Strong Centre, strong states

The longer this government lasts, the greater the harm to governance and the grand old party. Chances of it returning to power will also become less.

The recent Assembly elections have been an earth-shaking political event. Mandalisation lost ground in Uttar Pradesh to development, as it did in Bihar last year. The Bihar election saw the eclipse of one national party and the Uttar Pradesh election the virtual annihilation of both national parties.

The regional parties in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, are now very strong. The regional parties have been repeatedly humiliating the government at the Centre, enfeebled by mega corruptions and trying to stick to power at all costs. Whether over petrol price hike, FDI issue, Teesta waters, Lokpal Bill, the Railway Budget, or now the UN resolution on Sri Lanka, the Centre has had to eat the humble pie. Coalition dharma is now blatant survival dharma. The UPA is on life support and can brazen it out till 2014 or collapse earlier, when life support is withdrawn. The longer this lame duck government lasts, the greater the harm to governance and the grand old party itself. Chances of it returning to power will also become much less. The Congress needs to reinvent itself as an Opposition to restore its health and come back to power after five years or even earlier, if the successor government fails to hold together. Indira Gandhi, after a stunning rout in 1977, came back to power in three years with a resounding victory.
There have been two recent incidents in the theatre of the absurd. First, former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi presented the Railway Budget approved by the Cabinet, which the Prime Minister and the finance minister publicly lauded but which Mamata Banerjee disapproved. She forced his resignation; a new railway minister was appointed and partial rollback made. Second, the finance minister presented a lacklustre Union Budget while his minister of state from an alliance partner was not present in Parliament. He was supervising an Assembly byelection for his party.
Our Constitution has both unitary and federal features. Given our history of the past millennium, we need both a strong Centre and strong states. A strong Centre and weak states can degenerate into dictatorship, a taste of which we had during the Emergency. A weak Centre and strong states can lead to national disintegration. The Uttar Pradesh election has shown our two national parties in total disarray. While struggling for the third place, 60 per cent of the candidates of these parties lost their security deposit. And while one party is facing revolt in Uttarakhand and by-poll defeat in Andhra Pradesh, the other is trying to cope with blackmail in Karnataka and a by-poll defeat in its Gujarat citadel.
The Oracle of Delphi was asked as to what could destroy Sparta. It replied, luxury. If today the Oracle is asked what can destroy India’s two national parties, the reply will be sycophancy for the Congress and squabbles for the BJP. Our national interest demands that both these parties become strong. It is still not too late for them to reinvent themselves.
Sycophants have destroyed empires and emperors. The slogan of the Congress Party has changed from “Indira is India and India is Indira” to “dynasty is democracy and democracy is dynasty”. A mortal blow was delivered to the dynasty in its family citadels of Amethi and Rae Bareily, with the loss of 10 out of 12 Assembly seats. Initially, Rahul Gandhi did well in refusing to be parachuted to the top, like his father in the special circumstances of 1984. The sycophants and the fawning media started projecting him as a youth icon and a messiah of the Indian nation. He rightly preferred to build the party before succeeding to his inheritance in government. He was misled by the army of sycophants. He played the role of a benevolent prince showing concern for the poor and repeatedly harking back to his great ancestry. He was surrounded by smart, well-educated youth who are sons of old loyalists, but out of sync with the masses. He failed to develop ground-level party organisation, relying on abject appeasement policy. No doubt he worked extremely hard, but that was of no avail. After the poll debacle the sycophants owned up responsibility to shield the heir apparent. The Congress observer in Manipur stated that the Congress had won a sweeping victory there due to the leadership of Rahulji, even though he never once visited that state during the election. Rahul did well to discard the shield being provided by his sycophants and owned up full responsibility for the debacle. He needs to build his party from the ground level, discarding his sycophants and developing a mass base. A spell in Opposition will be good for his party’s and his own political health.
From a party with a difference, the BJP is now a party beset by differences. There are several capable leaders in the party who are prime ministerial material. However, quite a few BJP leaders are pulling in different directions. The BJP has two mass leaders with a national support base in the country. They are L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi. The former was the architect of the BJP’s astounding progress from a mere two seats in Parliament to the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha in 1998, with close to 200 seats. Today, his long experience of public life, impeccable integrity, no filial nepotism in politics and physical ability at his advanced age are unmatched in the country. His detractors for their vested interests make heavy weather of his age. They ignore that at his age, Morarji Desai was Prime Minister and Prakash Singh Badal is chief minister of Punjab. M. Kaurnanidhi is over three years older than him. An NRI millionaire in his 30s, who is an upstart and interloper in politics, had arranged to go to Rajya Sabha with the BJP’s support. He had the arrogance and audacity to suggest that older BJP leaders, particularly Mr Advani, should retire from the party. Mr Modi has proved himself to be a brilliant administrator who has brought about miraculous development in Gujarat, appreciated not only within the country but also internationally. He has been persistently demonised by the media, the so-called secularists and, of course, the minority. This hampers support for him from many. This can only be overcome after the law courts give him a clear chit in the ongoing cases against him. Unless the BJP chooses to put faith in one leader and all rally behind him, it has a bleak future.
A Third Front without a common positive ideology will not hold together. National interest may get overlooked by regional considerations, as happened over Teesta waters and over the Sri Lankan resolution. Regional parties may be very strong in their states but have hardly any presence outside. The foray of Janata Dal (United) and Trinamul Congress outside their respective states in recent elections drew a blank. India can do without short-term Prime Ministers like V.P. Singh, Chandrashekhar, Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral.
The need of the hour is both a strong Centre and strong states. The former requires a strong ruling party and a strong Opposition, and the latter no encroachment on state autonomy, as formulated in the Constitution. India is a nation of all Indians and not a nation of states.

The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir

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