Tuesday, 19 October 1999

Congress: A Split that was Waiting to Happen

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

A period of rapid economic progress. Damping down of social
tensions despite the implementation of Mandal. Crafting of a
stable majority that looks set to run a full term. Breaking of
militancy in Punjab and battling it to the ground in Kashmir.
These are not small achievements. Indeed, a case may be made
out that the past four years have seen greater positive change
than any previous four-year period since 1947.

This is the reality. And yet, what is the perception? Like the
Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland that slowly vanished,
leaving behind only a grin, there has been a steady blurring of
the achievements of the Narasimha Rao government, leaving
behind a residue of confusion as to what exactly these are. Partly,
this is due to the differences in emphases articulated by individual
leaders. N.K.P. Salve is MNC-friendly while A.K. Antony sounds
pro-poor, Mallikarjun would destroy the Prithvi, while Jaffar
Sharief would go to war (hopefully with it). Pranab Mukherjee
would place greater reliance on Indian business houses, while
Manmohan Singh appears to have a soft corner for the foreign
kind. But such differences have been there in every period, and
in every system save that of Stalin. Then why the negative vibes?

In a democracy, a leader needs not just to be effective, he has
to show to the people that he is so, that he fights very strongly
for values and objectives with which they relate. Despite the
egalitarianism of the ballot box, voters want an individual who
leads on horseback. Who speaks in equivocal tones about his
priorities, and who does not appear defensive or inarticulate. In
short, not just a good manager, but a good communicator.
Franklin Roosevelt would never have succeeded in stemming
social tension during the Depression had he not, through his
fireside chats and the warmth of his public personality,
transmitted optimism even to the jobless. Britain may have lost
heart in 1940-41 but for the pugnacity of Winston Churchill, who
refused to accept that the Germans had whipped his nation
almost to the ground.

Revolutions are made not just in conference rooms peopled
by efficient officers calling forth facts on a computer, or giving
orders to subordinates through the telephone. 

They are made in fields and workshops, homes and offices,
through an organic bonding between voter and leader, a sense
of identification of each with the other. The idiom has to be
simple, not talk of a billion dollars in Rayalaseema or televiews
of sleek foreign delegations arriving in their limousines. And the
instruments of communication: the political party organisation.
The media, the ground-level administration, needs to be kept in
constant contact with. A direct contact that alone can provide the
vehicle for them to transmit the leader's vision to his flock. The
Congress party is no exception to this rule of political life.

Today interaction between the Prime Minister and the print
media, for example, is usually confined to airport exchanges. The
frequent exchange of ideas and views (on what the reality is),
with journalists that characterised a John Fitzgerald Kennedy or
a Lal Bahadur Shastri, is absent. journalists are to be kept a Black
Cat-length away. Whether it is the ministries or the General
Secretaries of the AICC, not a scintilla of information is to be
provided unless there is sanction from the top. Which means that
information very seldom gets disclosed, with the result that
rumour takes its place. Although much takes place, public
communiques about this are absent. One is made to wait for a
'final and definitive' statement of policy at an 'appropriate
forum' that almost never occurs.

Used as one may be to a P.N. Haksar or even P.L.N. Dhar —
individuals who welcomed views totally different from what
they or their bureaucratic colleagues were saying and made sure
that the heretics were given access to the top-it is difficult to
generate enthusiasm for those whose attitude is that interaction
with the media is a chore best avoided. It is difficult to appreciate
a home ministry that stores away rather than reveals mountains
of evidence about Pakistan's complicity in terrorist acts. It is not
possible to feel enthusiastic about a defense ministry that appears
to regard Abdul Kalam and his brilliant team of scientists as
morons to be kept out of public view, or to feel kindly towards
a group that bestirs itself publicly only to rebut the allegations
of an Arjun Singh, while till then there was mostly silence about
actual achievements.

However, one should not blame the bureaucracy overmuch.
Those within it are trained to feel suspicious about public affairs.
Which is why there is a parallel political channel to the top,
manned by individuals presumably more attuned to grassroots
needs. However, in today’s Delhi this too is manned by
individuals who have taken the indirect route to power rather
than by facing an electorate. Predictably, their approach to
filtering up ideas and individuals is little different from more
obvious bureaucrats. The result is a system that allows tainted
ministers to continue till they are heckled out by public clamour.
That gives sheep like signals on core issues of concern such as
national defence, making a minister admit that vital programmes
such as Agni and Prithvi may be scuttled. That brings in
perceived deadwood—and worse—in the name of change. That
gives an impression of fawning surrender to external pressure.
None of this may be the reality, but this is the perception.

That perception today has the Congress party on the
defensive. Indira Gandhi’s elephant ride to Belchi, or Jawaharlal
Nehru’s leaping into a crowd with a cane to shoo away rioters,
may not have won approval in schools of etiquette, but they
played well in the minds of the emotional people that Indians
are. A scholarly mien may excite university dons, but few others.
An individual who leads has the responsibility not just to
achieve, but to simultaneously put into effect a policy that will
imprint such deeds into the public consciousness. If such a policy
exists, it has never been put into operation.

The present Prime Minister is probably the best in the
country's history in many respects. But if matters go on as they
are now, his party may secure barely 150 seats in the next Lok
Sabha polls. Is there an individual responsible for this apparent
dichotomy of which the split in the Congress party is only a
minor symptom? There is, and he is the reticent, restrained
Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao.

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