On the cusp of history

Torment of silver nights, a pain with no cure,
Heartache unanswered, the body's long cry of despair –
Only a few days, dear one, a few days more.
– Faiz Ahmed Faiz in A Few Days More, translated by Victor Kiernan

It has been two years since paediatrician and human-rights activist Binayak Sen was picked up in Chhattisgarh on charges of being a courier for the Naxalites. He has been held without trial ever since. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has given a reprieve to the hate-mongering Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Varun Gandhi, directing the Mayawati-led Uttar Pradesh government to drop the charges filed against him under the National Security Act for spewing venom against Muslims. The Gandhi youth has managed to become a parliamentarian, and the courts know where to draw the line when it comes to cases related to rightist militants.

A comparison between Sen and Gandhi would be deeply insulting to the former, a Jonathan Mann Award-winning doctor who had devoted his life to improving the health and human-rights access of Adivasis in Chhattisgarh. Gandhi, on the other hand, is known for being a Nehru-Gandhi scion who embraced opportunistic politics to remain in the limelight. The saffronite politico seems to have inherited the anti-Muslim traits of his late father, Sanjay Gandhi. In stark contrast, Sen is the general-secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, an organisation that has consistently opposed Bajrang Dal militancy and the excesses of the Salwa Judum militias.

Much as there is to welcome in the results of India's 15th Lok Sabha elections, a few important questions remain unanswered. Will the triumph of the Indian National Congress herald the return of the tolerant and democratic polity of the 1960s and 1970s? Or will the 'old-new' establishment of Sonia Gandhi and her nominee, Manmohan Singh, continue with their contradictory policies of economic liberalism and political conservatism? Will the poor showing of leftwing alliances be interpreted as a rightist victory, or as a directive from the electorate to the Congress to return to its left-of-centre roots? Most importantly, does the leadership of the only robust Third World democracy possess the courage of conviction to become the visionary helmsmen of a new world order? Or will it lower its aspirations and remain a regional henchman of the US in the region? These are vital questions, and the person to face them is Rahul Gandhi – rather than the incumbent and future prime minister, who did not even seek an independent electoral mandate. It says something about the hold of dynastic politics that the prime minister of the largest democracy in the world has never won a direct election in his life.

If conventional interpretation is to be believed, the Indian electorate has mandated that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) stay the course, remain loyal to the US and continue with its people-unfriendly policies in pursuit of steady economic growth. According to this explanation, voters have collectively rejected the communal BJP; the caste-based formations of Lalu Yadav, Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan; regional demagogues such as Chandrababu Naidu, Sharad Pawar, Jayalalitha and Devegowda; and have thrown out the Third Front to free the ruling coalition from the stranglehold of left parties. If this viewpoint prevails, Congress would be the BJP minus Ram Mandir. Perhaps this is what made BJP MP Shatrughan Sinha quip, without a hint of irony, that the next government should be a BJP-Congress alliance.

Rightward ho!
Celebrations in boardrooms and an upward-shooting Sensex indicated that punters in Bombay were fairly sure of the Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and P Chidambaram trio running the show. (That is, at least until Rahul Gandhi is ready to take the baton, presumably after assembly elections in Bihar and UP, due in 2012. Though there is talk that they could be held before if the situation is found favourable by the whiz kids at Nariman Point.) It appears that the manipulators of the market are much more comfortable with professional economists than with 'populist' politicos. If this prognosis holds, more money will go to physical infrastructure, defence expenses will go up, and export-led growth will be hawked to hide labour-unfriendly policies of the industry. Promises made during electioneering notwithstanding, subsidies to the farm sector will be further reduced, the handing-over of health and education to the private sector will gain speed, and no one will even talk about land reforms for fear of being branded a communist.

Under the new government, India will have no foreign policy of its own, and will align itself more closely with the Pentagon. This will be true even in the immediate neighbourhood, unless President Barack Obama decides to dump South Block for the incipient idea of a 'G2', composed of the US and China, to overcome the global recession. Afghanistan may receive stabilising forces from Nepal under New Delhi's aegis to relieve NATO soldiers from unpleasant duties in the Hindukush Mountains. Bangladesh would be destabilised again, if its mandarins showed the temerity to pursue an independent foreign policy. Bhutan would be allowed to wallow in Gross National Happiness, as long as the regime in Thimphu agrees to sign on the dotted line of papers prepared in New Delhi. Burmese Generals would be kept in good humour, even as customary noises are made about the long detention of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Up north, the political class in Kathmandu would ruefully realise that in the game of playing China against India, Nepal is invariably the main loser. New Delhi would tighten the noose around the Maoists and the mainstream parties, while attempting to run the country by proxy through its favourite military generals and mandarins. Elsewhere in Southasia, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke would run India's Pakistan policy and Robert Blake, the Obama nominee for assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, would continue to have final say over India's position in Sri Lanka.

The verdict of the Indian electorate may have been for continuity and stability, but if forces of the status quo interpret the mandate as an approval for a further tilt rightwards, resistance and rebellion may transform Southasia into another insurgency hotspot – one with nuclear weapons. In a country as unequal and heterogeneous as India, the alternative to left-of-centre politics is chaos – a fact four generations of Nehru-Gandhi family have deftly used for the perpetuation of dynastic rule.

The Rahul effect
When the Gandhi heir takes over the reigns of the realm – this is not 'if', but merely a question of timing – he would be the first fourth-generation individual to be democratically elected to the head of government anywhere in the world. The burden of history is not light, but Rahul baba is still young, and may have some of the enthusiasm that his great grandfather had for the politics of social justice. He would have to realise that no matter how many Indians make it to the Forbes list of global billionaires, the idea of India is doomed to fail if more Indians than the entire population Europe have to live on less than two dollars a day. Rahul will have to re-invent the garibi hatao zeal of his grandmother Indira, but all the while resist the urge to copy her authoritarian politics.

From Nehru, Rahul can learn the diplomatic chutzpah of leading a world power, without having to pay for it by appealing to higher values of independence, equality and a just world order. In the neighbourhood, India has to acquire the image of a friendly mentor, rather than that of an overbearing master. That is the lesson that Rajiv Gandhi's assassination holds for his son: the costs of a duplicitous foreign policy are invariably very high. President Mahinda Rajapakse has kept up his side of the bargain by winding up Colombo's war against the LTTE before the formation of a new government in India. Rajiv's death has been avenged. But what is the diplomatic price New Delhi has to pay for the mass murder of Tamil civilians to get at its rogue protégé, Velupillai Prabhakaran – a permanent presence of the US Navy close to the spaceport at Sriharikota?

Naxalism may indeed be the "most serious internal security threat" faced by the New Delhi power elite. But the leader of 70 percent of the Indian population – those below 35 years of age in India – will have to carefully calibrate the response of the state to ensure that leftists defeated at the polls do not swell the ranks of those who believe that power flows out of the barrel of the gun. In the absence of leftists, deliberations over economic policies at Yojana Bhavan may acquire characteristics of the echo effect, where intellectual justifications are manufactured to entrench existing biases.

Hope is in the air of the sizzling New Delhi summer. But whether it brings relief to the parched hearts of the poor and the marginalised will depend upon Rahul Gandhi rather than Manmohan Singh. Binayak Sen may decline the invitation, but he deserves to be invited to the swearing-in ceremony of the Nehru-Gandhi heir-apparent.

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