If Indian democracy has evolved and matured, it has done so after the untimely and unfortunate demise of Indira Gandhi. Not that the Nehru-Gandhis are to be blamed for carefully elevating themselves to the status of royalty and thereby encouraging the millennia-old Indian proclivity towards dynasties. They did play upon and pander to those sentiments often subtly, occasionally blatantly. But the fact remains there was a tendency in Indian society to continue its tryst with feudalism and repose continuous faith in the Nehru-Gandhis, ostensibly for democratic governance but in reality for benevolent despotism.
For an entirely non-Orwellian reason, 1984 was the year of change. Mr Clean Rajiv Gandhi brought with him a new kind of democratic vulnerability. That his Opposition found enough Bofors artillery three years later to destroy that image, almost in the manner in which the barbaric Taliban wrecked the Bamian Buddha, is another story. Rajiv Gandhi represented the remnants of a feudal order, an order where you didn’t even have to do a Rahul-like discovery of India to figure out that you are a prince, the silver spoon spontaneously sprouted on your lips and whatever you mouthed was politics. Rajiv Gandhi was innocent, almost ethereal and had inherited his grandfather’s romanticism without either the Nehruvian intellect or vision.
Sonia Gandhi had to put up a bigger and more intense fight. Yes, the Italian woman of possibly small town sensibility bridged a gap, which was threatening to widen and subtract politics from the Gandhi family after the cruel assassination of Rajiv. If Rahul’s transition to the upper echelons of the Congress party is smooth, it’s because Sonia Gandhi nee Maino has done remarkable groundwork and covered the length and breadth of the country untiringly for almost a decade on his behalf. You can sense the exhaustion on her face. The Nehru-Gandhis are still a dynasty, there is still the family-first syndrome, there is still the legacy of typical Congress sycophancy but the next generation is learning grassroots politics the hard way, the more democratic way. Dynasty is a good calling card but no longer the perfect recipe for success.
This article is not about the Nehru-Gandhis. It is about the growing significance of democratic humility in Indian politics. If P.V. Narasimha Rao completed his term despite being at the helm of a minority government it was not because he had a flexible political spine or encyclopedic knowledge of the country, which he put to excellent use. It was because knowing that he was from Andhra Pradesh, knowing that his wasn’t the most acceptable face in northern India and aware that his language skills alone could not help him transcend cultural barriers, he chose political humility as a strategic weapon. The Chanakya that he was, he imbibed the science of artful compromise without having to suffer indignities.
Even H.D.Deve Gowda and I.K.Gujral who followed were rank outsiders and neither survived the bare minimum of a year. But in their own ways, they were great believers in modesty and the politics of accommodation. If they hadn’t run up against a wall called Sitaram Kesri and an equally obstinate unwillingness of the Congress to prop up secular governments from outside, both of them would have possibly extended their lifespan by a few more months.
And if there was anybody who could be described as political humility personified, it was the incomparable Atal Behari Vajpayee. He is and will be remembered as the father of coalition politics in India. He showed how the infidel and the faithful could not only survive under the same roof but could also come to each other’s aid in times of distress. It is not homogeneity but unity in diversity, which has been an intrinsic feature of the Indian ethos. Vajpayee assimilated that and even became its flawless practitioner. He was a man whose spirit of reconciliation and unquestioning trust in the theory of live and let live became a refreshing coalition mantra in a complex multi-party democracy.
Manmohan Singh can be faulted for transferring his political centre outside himself, beyond his office compounds to Sonia Gandhi’s sprawling bungalow at 10 Janpath. But you can never accuse him of losing his moorings and becoming disturbingly egoistic. In fact, the opposite happened. His humility was mistaken for weakness. His critics chose to ignore the fact that he was hemmed in by circumstances. He couldn’t ever escape the fact that he was a nominated Prime Minister. Viewed from that perspective, the nuclear deal followed by the political realignment, with the Left replaced by Samajwadi Party, was quite an achievement. His opponents are finding it easy to target him during the current electoral process because his mental strength is not reflected in his demeanor, in the way he conducts himself. For the past five years, Manmohan Singh has learnt what co-existence in a political joint family is all about. Occasionally, may be, he has conceded too much but his government could not have sustained itself, if he rode roughshod on allies.
Lal Krishna Advani has also learnt the hard way that rajdharma, as wonderfully explained by Vajpayee, is about walking with everybody. Advani’s politics has become much more nuanced in recent years. He is no longer walking the strident, lonely path as he used to in the late Eighties and even for a period in the Nineties. Advani knows beyond doubt that leadership is not about throwing your weight around. Being a lauhpurush can be a negative virtue given the chaotic democracy that India is. If Advani excelled only in converting ideology into political opportunism, he would have also been linear enough to make a show of his indulgence towards Varun Gandhi. Advani has moved on. He is now given to the idea of nation-building and has realized to achieve that goal, you need to shake hands with everybody – irrespective of creed, caste and religion.
I am not one of those who would jump to conclusions about Narendra Modi. I do not see any reason to subscribe to the cynical theory that once you are branded a communalist, you remain a communalist forever. Narendra Modi doesn’t want to be reminded of his past but he has now made his journey to another era, to the age of development which he has spiced up with generous doses of populism and popular rhetoric. Modi is being applauded and hailed by industrialists, Gujarat is setting a new benchmark in development indices, Modi is giving every indication that he has now acquired enough experience to replicate his Gujarat model elsewhere, Modi is knocking at the door for a stellar role in Delhi. But in this brutal game of politics, perceptions are often forever and are, on occasions, irreversible. However, much you try, the taint doesn’t go away. Even an electoral victory, as Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar found out, is not a guarantee that you have been freed of a riot stigma. You cannot be a Prime Ministerial hopeful if you are unable to face the past, unable to talk about the bloodshed in public with fearless candour. You cannot make probing newspersons disembark from your aircraft because they want you to talk about Godhra while you want to tell them everything about good governance.
Modi has to begin a dialogue with his critics, with those who refuse to forgive him for his alleged role in the Gujarat riots. Till the time he is able to do that, his geography will be coloured. He will only receive fabulous response in areas that already have a distinct saffron tinge. With his inability to convert those hostile to him into friends, he will always get a fractious, divisive mandate. It is not the kind of mandate a genuine statesman will want to achieve. Modi probably believes that he is a leader in the tough-talking Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel mould, one who needs to sell his hardliner image all the time, relentlessly. He is afraid his grasp may loosen and his politics weaken if he takes ownership of what transpired in Gujarat seven years ago after the Godhra carnage. Sometime later in his career, a few years from now, Modi will have to utter the five letter word, Sorry, if he wants to be a serious player on the big stage.
It is said that some leaders are a creation of their times, they are the children of destiny and they become what they become because they are at the right place at the right time. There are also the handful distinguished few who chart out their own paths, become leaders in spite of the times they live in and leave their imprint on the era they preside over because they write their own destiny. Till the time Modi learns to talk about the violence that rocked Gujarat seven years ago, he’ll remain a creation of his time, restricted by a divided agenda. He can aspire to be the BJP’s 150 seat-man, not someone who can help the party take the big leap forward and cross the majority mark on its own.