Seven decades are but a blip in the history of a people and the nation they strive to build, but can change the direction of the ‘march’— a march which began with the clarion call of ‘we have a tryst with destiny…’ in 1947 at the Red Fort. What we have witnessed in the last decade appears to be a complete change in the approach to the political, economic, social and parliamentary system in the country. The change appears to have happened so fast that it is almost unbelievable. However, has it been so fast? Or have we been sleeping while the seeds of corruption, nepotism and greed for power, sown in the 1970s and 1980s, have finally caught up with us and allowed a very determined political, social organisation to unilaterally present to the country a new polarising ideology.
Today, we have no national political or social organisation to stand up to the forces that are pushing us in a direction which perhaps was not visualised by our forefathers. In any healthy democracy, the alternative viewpoint needs to be brought out, debated in Parliament, in the media and on the street, if need be. It is only through open debate that the ‘golden mean’ can be aspired to and that standard is worth aspiring to by any society which respects the diversity of human thought and existence, and seeks to find harmony in the middle ground. Let us rewind to 1947 when, and for a couple of decades thereafter, the Indian National Congress was the only major political party in the country as it was the child of the freedom movement. The giants of the freedom movement became the torchbearers of the INC; there was a galaxy of them at the Centre — Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad, Vallabbhai Patel, C Rajagopalachari, YB Chavan, to name a few. The Chief Ministers of the states were almost of the same stature — GB Pant, Dr BC Roy, K Kamaraj, N Sanjeeva Reddy, Biju Patnaik and so on. The Chief Ministers had no problem in addressing the Prime Minister as ‘Jawahar’ in their correspondence. The INC had strong party presidents at the national and state level and they were given sufficient latitude. The Prime Minister, the Cabinet ministers, the CMs, the PCC presidents worked together and there was no sense of insecurity.
Although there was no significant Opposition party and Nehru was an extremely popular and charismatic leader who could have usurped more powers than the Constitution mandated, yet he was quintessentially a democratic parliamentarian. He took the country, the Cabinet, the Chief Ministers and the people into confidence on all important matters. He felt no need to foist ‘his men’ as CMs or PCC chiefs. Similarly, as the Opposition parties began to grow, he did not do anything to impede their progress, except through parliamentary debate and public discourse. The media and judiciary were given their own space to function independently. It was as a result of this democratic ethos, impassioned and uncorrupted leadership that a recently independent nation began to find its feet in the modern world. The very formation of the republic (absorption of the princely states), the emphasis on education and the establishment of AIIMS, IITs, IIMs, the focus on and creation of our Atomic Energy Department, the adoption of our Constitution, the Five Year Plans — one can go on and on. A lot was achieved by Nehru and his team.
With the arrival of Indira Gandhi, things began to change. She again was a popular and charismatic figure but with some innate sense of insecurity. Within the Cabinet, there was a ‘kitchen cabinet’ whose membership was frequently changed. At the first opportunity she split the INC and demolished the ‘Syndicate’ and its members. She also started the practice of imposing weak Chief Ministers and PCC chiefs on the states. The CLPs and PCCs became rubber stamps, especially after 1971. It is important to note that the Congress remained a ‘movement’ bereft of cadres, whereas the Jana Sangh (BJP) and the Left parties were cadre-based. In this arrangement, the Congress became completely dependent on the Prime Minister’s charisma to win state and national elections. With the declaration of Emergency and the arrival of Sanjay Gandhi, the authoritarian way of functioning became stronger and the grip on the government and party machines absolute. The CMs, PCC chiefs, Cabinet ministers were reduced to be ‘men of clay’.
During all this time, the BJP continued to grow and with the help of the RSS became a force to reckon with. Unlike the Congress, the BJP has a solid, disciplined and motivated cadre and its own very clear ideology. The party benefitted from this and was able to form a coalition government at the Centre with Vajpayee as its leader and unlike the Congress, the BJP as a party gained from this. Wherever it was in government, the BJP strengthened its base and tightened its grip over the administration, the media and the judiciary. It developed good relations with the business and corporate world, which was to help it later on.
The Congress, despite its long stay in power, failed to strengthen the party; in fact, it did not even attempt to do so and as a result became totally dependent on the Gandhis for electoral purposes. On the other hand, the BJP-RSS developed an election machine which had a cadre, ideology and good leadership. With the arrival of Modi, a charismatic leader and an exceptional orator, this machine delivered stunning victories in 2014 and 2019 at the Centre and in the states at various times.
Coming to the present scenario, it is not disturbing that ‘a’ political party is in power; what is a matter of concern is that the country lacks a strong Opposition party as many misadventures have taken place in its absence. There is an urgent need to spell out an alternative ideology; there are a lot of Indians — silent Indians — who want to hear something different, who do not want to be told what to eat or drink or whom to love or how to dress, which religion to adopt, what to do with our land and assets. We don’t want to be locked up for voicing opinions and dissent should not be labelled as sedition. In short, we want to live as free men and women, to live in peace and not be terrorised. The need of the hour is a strong and vigilant Opposition because a vibrant democracy needs one. In a democracy, debate should not be guided by charismatic leaders and hyperventilating mediapersons pulling emotional strings, but rather by Members of Parliament focusing on health, jobs, education, welfare, environment and security.
The only way the Opposition can come up is by visualising and laying out their own vision of the future. Whatever ideology they adopt, the struggle would be hard, requiring movements through inspiring people. Only philosophers can operate from their studies, political leaders have to be on the streets. The farmers have shown us the way by their single-minded focus on their objectives, their mobilisation, their discipline and non-violence. They have achieved all this without political leadership and with the help of the elements which have always guided them. Even in this non-violent struggle, many have died, but in the words of Mirza Azeem: ‘Girte hain shahsawar hi maidan-e-jung mein. Woh tifil kya gire jo ghutnon ke bal chale.’
— The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC, former Manipur Governor and served as J&K DGP