Agenda for Opposition in India's Democracy

Reasons for Past Failures

Democracy is considered healthy when there are two national parties. India has no national party. It has two unstable coalitions that compete for power. The major ruling party is faltering. The major opposition party is crumbling. Rahul Gandhi is attempting to reinvent the Congress to its pristine strength. If he succeeds it will take care of one power pole. One hopes he succeeds. It is the other power pole that needs attention.

Recent history indicates that the Sangh Parivar’s earlier approach has failed. The Jayaprakash Narain approach was a success. To appreciate this one must understand why the Janata Party failed and why the BJP today is in crisis. After the Janata Party split in 1980 the BJP was created. After its nationwide exposure as a powerful faction of the Janata government the Sangh Parivar sought to occupy the Janata Party’s space with its own united organization and pro-Hindu ideology.

After its creation in 1980 the BJP had unfettered access to its core beliefs. The Ram Mandir Rath Yatra reached the pinnacle of Hindutva aspiration. But in truth, of little avail. The BJP could not emerge as a single nationwide entity. It rose to greater heights only after pre-poll seat adjustment with VP Singh and other regional parties. Subsequently it existed in uneasy coalitions with regional partners that distanced themselves from the RSS and Hindutva. Gradually the Ram Mandir issue became stale. The load of Hindutva became too heavy. The compromised alliance with reluctant coalition partners became too exposed. The excesses of the fired up Hindutva elements such as the VHP and Bajrang Dal became too embarrassing. Eventually the unacknowledged realization dawned that the traditional exclusivist BJP ideology had failed. The attempt to reinvent the BJP has commenced. It is being done without openly acknowledging that its pro-Hindu mantra and exclusivist approach has failed. This transition is what RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat seems to be attempting.

Bhagwat is now talking of promoting Hindustanis and not just Hindus. He is talking about reunification of the subcontinent in some arrangement, although he has not specified as yet the South Asian Union modeled on the European Union. But he has referred to the example of erstwhile rivals Germany and France uniting in common purpose. He has affirmed that regardless of religious belief the people of South Asia by and large share a common DNA. He has stressed that ethnically they are the same. He has openly warned China against meddling in the affairs of the subcontinent. He has expressed the eventual common purpose between India and even Afghanistan . He has criticized the divisive and anti-national approach of the Shiv Sena factions. In short, he is conforming to the approach of Jayaprakash Narain. He has recognized that an exclusivist Hindutva approach has little future.

However, JP’s creation, the Janata Party, also failed. To avoid the pitfalls of Janata Party, reasons for its failures must be understood. If the BJP failed because of a failed ideology, the Janata Party failed because of a flawed organizational structure that was incompatible with its ideological impulse. The Congress which has ruled India for most of the time since Independence reflects centripetal tendencies. Centralization of power is sometimes healthy and necessary for a large multi-lingual, multi-religious nation like India . But this is not true all the time. Centrifugal tendencies need equal expression depending upon the conditions prevalent at any time. The natural polarization of the Indian polity is not between Left and Right as they are commonly understood in the West. The natural polarization in India is between the forces of centralization and decentralization. The ebb and flow between centralization and liberalism has characterized Indian history. Ashoka the liberal was followed by Chandragupta the centralist. Akbar the liberal was followed by Aurangzeb the centralist. Nehru the liberal was balanced by Sardar Patel the centralist. JP the liberal challenged Indira Gandhi the centralist. So, why did the Janata Party fail?

The Janata Party failed because it took birth in extraordinary circumstances occasioned by the Emergency. It was a hasty cut and paste job under the shadow of a crisis. The party was led mainly by former Congressmen whose main claim was that they were better Congressmen than Indira Gandhi. Their mindset was incompatible with the demands of a genuine alternative to the Congress. Those who had fought all their lives the Congress to create the foundation of a genuine alternative were marginalized by events. And Ram Manohar Lohia was dead. Instead of forming a federal party to reflect the liberal forces of decentralization the Janata Party leaders attempted to replicate the Congress of Nehru and Patel when organizational ground realities precluded that possibility.

