My colleagues tell me that India changed decisively in 1982. I was in school so I don’t really remember the detailed newspaper headlines of those days. But I do know that the politics of Andhra Pradesh changed forever in 1982. Apparently, the then Chief Minister of AP T. Anjaiah wanted to pick up the slippers of Rajiv Gandhi. And history was made. Rajiv Gandhi was the anointed leader of Congress and somehow, fact or not, that gesture to please Rajiv Gandhi prompted a film star called NT Rama Rao to launch a movement and a party to reclaim Telugu pride. Rao and his Telugu Desam party swept the assembly elections in 1983. Cut to about 30 years down the line and you see something dramatically different; and yet dramatically similar. Despite the huge hype that surrounded the Congress campaign led by Rahul Gandhi, it is Akhilesh Yadav of a regional outfit called Samajwadi Party who has won. In 1982, when Rajiv Gandhi took over the reins, Tamil Nadu was the only major state where the Congress party had been pushed to the sidelines as a fringe player dependent on outfits like AIADMK for votes and seats. In 2012, as Rahul Gandhi takes over the party, Congress has become a fringe player in almost one third of India.
Many political pundits and scholars are ascribing many reasons for this latest series of defeats confronting the Congress. Quite a few have gone on to say that the charisma of the Gandhi dynasty is irrevocably fading away. Some uncharitable analysts have even started questioning the credentials of the Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi to lead the party during 2014 Lok Sabha elections. I personally think it is too simplistic to start drawing such conclusions every time an election happens. In 2009, when the Congress won more than 200 seats in Lok Sabha elections and about 21 seats in Uttar Pradesh, everyone hailed Rahul Gandhi as a miracle man. Now, with such heavy defeats in the assembly elections, the same sets of people are writing off Rahul Gandhi.
A better way would be to look at the undercurrents of change that have been sweeping across India since 1982; some very visible and noisy and some low profile and silent. These changes are what have made things more difficult for Rahul Gandhi than they were for his father Rajiv Gandhi in 1982. It is for Rahul Gandhi and his advisors to understand and interpret the significance of these changes if they want the Congress to perform well in 2014 and beyond. I would list 10 major changes that have transformed India between the Rajiv era of the Congress and the present Rahul era. A lot of these changes are interlinked and have reinforced each other, without a doubt making India a more mature democracy despite all its flaws and blemishes.
1. Everyone talks and writes about the miracle of Indian democracy; about how free and fair elections have always been a plus for the country. I personally don’t think Indian elections were always free and fair in the true sense of the term. Booth capturing and rigging were often the norm. In a state like West Bengal, rigging had been developed into a fine art. That was mainly because the Chief Election Commissioner of India and the Election Commission were often hesitant to challenge the power of money and muscle during elections. That was till a gentleman called T.N Seshan took over the Election Commission. It was T.N Seshan who actually started the process whereby the Election Commission became a truly independent body. Seshan ended up offending many political parties and even challenged many goons openly. So powerful was his impact that politicians actually tweaked the law to ensure India has three election commissioners at one time rather than one. But there is simply no doubt that a more independent and fearless election commission marks the difference between 1982 and 2012. The process has moved so far ahead that the commission now takes on even the media when it comes to the dirty practice of ‘paid news’.
2. Back in 1982, telephones were a luxury that only the rich or the powerful could afford. People had to book a trunk call and wait for hours for a conversation. And phone calls were terribly expensive. It often cost Rs 90 for a 3 minute telephone call between Mumbai and Delhi. But the communications revolution – many ascribe it to the original vision of Rajiv Gandhi – has completely changed India. Today, the country has more than 800 million mobile phone subscribers who are constantly interacting with each other not just through voice but also text, chat and many other ways. In just a few years, India will have more than 400 million active users of the internet. In contrast to the India of Rajiv Gandhi, today’s India is all about instant and continuous communication. Both good and bad news spread instantly and no political party can now claim a monopoly over communication channels. Till not too far back, Mulayam Singh Yadav was known for publicly asking for a ban on English and on computers. In these elections, his son Akhilesh Yadav actually promised computers and tablets to voters. That is the power of the communications revolution in India.
3. Along with the communications revolution, India has also witnessed an unprecedented revolution in media. Back in 1982, the whole of India was in a tizzy when Rajiv Gandhi announced the launch of colour televisions on the eve of the Asian Games. In 2012, more than 100 news channels are round-the-clock telecasting bad news for the Congress and analyzing the performance of Rahul Gandhi. There is no doubt that India has enjoyed a free media since 1947, but it is only the advent of electronic media and private news channels that has made a deep impact. No doubt, private news channels go overboard, but it is their relentless coverage of scams and scandals that has ensured that even Akhilesh Yadav publicly distances himself from an alleged bahubali like DP Yadav. You may recall that DP Yadav’s son has been convicted for the murder of Nitish Katara and no one can deny the role played by media in highlighting and following up this crime to its logical conclusion. Already, every major town in India has a local news channel and this process will deepen even further in the future.
4. Closely interlinked with the communications and the media revolution is the rise and rise of activism in the country. In the Rajiv Gandhi era, India had a few notable activists like Sunder Lal Bahuguna, Aruna Roy and Ila Bhatt. The Rahul era is marked by hundreds of high and low profile activists who are constantly pushing for good governance and a more humane government. In the Rajiv era, it was so easy for the government to acquire land for a project, divert a river, build a dam, or even destroy a forest in the name of development. In contrast, governments today find it virtually impossible to act in such an arbitrary manner. It is activism that compels politicians to release their assets and criminal records before contesting elections; it is activism that is compelling bureaucracy to become more transparent. Ironically, it is this UPA government that has gifted activists with the most powerful instrument known as the Right to Information Act.
