Politics in India

By Raman, A. S. | Contemporary Review, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Politics in India


Raman, A. S., Contemporary Review


At the end of this month India will begin to elect its new Lower House (Lok Sabha) for the 11th five year term. There are pointers to a hung Parliament. Apparently none of the political parties will be able to form the government. Even the 1991 General Election produced a hung Parliament. The Congress (I), the present ruling party over which Prime Minister Narasimha Rao presides, was not comfortably placed in the Lower House. But gradually, by sleight of hand, he converted the minority into a majority and formed a politically stable but morally shaky government which, surviving many no-confidence motions, still continues as testimony to his Machiavellian style of political management. Even today his party does not have a majority in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha).

As the saying goes, some people are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust on them. The Indian Prime Minister belongs to the third category. The halo around the Nehrus - Jawaharlal, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her elder son, Rajiv Gandhi, who as Prime Ministers for nearly four decades ruled the country as benevolent despots in the guise of progressive democrats - had dazzled him out of sight. He had no option but to lie low, carrying out their orders like their most obedient servant. But he always had his own assessment of their performance which secretly and discreetly he kept to himself, while they were alive. Even in their lifetime, on occasion, he would attack them in the media, but only anonymously or pseudonymously. He dismissed, for example, Rajiv Gandhi in a magazine article published in 1990, a year before the latter's death, as a brash, immature, impetuous and self-destructive megalomaniac. Naturally, Rao finds himself distanced from Sonia Gandhi, the Italian widow of his bete noir.

Had it not been for Rajiv Gandhi's tragic assassination on May 21, 1991, by a woman member of Sri Lanka's LTTE suicide squad, Rao would have had no chance at all of coming to power. In fact the tragedy occurred when Rao was about to call it a day, pack up his bags and retire to a quiet retreat to pursue his literary interests to which he feels passionately committed. His dramatic rise to power was due to a combination of factors, such as (1) the political vacuum created by Rajiv Gandhi's murder, (2) Sonia Gandhi's uncompromising refusal to step into her husband's outsize shoes, (3) Rao's own deceptively humble, clean, utterly self-effacing, elder statesmanly stance, (4) the north-south divide coming into sharp focus with a tilt towards the south's politically, if not numerically, strong claim to the country's top post, (5) Sonia Gandhi's reportedly decisive support because of his noncontroversial record and general acceptability to all shades of political opinion and (6) his impressive track record as a sound and mature administrator and shrewd and mellow player of political games without hurting anyone. As confirmed by subsequent events, he was the best choice in the circumstances.

Rao has been running the country fairly competently, though there has been no visible improvement in the quality of life at any level - including the affluent in the top bracket who, since the opening up of India's trade and industry to the juggernaut of international penetration, have been forced to remain content only with mergers, partnerships and outright purchases. One unfortunate development of Rao's economic reforms is the widening of the rich-poor divide. However, these have liberated the national economy from the excesses of State regulation. On the political front, he has been able to free strife-torn Punjab from the grip of Sikh terrorists. The people now live in uninterrupted peace and prosperity. No doubt the assassination of the Punjab Chief Minister, Beant Singh, by a terrorist human bomb proves how fragile the peace package is. But by and large the situation is stable and the credit should go to Rao, Beant Singh and the tough, no-nonsense police chief, K.

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