Will a government which hasn't been there all along, finally go? Will its departure lead to elections or will it be replaced by a new government which will be there no more than the one which was never there and has at last gone? In a word, the first feature of what was happening was that everything could happen.
Second, that at the end of the line there would be a principle waiting to explain whatever eventually happened. Third, the issue which had been used to trigger the entire chain of events was one which wasn't there either, least of all in the eyes of those who had used it.
For there is absolutely nothing, not one fact in the Jain Commission report which could have been a sudden revelation to Congress. More than that, there are as many facts which would nail Congressmen as those which would inconvenience others: That Indira Gandhi and Rajiv had patronised LTTE, that the greed of the local Congressmen themselves for votes is what had dragged Rajiv to the venue, that the trial for Rajiv's assassination had been going on for six years, that in fact it had been concluded and none connected with DMK had been named thus far even as an accessory to the crime, that the assassination had been executed when a government propped by Rajiv and Congress was in office in Delhi and the state was under President's rule...
Most embarrassing of all: Not once in eleven years had Congress either acted on or demanded that anyone else act on the report of the Commission on the assassination of Mrs Gandhi. After all, we must assume that Mrs Gandhi has been as dear to Congressmen as Rajiv. And that Commission was not just about Rajiv's mother, it had been instituted by Rajiv himself, and it had reported its findings when Rajiv was himself the Prime Minister.
"We will table the Thakkar Commission Report," J H Patel, the chief minister of Karnataka, threatened one day, "as well as the Bofors papers." But hadn't the government already tabled the Thakkar report, I asked Congressmen. They didn't remember. When that report was tabled, was it accompanied by an ATR, I asked. They didn't remember.
For those who sought to corner the government on the basis of the Jain Commission's report both the government and the report were contrivances. But the ones who were doing so were themselves contrivances -- actually, they were straining so that The Unknown would deign to pick them up as her contrivances. A contrivance of a government buffeted on a contrivance of an issue by persons whose highest aspiration is that they be adopted as a contrivance by The One behind the Wall. And yet we make-believe that we are not a Banana Republic.
And what they led to was more a result of things gathering a momentum of their own than of design, save in one particular.
The assassinations of Mrs Gandhi and of Rajiv are the only USPs which Congress has had in the last decade.
But even it has been unsure that they would fetch votes yet again -- recall the lukewarm wording of the initial resolution, the 'We-cannot-go-by-press-reports' statements of those purveyors of the day's inanities, the party's spokesmen.
But then three factors took over. Congressmen realised that if even on Rajiv's assassination the party seemed indifferent, if even in the face of this it repeated the old line -- as Kesri had done, "I am an old man, at no cost will I do anything which will help BJP" - they would be completely forfeiting their USP. Second, faction play in the party took over -- that Kesri could be cornered for not having been sufficiently outraged became a handle for every other 'stalwart' in the party. And then there was the uncertainty about how much sobbing alone would assuage Sonia.
It is quite natural that the initial lukewarmness should have upset Sonia -- after all, here was a lot that had been living off the name of her husband and mother-in-law for decades, and when the time had come by their indifference they had shown that it had been all a put-on.
But there was also prudence and calculation, and this is the part which design played: Had not the Swiss representative at the Interpol conference in Delhi revealed that the rest of the Bofors papers would be handed over to the Indian Government before the end of the year?... The moment her preference became known, every 'stalwart' strained to outdo the others in living up to her anxieties.
Competition, thus, became stampede. And desperation was transformed into hope: With their state units in tatters, Congressmen have been dreading elections; but now they had rushed to a precipice, and as a man who sees at the last moment that he has nowhere to go but over the cliff, shuts his eyes, shouts, 'Jai Bajrang Bali', and leaps, they convinced themselves that at last they had got an issue which would move people, that Sonia will get them votes.
They jumped all right, but, midway down, panic struck again: Which is the state in which this gamble will pay off?, they asked their leaders.
No one could name one. And so another round of meetings, another round of formulae, another round of blaming each other for pushing the party into a situation it had not bargained for.
This was one half of the picture: Congress is just tremulous shadow. The other half was: The government had been a shadow standing on this shadow.
Who can work up sorrow at the passing of such a phantom? Who can be elated at its survival?
Or at its being replaced by some other ghost? But the problem is that this last government has not been some exception, it has been the norm.
How can a country, with a ruling class in this mode, survive?
For the moment we can console ourselves a bit by the fact that even such a denouement serves a purpose: That of education.
Once again leaders have bared their true character for the people. Remember what happened at the time of the debate on Deve Gowda's ouster? 'Under no circumstances shall we let down our colleague and leader, Mr Deve Gowda,' they swore in the Lok Sabha. And it transpired that at the very moment they were swearing fidelity in the House, they were asking Congress who else should they put in place. In this round too, nothing that they said was final, at each turn everything was possible. That is the most important lesson: Unless persons of character are put in office no constitutional scheme will work, the country cannot be saved.
The second lesson we must remember the next time we go to vote: If once again we vote by caste and the like, the result will be another fractured Parliament, another round of non-governments. The long term problems have already become so large that one despairs whether they can ever be solved in a democratic set up. Another round of the last ten years, and they would have swollen enough to bury us.
Clearly, to lift the people out of considerations like caste, a real choice has to be put before them. This is where recent maneuvers within and of BJP have caused so much distress across the country.
Among section after section there has been the notion that all is not yet lost, that there is still one group which, once it gets a chance, will pull the country back on the rails, and that is BJP.
Across the country ordinary people have pegged their residual hope on this notion. But BJP seems to have thought fit to proceed on the opposite premise: It seems set on convincing the people, "See, we are no different from the others -- do not be afraid of us, do not treat us as untouchables." This decision has been a real blow to the assumption which many had clutched as a reason for clinging to hope. Moreover, at least I do not think this new avatar is going to fetch votes either -- how can people work up an enthusiasm for another 'just-like-them'?
Therefore, for the party which faces the greatest choice, the moral is: Give people a real choice, be visibly better.
Whether one contrivance goes or another comes, elections are the inevitable and only way out, and, when they come, everyone can help: Students' organisations by refusing to do the running around till their party removes criminals from its list, businessmen by denying payments to a party unless it fields candidates who are manifestly qualified to be legislators, to man governments, journalists by mercilessly nailing the record of candidates, citizens' groups by monitoring the conduct of parties and candidates during elections.
But given the condition to which affairs have descended, two more tests are needed. The first concerns political parties. From being movements, they became machines for winning elections. But even that stage is past: Today they are contrivances for mustering post-election majorities. But such organs cannot sustain democracy.
Therefore, we should look for the party which takes steps to, and which places itself in the hands of persons who will reconstruct the party into an instrument for actually doing something for the people. When it is not in government as much as when it is in power.
Second, the last few rounds teach us that replacing one individual at the top by another makes little difference now: Narasimha Rao was very competent in many ways, I K Gujral is a decent man, but in spite of them the longer run deterioration has continued. Even replacing one party by another no longer makes much difference. Each of them has replaced several others in states and at the Centre from time to time, but the secular decline of governance has continued, the long term problems have continued to fester. In addition to looking for the party which has better candidates, therefore, we should look for the party which works out sensible ideas for changing the electoral and constitutional system itself, which makes them a part of its electoral platform, for the party which seems the one more likely to carry through those changes.
November 28, 1997
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