This is not the wisdom of hindsight. Before the Emergency, by when JP had resolved to challenge Indira Gandhi electorally, this scribe wrote an article for JP’s weekly magazine, Everyman’s. The article was entitled “The Alternative”. From the first preparatory meeting JP tried to unify all the opposition parties to create a national alternative. The meeting was held on November 25, 1974. JP circulated the article to all delegates present at the meeting. The following extracts quoted from that article are worth recalling.

The article written in autumn of 1974 said: “A little after her last meeting with JP the Prime Minister observed that if JP and his supporters had any grievance they could test their strength at the next general election, which was not too far away. If this was intended to be a veiled taunt, Mrs Gandhi may have to rue her words. JP has accepted the challenge… The people’s efforts to paralyze and remove from office corrupt Congress regimes will now be supplemented by the attempt to create an organization capable of winning the next election… The issue that will catch the imagination of the people all over the country is the issue of decentralized planning and administration, and of greater power for the States to identify their own problems, set out their own priorities, formulate their own solutions, and themselves execute policies. In short, more self-rule for the people… the most formidable electoral challenge to the Congress has come from regional parties… these factors are not, as some Congressmen have perversely argued, the signs of national disintegration. These reflect the essence of democracy – the urge among people for greater participation in policy making and government… At the State level a federation of the various parties, retaining their separate identities might be perfectly compatible with merger at the national level, leading to one-party candidates for the Lok Sabha. This would imply at the first stage of the evolution of the new party a common symbol, common candidates to the Lok Sabha, and a federal alliance in each state, with the parties retaining their separate identities but ensuring that the federal alliance puts up one candidate in each assembly constituency...”

This was what eventually transpired. The federal alliance put up common candidates under the common symbol of the Janata Party. For the first and only time in India ’s post Independence history a single non-Congress party with a single symbol governed India . But within two years the Janata Party disintegrated. The reason was simple. The main leaders of the party – Morarji Desai, Chandrashekhar, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram – were all former Congressmen. They were trying to reinvent another centralized Congress Party dominated by each of them respectively. JP’s health was already failing. All the federal alliance parties were prematurely dissolved. They merged with the Janata Party. This went against the phased plan suggested by this scribe’s article that was distributed by JP in his first meeting with leaders.

The ground realities quickly asserted themselves. In each State four-member committees representing the parties or groups led by Morarji, Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram and Vajpayee took decisions. The real leaders on the ground were marginalized and became disgruntled. Thus, others apart from Charan Singh’s party had no influence in UP. Others apart from Vajpayee’s party had no influence in Delhi . Yet authority was wielded by rootless functionaries. Significantly the discord started from within States. It spread to the top rungs of the central leadership. A federal organization was sought to be run like a centralized unit. Failure was inevitable.

Steps for Success

Learning from past experience, what must the Opposition do to win power? If the BJP is truly trying to reinvent itself and shed narrow Hindutva the task of opposition consolidation becomes easier. The following steps suggest themselves for uniting the opposition to create a viable and cohesive national party.

The first step should be to formulate the appropriate national agenda. The agenda presented by JP for total revolution in his movement was flawed. A clutch of intellectuals created a 75-point agenda that had to accommodate all kinds of inputs in order not to ruffle egos. The agenda became irrelevant. The battle cry of a total revolution was all that seemed to matter. What must be avoided in formulating a meaningful agenda is inclusion of self-evident platitudes such as the removal of corruption or delivering social justice. Nobody would dispute these goals. The question is what kind of systemic changes would be required to help achieve these goals. The agenda should be concrete, basic and comprehensible to the masses. The following five goals may be considered. These would likely touch the lives of the greatest number of people across the nation.

  1.  South Asian Union: The movement should commit itself to undo the spirit of the Partition and to recreate Hindustan as a confederation of sovereign nations comprising India , Pakistan , Bangladesh , Nepal , Bhutan , Sri Lanka and Afghanistan . It should be resolved that a clause in the Directive Principles of the Constitution be introduced to pursue the goal of creating a community of nations having common tariffs, common defence, and no visas among themselves.