5. In 1975, the Allahabad High Court struck down the election of Indira Gandhi. This led to a chain of events that culminated in the imposition of Emergency. Sadly for Indian democracy, the Supreme Court more or less agreed to this murder of India’s democratic fabric. In contemporary India, it is impossible to think of the Supreme Court doing something similar. In fact, increasing judicial assertiveness is one of the least discussed and one of the most powerful changes that have occurred in India over the last three decades. I will give you a few examples to highlight how this impacts governments and public perception. Sometime back, the government announced the appointment of PJ Thomas as the head of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). The UPA government stuck to its guns despite protests from opposition parties. Someone filed a PIL in the Supreme Court and the court actually ordered the cancellation of Thomas’s appointment. The government had no choice but to bow down. An even more powerful and telling example is that of the 2G scam. Activists like Prashant Bhushan filed a PIL alleging massive corruption in the allotment of telecom licenses during the tenure of A. Raja. The Supreme Court not only ensured that A. Raja and many others went behind bars, but also cancelled the telecom licenses. Stinging rebukes from the judiciary over corruption during the Commonwealth Games are what led to the imprisonment of Suresh Kalmadi. These three actions of our judiciary have played a massive role in denting the image of the UPA government. In the Rajiv era, politicians and governments rarely had to face such combined onslaughts from activists, media and an assertive judiciary. Today, it’s a daily reality.
6. I mentioned right in the beginning of this piece, that the arrival of Rajiv Gandhi on the national scene was marked by the almost simultaneous arrival of the Telegu Desam in Andhra Pradesh. Till then, the only regional parties of any consequence were the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu, the Akali Dal in Punjab and the National Conference in J&K. Since then, there has been an explosion in the number of regional parties. The most stunning example of the power of regional parties is the manner in which the Samajwadi Party has swept the Uttar Pradesh elections and the Akali Dal has retained power in Punjab. Shiv Sena, Biju Janata Dal, Trinamool Congress, JD-U and scores of others are the new kids that dictate terms in the political arena. In the Rajiv era, it was common to see the Congress take Lok Sabha seats and let allies take more assembly seats in states like Tamil Nadu. Rahul Gandhi does not have that option. In most cases, he has to battle the regional parties for the long term revival of the Congress. As successive elections in the last three decades have shown, regional parties are not a temporary phenomenon anymore. Rajiv had to confront just one N. T. Rama Rao, Rahul has to contend with Jayalalitha, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Akhilesh Yadav, Uddhav Thackeray and Sukhbir Singh Badal to name just a few. His future and that of the Congress depends on how he manages this challenge.
7. 1982 is a significant year for India and not just because it marked the arrival of Rajiv Gandhi. The year also marked the arrival of the Indian middle class. Till then, the Indian middle class was miniscule. But after that, growing incomes, better opportunities and increasing aspirations resulted in the creation of a 250 million strong Indian middle class. It is this middle class and its anger at poor governance that defined the Anna movement. Till recently, middle class Indians were justifiably accused of being armchair activists. But of late, the middle class is not just talking, it has also started doing things. Ten years down the road, this middle class will number more than 500 million. By then, they will not just be making noise but will also have the votes. Oddly, it was Rajiv Gandhi who recognized the power and pulse of this emerging class. It remains to be seen how Rahul Gandhi does uses this to his benefit.
8. In 1982, India was clearly a unipolar political entity with Congress having a virtual monopoly over power. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi ensured that the old Jan Sangh and the new Bharatiya Janata Party were reduced to just two seats in the Lok Sabha. Since then, the rise and rise of Hindutva and BJP is probably the most powerful change that has swept across India. Today, either on its own or with allies, the BJP rules in Karnataka, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal and Uttarakhand. Along with allies, it has also ruled at the centre for six years between 1998 and 2004. At the moment, the BJP might look weak and confused, but no one can deny that it is a serious rival of the Congress in the country. It will remain so in the future too. The Congress might label the BJP as communal and fundamentalist, but the fact is it can no longer wish the party away.
9. One of the most significant developments of 1982 was the partial decontrol of the cement industry. After decades of socialism, this was the first step towards more liberal and forward looking economic policies. Beginning then, and followed by a wave in 1991, economic reforms have completely transformed the Indian society, economy and polity. I’m least interested in how many billionaires have been created by this process. I am more fascinated by the opportunities that economic reforms have provided to the average Indian. In the past ten years or so, the GDP of India has quadrupled from $500 billion to around $2 trillion. You will see the impact of this when you visit small towns and villages across India. There is still a lot of appalling poverty but that is because economic reforms have not been followed by concrete steps towards good governance. In the future, it is economics that will decide the fate of politics. 10. India is now the youngest country in the world. More than 65% of the country’s population is below 35 years of age. India will remain the youngest country in the world till about 2050 when other nations will start boasting of this advantage. This demographic bulge has already changed a lot in India. The youth are more aspirational, more aggressive and more impatient. They want both change and opportunity and they want it now. They are not moved and influenced by tradition or the past. That is the reason why Akhilesh Yadav scored over Rahul Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh, despite the immense personal popularity of Rahul. It is these youngsters who will decide who rules India in the next four to five elections. To harness this youth potential and turn it to Congress’ advantage is perhaps the biggest challenge for Rahul Gandhi and his team.
Let me conclude by just pointing out one thing. The arrival of Rajiv Gandhi in 1982 marked the beginning of the end of mai-baap culture. 2012 marks the culmination of that process.
- 09 March 2012 |
- Arindam on Indian Politics