openly boast of rigging seats, of using criminal and mafia organisations to gather votes, and seek to electorally institutionalise dynasticism. In fact, the key issue for Vajpayee today is the unfinished task of taking democracy forward into the next millennium.

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