  2. Smaller States: There should be constituted a new States Reorganization Commission that would create smaller states for effecting better administration and promoting cultural and ethnic identities. The commission would act according to predetermined norms.

  3. Federal System: There should be created a five-tier system of governance. The five tiers would be federal, state, district, block and primary. We should delimit the present districts so that each district conforms to each parliamentary constituency. Similarly, each block would conform to each assembly constituency. The primary units would be the rural village and the urban colony. The three tiers below the federal and state tiers would each have its own elected council and executive committee. The area MP could preside over the district council, the area MLA over the block council, and the elected headman over the primary urban or rural council. All executive powers related to problems faced solely by those residing in an area would devolve on their own elected body. The elections to all bodies of the five tiers should be simultaneous, mandatory, time-barred, and under the authority of the Central Election Commission. All elected bodies of the five tiers should have fixed five-year terms. The President’s election should coincide with the general election. The presidential candidates should file their nominations at the same time as the candidates for parliament and all assembles. The newly elected MPs and MLAs should elect the new President immediately after their election. In case of any executive head at any of the five tiers losing a simple majority in the house, the whole house would elect the successor who would complete the fixed five-year term.

  4. President’s Role: While devolution of power will enhance self-rule and liberty for people, an executive President will ensure unity and stability of the Republic. The President should have a role commensurate with his mandate that is the widest held by any individual in our Republic. To this end, we should give constitutional status to newly created bodies, as well as to certain existing bodies, in fields that require autonomous functioning, and make them accountable to the President. The Central Election Commission, CBI, CVC, etcetera, would come under this provision. The President’s relationship with the Prime Minister and the cabinet would need review. Flawed conventions that have no basis in our written Constitution have rendered the President into a ceremonial robot. The Constitution gives the President powers and responsibilities that are never exercised in practice. This must be rectified.

  5. People’s Plan: The Planning Commission should be converted into a Peoples’ Planning Commission accountable to the Inter-State Council that would be overseen by the President. This Commission should concentrate on formulating Peoples’ Plans that deploy the bulk of public funds, including those realized from disinvestment, for providing infrastructure to the masses in the spheres of roads, management of drinking and irrigation water, power generation, healthcare and literacy. Public investment in these sectors would expand employment and purchasing power in rural India . In industry there should be created in addition to the public and private sectors a Workers’ Sector in which all employees would have a share of profit and ownership, and in floor level management. All board decisions would be transparent to workers.

The second step should be to circulate the agenda to all likeminded opposition parties, trade unions, farmers’ associations, student bodies and non-electoral groups working in the social sector. This alliance of bodies committed to the agenda should elect a national convener aided by a central steering committee.

The third step should be to launch a nationwide movement to propagate the agenda in all corners of the nation. There should be the attempt to hold mass meetings in every state capital of the country. At the end of each of these meetings a state convener of the movement aided by a state steering committee should be announced. These state conveners in turn should appoint conveners and steering committees in every parliamentary and assembly constituency. The assembly conveners should appoint conveners for each primary unit in their areas comprising a specified number of polling booths. Apart from mass meetings to educate the public about the aims of the movement, there should be established connectivity on a weekly basis between the apex and all state units through the Internet. Weekly talking points should be suggested and feedback from the ground to the apex should be studied.

The fourth step, after the movement has spread across the nation, should be to announce a political party with a federal constitution. At the first phase existing parties, whether single state or multi-state, may be allowed to retain their respective identities at the state level. Only for parliament should there be common candidates representing the new party and contesting on a common agenda with a single symbol. After testing the waters in the parliamentary election the existing parties could exercise their option to merge completely with the new party. If all these steps are implemented it is likely that every parliamentary seat would be contested by the new party. The draft constitution of new party could be prepared within a day’s notice. A suitable name could be given to the party. One name that suggests itself is Rashtriya Panchayat. The party’s federal nature would be understood from its name at even the village level. The contest for power between the Congress and the Panchayat could ignite national participation. If these four steps are taken the new party could well come to power. 


More by :  Dr. Rajinder Puri

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