The Volcker Report demolished the government's credibility. The Bihar elections destroyed its authority. The Supreme Court judgment eroded its legality. This government is history. What lies ahead? The voters recently spoke. Did politicians listen? The results spelt the beginning of the end for both casteism and communalism. Let us see how.
TV poll experts ascribed the JDU victory to new caste alignments.
True, Mr Nitish Kumar banked heavily on the extreme backward castes for victory. This segment comprised one-third of the electorate. But this chunk consists of innumerable castes, each with very small numbers. These castes were marginalized by the backward castes. They were denied the cushions given to Dalits. Their assertion in this poll therefore was not due to caste but to class. They were not seeking political empowerment. That is all that the caste card has delivered up to now. Political empowerment has not resulted in a trickle-down effect of economic benefits for backward castes. MPs and MLAs from underprivileged castes get quickly sucked into the prevalent system. Along with forward caste leaders they merge into one composite, corrupt, exploitative class both hated and feared by the public. In this poll the electorate voted for economic development denied to them by forward and backward leaders alike. It was a verdict against stagnation.
There is common confusion about caste politics. Catering to ethnic, linguistic or caste sentiments in a constituency for electoral purpose does not signify caste politics. Such calculations prevailed during the Nehru era while selecting candidates. They prevail all over the world where democratic elections are held. Politics becomes casteist when caste is raised to the level of ideology. That is what caste-based affirmative action has succeeded in doing. One must exclude affirmative action for Dalits. They are not merely victims of economic deprivation. They suffer the inhuman and cruel practice of untouchability. They are a case apart. Caste politics brings quick short-term gains. But it leads to dangerous long-term results. Interestingly, the two most important pioneers of affirmative action on the basis of caste were troubled by inner misgivings. This scribe had interaction with both.
Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia justified propagating caste by identifying it with class. Those days there was virtually no mobility of labor in rural India. It was easy to identify caste with class in vast areas of the interior where communities remained frozen in space for perpetuity. As an admirer of Max Weber, Lohia recognized the powerful pull of tribal impulse. He used caste as an easy communication channel to reach his audiences. He sought to educate them about class injustice. Nevertheless, he was troubled. One time a backward approached him for candidature in an assembly election. After he departed, Lohia turned to this scribe and said sadly: "They always remember caste when elections are due, never when we have to court arrest!" His movement was led largely by forward caste leaders propelled by idealism, not personal gain. Backward caste leaders who followed Lohia, such as Ram Sewak Yadav and Karpoori Thakur, were committed ideologues without a trace of caste prejudice. An electoral victory was a far cry then.
Choudhary Charan Singh used caste calculations with great skill. He could reel numbers and locations on his fingertips. But he too propagated class, not caste. While communists divided society between capital and labour, Mr Charan Singh divided it between the urban and rural. In the end he succumbed to temptation for quick results in a desperate situation. In the 1979-80 general elections he announced Mandal-based reservations in government employment. It went against his grain. The Mandal formula was far inferior to what Mr Karpoori Thakur as chief minister had introduced in Bihar years earlier. He distinguished between land-owning and landless backward castes. After being demolished in the poll, Mr Charan Singh wanted to retrace steps. "Let's scrap job reservations from our agenda," he told the national executive in which this scribe was general secretary. "It will ruin society!" But Mr Madhu Limaye dissuaded him. "We will look ridiculous if we do this so quickly after adopting it," he argued. The Choudhary reluctantly agreed.
Mr VP Singh adopted Mandal in a desperate bid to upstage Mr Devi Lal. But electoral gain eluded him subsequently. However, his exertions did lead to political empowerment for backward castes. Several caste-based parties bereft of agenda acquired regional strength. Backward caste politicians joined with gusto the corrupt spoils system. They did little to help macro-level development. This is what the voters in Bihar conveyed.
Communalism also suffered a setback in these elections. In Bihar the BJP had to remain silent on Hindutva in deference to the JDU. This brought rich dividends to the party. It almost doubled its tally since the last election. In Maharashtra the faction that broke away from Shiv Sena to join Congress trounced Mr Thackeray's party so badly it lost its deposit. The erstwhile Shiv Sena faction did much better after shedding the virulent communal baggage associated with Mr Thackeray's party.
So how will opposition leaders react now? Without political coherence governments cannot deliver development. Coherence presupposes stability. Stability will continue to elude governments ruled by coalitions. There is therefore dire need for a national alternative. And the climate to create one has never been better. Opposition leaders might ponder some truths.
Apart from Congress only Janata Party in 1977 singly governed India. It was conceived of by a few. It was created by many. It arose from compulsions of the Emergency. The party was led by events. It was destroyed by its leaders. They had little passion for its emergence before being jailed during the Emergency. There are popular misconceptions about the Janata Party that need to be dispelled. It was not a coalition but a single united party that contested elections under one symbol. In terms of governance it was markedly superior to governments that immediately preceded or followed it. Corruption was minimized. Management of the economy was competent. Janata's failure arose not from the government but from the party. The organization was riven by factional infighting in various states. The bitterness spilled over to the centre. The government fell. The thought of utilizing Janata's history and legacy never occurred to its leaders. They never had the passion to create a national alternative in the first place.
Before Emergency this scribe contributed an article for Mr Jayaprakash Narain's weekly, Everyman's. It indicated how lasting opposition unity could be achieved by creating a federal party. Regional parties could retain identities at the state level. But candidates for Parliament offered by them would jointly campaign under a common symbol as members of one parliamentary party. Unlike a coalition it would be a federation. JP liked the idea. He circulated the article among all invitees to the first all-party meeting of opposition leaders to discuss unity. Subsequently the Janata Party was created in somewhat similar fashion under compulsion of events. Its mistake was to dissolve all the uniting constituents. It thereby became a Congress clone exercising centralized authority vested in squabbling leaders. Its federal spirit was destroyed. The rest is history.
Once again opposition parties have an opportunity. If Mr LK Advani and his general secretaries negotiate an amicable divorce with the RSS, BJP as the only multi-state party could be part of a new national alternative. Otherwise it is expendable. Needed now for a national alternative is a simple agenda and a constitution that insists on democratic procedure. The rest will follow. BJP should note that the first non-NDA leader to defend Mr Advani's remarks on Jinnah was Mr Laloo Yadav. Subsequently Mr Nitish Kumar did likewise. Mr Advani and his team should see the writing on the wall. The JDU will not pull along with Hindutva. Especially when RJD, miffed with Congress, waits in the wings. Today, the Janata Party nomenclature belongs to Dr Subramaniam Swamy. If he does not surrender it without precondition, no matter. Janata will be Janata by any other name. India needs it. India waits for it.