Recently, there came to light news of a CPM [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] member ‘cautioning’ the Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav against supporting fruition of Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. The Leftist claimed that lending support to the deal, a pet project of Manmohan Singh and George W Bush, would be tantamount to ‘alienating’ a large chunk of the Muslim vote bank, the crucial support of which the SP has traditionally enjoyed.
There are two serious flaws in this blanket assertion made by the CPM member. One, it assumes the 130 million Muslims of India to be one homogeneous whole, having exactly the same views. Two, by claiming that an entire community would be against the deal is implicitly saying that their views are shaped not by consideration of the nation’s interests, but by some kind of mass aversion to the U.S. These assumptions are, in my view, invalid.
The incident was a major embarrassment to the CPM, which has always prided itself as a non-communal party and ostensibly has even tied up with the Congress after the 2004 general elections, solely with the aim of keeping the communal forces (represented by the BJP) at bay. However, apart from the political flare up the remarks caused, they are also a manifestation of how Indian politics have changed over the past three decades. Or, in other words, the consideration of communal factors by the CPM is a manifestation of the loss of ideologies in Indian politics at large that has taken place over the past three decades, during which, in the words of the historian Ramachandra Guha, India moved from a constitutional democracy to a populist one.
Till the mid 1970s, the political arena in India was dominated by the Congress. Leaders like Nehru, Patel and Kamaraj successfully met the challenges faced by the Congress in the 1950s. These included the demands for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ by the right wing politician Jana Sangh, as well as the attacks made by the Socialists on the ‘bourgeoisie’ nature of the Congress party. And there were still greater challenges in the form of integration of the erstwhile princely states into the Union of India, the drafting of the Constitution, the demand for a reorganization of states of the Union on the basis of linguistic identities etc, which were successfully met by these stalwarts. However, Nehru’s death in 1964, followed by the taking over of prime ministership by Indira Gandhi marked a divide in Indian politics. With Mrs Gandhi came a dictatorial streak in the party. According to Guha, cabinet appointments now came to be made on the basis of the candidate’s perceived closeness to the PM, and the chief ministers of states were chosen not by the legislators of the state assemblies but by the PM herself. This wave of steady consolidation of central power culminated in the Emergency of 1975, when the Constitution was amended so as to give Mrs Gandhi an unlimited term as the Prime Minister. But increasing criticism abroad led to the PM calling for fresh elections in 1977, which her party duly lost. Thus arrived, for the first time, a central government headed by a coalition of parties headed by Morarji Desai, president of a faction of the Congress which had broken away from the main party. The coalition called itself the Janata Party.
Even though the Congress came back to power for long periods even after 1980 and the Janata Party disintegrated (the BJP being an offspring), the era of its sole dominance was over. The period of Mrs Gandhi’s rule had sown the seeds for future parties. It was the Socialist movement (spearheaded by the veteran Jayaprakash Narayan, the subsequent great pressure exerted by it on the Indira Gandhi regime leading to the imposition of Emergency) which was started against the increasing levels of corruption in state governments in the early 1970s. This provided an ideal atmosphere for aspiring leaders to join the political world. It was during the Emergency that student leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav were jailed, this being their initial exposure to political tumults. Thus, after 1980, with the growing decentralization of power, these same leaders started their own parties (the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party respectively).
It was no coincidence that these two parties were caste based, both being set up by leaders from the backward Yadav caste. After independence, caste came to become a political identity rather than a social one, at least in the mainstream. Encouraged at first by B.R. Ambedkar, castes like the Yadavs, Jats etc grew in political stature, protected by a Constitution committed to their rights and enriched by the gradual death of feudalism. Even as the majority of them continued to be poor, a few managed to use their caste to great advantage and gained political identities. Added to this the rise of the Bhartiya Janata Party, feeding on a right wing agenda dominated by the issue of the Ram Mandir in the early 1990s, as also the leadership crisis in the Congress after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination; there was an increasing division of the political pie in Indian politics. Regional powers like the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Left and the DMK furthered the slicing.
As the political pie got divided, the scope for securing a majority in the Lok Sabha by a single party on its own declined considerably. This created the era of coalition governments, starting in 1989, with the formation of the National Front government headed by V.P. Singh of the Janata Dal. This was a watershed in various respects. One, for the first time, the left and the right supported the same government, as the NF government was extended support by both the BJP and the Left. Second, caste based politics entered India in a big way after a brief appearance in the time of Morarji Desai’s Janata Party coalition government. This was strongly brought to the fore by the Mandal Commission instituted by the government to explore the case for reservation in government jobs to the backward castes. The third important point comes after the Congress again assumed office in 1991, after which, in spite of the Supreme Court’s stay on the execution of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, the order for providing reservations to OBCs in government jobs was given by the Congress government. Thus the very Congress which had quietly buried the question of reservation in the 1980s (after the fall of Morarji Desai’s government) now finally entered the caste arena in the political theater.
Along with caste politics came other populist tendencies. This was necessitated by the need to make coalition governments. The last single party government was the Congress led government of 1991-1996. Since there is power at stake, the allies have to be kept happy. Hence, sometimes diverging streams of thought are seen in the action of present day governments; and ideology has got nothing to do with it. Let us take the small example of the nuclear deal. Firstly, the Left was opposing the deal ostensibly because it compromises on our national interests and makes us strategic stooges of the USA. However, upon finding out that the UPA was going to go ahead with it anyway, it realised that it had to do something fast to scuttle the deal. So it abandoned its aversion to communal politics and announced that Muslims hated Bush and hence, hated the deal. Secondly the Congress, which sulkily avoided getting into a confrontation with the Left over the deal over the past many months, the PM even going as far as to concede that the chances of the deal going through were bleak indeed. However, as the 2009 elections came frightfully close, and the Congress realised that it needed a face saver a few months before the elections lest they be dominated by talk of its failure at managing inflation etc, it decided on a last puffed-chest attempt at ‘getting things done’. And lastly the Others, the UPA and the non-UPA components. The Mayawati led BSP withdrew from the UPA, obviously because it saw any association with it as being of no use to it anymore, especially with the rising prices attracting the aam aadmi’s ire. Therefore, the ‘if you don’t need them, then leave them’ principle worked, and the ground for the eventual separation was obviously prepared well by the shrewd UP Chief Minister by a string of verbal attacks on the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi. The UPA allies RJD, LJP and NCP (Lalu Prasad’s, Ram Vilas Paswan’s and Sharad Pawar’s parties respectively) have supported the deal, but only ‘in principle’. They don’t want it operationalised because they are scared of being demitted from office and not finding a job later on. Clearly, principles be damned. Lastly, there is the smart Samajwadi Party, to which the Congress has turned with desperation as the Left and the BSP have deserted it. Not unexpectedly, the SP is an arch rival of the BSP in UP politics, and even less surprisingly, the SP is watering at the mouth at the prospect of a return to power. The last unsurprising point is that when it was not approached by the Congress, it was a vocal critic of the deal. And when one SP leader was asked as to whether they will think about the deal in a positive way, he replied something like, “earlier we had heard only the Left’s version of the deal. So we do not know much about it. We would listen to the other version and make a decision”.
So I finally leave you with this question: politics or principles?