Vote bank politics is not a new phenomenon in India. The politics of caste and religion have always existed within the enormous diversity of India, a trait the British exploited ruthlessly to subjugate Indians. In the aftermath of Partition, the Congress Party was able to use its fortuitous credentials as the agent of Indian independence to ensure that disparate vote banks across the country remained largely loyal to it. Until the accession of Indira Gandhi, the Congress Party also contained within it a genuine regional leadership that represented divergent political views. Jawaharlal Nehru was able to reconcile India'sdiverse interests by force of personality and his symbolic primacy as Mahatma Gandhi'schosen successor. As a result, political differences and conflicting aspirations did not lead to a breakdown of the uneasy balance of power between the coalition of interests that comprised the Congress Party. But the subsequent political awakening of India and a much sharper articulation of conflicting regional, caste and religious sentiment was undoubtedly taking shape below the surface of apparent national purpose. The post-Independence ebullience only lasted a couple of decades.
The socio-economic and political fissures beneath the surface came out into the open after Indira Gandhi'sbid for political power and the split that it instigated within the Congress party. In the aftermath of her triumph over the powerful old guard Indira Gandhi peremptorily installed loyalists as office bearers and Congress Party leaders across India. She transformed the Congress party from a public corporation, so to speak, into a private family firm, appending her own initial alongside the name of the party as its insignia. Once regional political leaders were turned into family retainers they ceased to articulate effectively the complex mosaic of aspirations of the regions they presided over. The quality of this leadership deteriorated eventually because personal elevation depended on loyalty to Indira Gandhi, without due regard for political consequences. Regional leaders were also hesitant to impress upon her the ground realities in the states they ruled.
Her self-serving politics galvanised regional and sectional discontent, strengthening vote banks and on a truly pan-Indian scale. It was a certainty that cynical political entrepreneurs would enter the fray and the fragile sense of national identity potentially in the making after Independence retreated. Every kind of political, caste, social, linguistic and religious division was ensnared as a basis for political mobilisation. A no-holds barred contest for political power came to dominate Indian political life and wider national interests could no longer be apprehended by the political system as a preponderant imperative, except in transient moments of crisis like the Bangladesh war of 1971. But the harsh reality of the neo-Hobbesian struggle for power always resumed when the momentary sense of national purpose passed. Such a situation was guaranteed to result in egregious intellectual dishonesty and personal venality for the sake of political advantage and no political party was unaffected by it. The principle that came to rule was exploitation of every sentiment, however mendacious and to accentuate it to the maximum possible extent to arouse the most potent vote bank loyalty towards those articulating grievances. What worsened India'sdescent into the miasma of irrational rivalry, pitting all-against-all (as witness caste politics in Rajasthan today) was the stupid constitutional arrangement Indian leaders, in their vaulting ignorance, had inflicted on the country after Independence and crackpot Nehruvian socialist economics.
The consequences of the failure to institute a presidential system of government were disastrous. It could have ensured that one paramount decision-maker was the product of a national vote instead of being the creature of the lowest common denominator of a concatenation of fractured interests. Such a presidential system is imperative in even relatively small countries to create a sense of nationhood by enabling all voters to identify with the major political office of the country. In addition, the espousal of Nehruvian socialist economics created vicious strife to corner a share of the spoils by winning political office and intensifying it further by slowing down the growth that would have otherwise enlarged the economic pie. This remains the essential status quo of contemporary India: every fault line institutionalised, generating embittered competition of brother against brother for power and money with India'sforeign enemies funding many conflicts gleefully, as witness the imported advanced armaments wielded by India'sNaxalites. Significantly, Indian Leftists of all hues have always opposed national unity since that would marginalise them.
What kind of future for India'sdoes its dominant interests desire within this tragic gloom of vote bank politics? The desire to perpetuate the Nehru clan'sascendancy in Indian political life is apparently their foremost goal. The inviolability of Sonia Gandhi'sinfluence and the eventual inauguration of Rahul Gandhi as India'sPrime Minister are its inevitable corollaries. Keeping the Hindu communalists out of power and an end to Narendra Modi, howsoever achieved, also seem high on the wish list today. But the first set of goals have primacy and it is perfectly conceivable that the support of supposedly Hindu communal politicians will be sought, if necessary, to preserve the Gandhi clan'sfreehold on Indian political life. Indeed a certain political forbearance in favour of it from the relevant quarters is already in evidence, so the alleged communal presence in Indian political life is not a serious issue at all since it already offers succour to the Gandhi family.
In the context of vote banks and dynastic politics, increasingly exhibited by every political movement, ideological conviction is a function of competition for office and its intrinsic merits are irrelevant. Secularism, the principal ideological emblem, is merely a term of abuse that obscures a multitude of transgressions being committed by the accusers themselves. As for the rarefied Indian intellectual discourse over secularism, there are serious differences of opinion. Much of it is vacuous if not downright duplicitous because knotty questions fatally injure the secular catechisms put about as sacred. But there is an arrogant mainstream belief that the devout are too stupid to notice the nuances perplexing secular sophisticates. The secularist Indian intelligentsia almost unfailingly boasts a Western pedigree and that branding alone assures them greater credibility and gives better access to the media. The political secularists like Laloo Prasad Yadav or a Karunanidhi are of course complete country bumpkins and can be safely consigned to the margins of the intellectual discourse on secularism.
In the end, vote bank politics and the relentless competition for political power dominate all other considerations. The reality that it is reaching a point of no return for the preservation of national integrity is of little concern to the protagonists. And in the dirty waters of Indian politics only those who have immunity despite imbibing it thrive. High moral purpose succumbs to the all-pervasive environment of degradation that has spread its ugly tentacles. No political party is able to resist its grim embrace for long, vindicating the deep initial distaste of the RSS leadership towards the idea of sponsoring participation in conventional politics. The one fragile ray of hope is the urbanisation of India and the painful advance of a resulting national consciousness among those who have left behind their parochial moorings. They seek good governance and are, crucially, less susceptible to the ubiquitous bribery practised by the Indian electoral system. It is these political refugees from vote banks that re-elected Narendra Modi in the recent Gujarat assembly elections.
(The author who taught for over two decades at the London School of Economics & Political Science can be contacted at e-mail [email protected])