Change of Guard
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
While it seems the world is falling apart in the Middle East and elsewhere, let us celebrate the grandest and most important event to occur last week: the change of guard in the world’s largest democracy without one doubt that the party winning the most seats would be asked to form the next government.
When I read the May 13 results I was as much flummoxed and flabbergasted as the next pundit! No one really believed that Prime Minister Vajpayee and his team could have miscalculated this much. But I am not going to sit down and try to impose a pattern on the messy choice of the Indian voter. The results of the Indian election will not please everyone and I was, as a supporter of the BJP-led coalition, deeply disappointed with the results.
Pundits have begun to impose some pattern on the results, calling it a backlash by the Indian poor, a vote for secularist forces and so on. The voting pattern and results belie all such attempts at making clear sense of the results. India is too complex and multi-faceted a nation to find or provide easy answers. It is after all the Indian philosophers who conceived of the idea of mayaand Vajpayee was therefore wise to say simply that he accepts the verdict of the people and not seek an explanation for the verdict.
But pattern seeking is a human urge. It is very tempting for me therefore to try and figure out what went wrong, who was responsible and what the verdict is all about. Wise men know better. Vajpayee is a wise man. What a beautiful and moving concession speech he made -- short, simple and going to the heart of the matter. I liked it best when he said, ‘The voters have given their verdict. I accept the verdict. This evening, I submitted my resignation to respected Rashtrapatiji. India is the world’s largest democracy. It is always with the will of the people that governments have been formed -- and changed. This power of democracy is a matter of pride for our country, something which we must always cherish, preserve and further strengthen…. Friends, ours is a multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic nation. However, in spite of her immense diversities, our national culture has woven an unbreakable thread of unity since antiquity. We tried to replicate this ethos of unity in diversity in running our coalition government. We strengthened Indian democracy by demonstrating that coalition governance can be stable and also successfully deal with the challenges before the nation…. Dear countrymen, we have given up office but not our responsibility to serve the nation. We have lost an election, but not our determination. Victory and defeat are a part of life, which are to be viewed with equanimity…. We will always extend our hand of co-operation to the new government in all its endeavors that are in the interest of the nation and the people.’
The elections, called six months prematurely to cash in on the feel good factor generated by their winning three major state elections and the buzz about India’s growing clout in the high-tech sector, the BJP leadership may have not read the mood correctly, nor its astrologers the stars correctly. Who knows what really the reasons are for this strange, fractured verdict? For me, what is important is that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 79, slow and creaky in the knees, showed the world and Indians what sagacious, mature and moderate leadership can do to strengthen democracy.
Vajpayee will go down in history as the wisest and ablest prime minister India has had since it won independence in 1947. In their jubilation that the Congress party has won seven more seats than the BJP and therefore will be able to form the next coalition government, they are bound to ignore the accomplishments of Vajpayee and his team.
Let them step back for a moment and understand the enormity of Vajpayee’s accomplishment and realize that if forming a coalition government is difficult, running it successfully is a million times more so.
Let them not ignore that Vajpayee, despite heading a wobbly coalition, put India on the nuclear map and made the world recognize India as a military power.
Let them recognize that Vajpayee brought some intelligent, visionary men and women into his Cabinet and it is because of their work that India is more firmly on the map of high-tech and it is an important player in the global economy.
Let them recognize that it was because of Vajpayee’s deft handling of India’s relationship with Pakistan that the sub-continent did not witness a devastating war.
Vajpayee and the BJP were hounded from the beginning. Editors and academics started a ‘BJP-Watch Group’ – an ‘intellectual vigilante’ group - even before Vajpayee put his Cabinet together in 1998. All manner of doubts and fears were raised about the BJP’s ‘fascist, communal’ agenda, about the threat to secularism, about Vajpayee’s ability to govern, his strength to rein in the wild and the willful within his own party and so on.
The government was brought down after 13 months because of the machinations of Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party and she was not able to form a government, despite President Narayanan giving enough time for Sonia Gandhi to rope in every wandering cow in Delhi. It led therefore to another general election in October 1999 and the BJP and its coalition partners were able to win the mandate of the Indian voters to form a fresh government.
In the scheme of things, Vajpayee and his team felt that winning Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh could in December 2003 could be leveraged to call and win an early election to Parliament. Alas, the BJP on its own won 138 seats and the Congress party won 145 -- a difference of seven seats. Secularism has won, some have begun to proclaim and some others have said it was India’s poor voting out the BJP. While the unfortunate events in February-March 2002 in Gujarat sullied the BJP let us note that Vajpayee and his top leadership steadied the political boat, did not succumb to the pressure brought by both local and international forces to give in and give up and leashed the petulant and peevish forces within their own party who wanted to lash out angrily against their detractors.
Now that Sonia Gandhi has led the Congress to partial victory, let us see how she and her advisers will put together a coalition government. I really don’t care if she is not articulate in English or any Indian language. I don’t care if she sought Indian citizenship only in 1983. Those are not the important criteria in my list for selecting a leader. Just because Laloo Prasad Yadav can regale his audiences in Bhojpuri and was born in Buddha-land does not make him a qualified leader nor make him wise and sagacious.
There are other reasons that concern me about a Congress government. It is that Indians are still so hung up on the Nehru dynasty that we will continue to encourage and strengthen feudalism; it is that we are so enamored of socialist ideals that the kind of terrible economic policy that hobbled India for more than four decades will be brought back; it is that the new security partnerships that India has forged with countries like Israel and the United States will be whittled down or discarded because of the ‘loony Left’ which is going to support a Congress-led coalition government and demand its pound of flesh.
Mani Shankar Aiyar, one of the leading voices in the Congress and top foreign policy adviser, recently wrote an anti-Semitic piece in The Indian Express. Jews have lived in India for about 2, 000 years and did not face anti-Semitism from Indians. He invoked images of Shylock to attack Israel. He wrote: ‘The BJP is the Likud in saffron, as the Zionist Movement is the BJP in gabardine’ (Shylock to Antonio in The Merchant of Venice: ‘You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog/ And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine’). The rest of the column has other obnoxious attacks on Israel and its leaders while purporting to criticize the BJP, which developed close ties with Israel.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist with 43 seats is going to support the Congress and we know what they want: for India to distance itself from the United States, for India to ignore the security threat from China and for India to disavow and distance itself from globalization.
If despite the truck with the Communists, with Laloo Prasad Yadav and with the confused Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar, the Congress government does not derail the Indian economy and polity then we should be more than happy to support its policies. But I am afraid that some serious reversal of economic, social, foreign and security policies are in the offing and that bodes ill for India.
Finally, it is with pride and satisfaction that I can point out that while we Americans struggle to bring democracy and good governance in the Middle East, let us celebrate how the vast, complex, ancient land of India manages to steer and guide its people in strengthening democratic values.
Originally published on May 28, 2004.