By Swapan Dasgupta
Vishwanath Pratap Singh may have ended up as a false prophet who disappointed many who reposed faith in his ability to emerge as a wholesome alternative to the dynastic Congress. However, it can hardly be denied that between 1988 and 1989, he was at the heart of a massive realignment that challenged Rajiv Gandhi’s steamroller majority.
Yet, it is instructive to remember that V.P.Singh’s position as the focal point of the rising anti-Congress sentiment had to negotiate many hurdles. Apart from having to accommodate the BJP and the Left parties which were intent on retaining their separate identities, the formation of the Janata Dal involved tortuous negotiations with the regional bosses who had their own egos and sense of priorities. There was Devi Lal the boss of Haryana; Chandra Shekhar who believed that the leadership rightly belonged to him; Ramakrishna Hegde, the darling of the editorial classes and Delhi chatterati; and Mulayam Singh Yadav who insisted on a hegemonic role in UP.
I also remember George Fernandes, then living in south Delhi and driving his own small Fiat car, shuttling between the different groups trying to bring them together. There was a memorable political convention in Delhi’s Mavalankar Hall hosted by Devi Lal which threatened to be a washout until very Fernandes made a dramatic appearance escorting Mulayam by the hand.
The formation of the Janata Dal was a consequence of many manoeuvres, compromises and deals.But if all the different anti-Congress forces finally pooled their strength to unseat the Congress in 1989, it was due to one factor alone: the recognition that V.P. Singh had captured the public imagination and was the real challenger to Rajiv.
There are other instances, dating further back that demonstrate the inevitable triumph of either an idea or an individual whose time has come. The emergence of Mahatma Gandhi, as the unchallenged leader of both the Congress and the nationalist movement, had to encounter bitter opposition in 1920-21. Those challenging him were not political lightweights: they included the supporters of the redoubtable Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the erstwhile ‘extremists’ who rallied behind C.R. Das and the liberal constitutionalists that included stalwarts such as Mohammed Ali Jinnah. By contrast, Gandhi’s followers were relatively unknown people from small towns and from the provinces where the Congress had an ephemeral presence—places such as Gujarat, Bihar, Central Provinces and the United Provinces.
What contributed to Gandhi’s anointment as the Congress and, subsequently, India’s foremost icon was not his ability to manipulate the nationalist machine—that happened subsequently. He epitomised an idea that enabled Indian nationalism to get out of the rut into which it had fallen since the Swadeshi movement faltered. In a recent book, Ananya Vajpeyi has called it India’s “Galilean moment”, a description hard to better.
The reason for delving into the past should be obvious. Over the past three months, India’s principal opposition party has been in the throes of a great churning caused by the emergence of Narendra Modi. The inner-party turbulence is understandable. Despite being a creature of the BJP and its so-called mother organisation, Modi represents a break not merely on account of what he has achieved in Gujarat but in terms of how he is perceived by those who are exasperated with two decades of UPA misrule. Modi promises not merely a new start but a new type of politics.
It doesn’t surprise me remotely that the idea of Modi has encountered a roadblock in Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (U). The Bihar Chief Minister has made it clear that he doesn’t find Modi to be adequately ‘secular’. Such a man, he believes, won’t sell to Muslim voters who constitute anything between 16 and 18 per cent of Bihar’s population. Some of the Chief Minister’s supporters even believe that by breaking with the BJP on the issue of Modi’s leadership, Nitish will effect a en masses movement of Muslim votes to the JD(U). Coupled with his existing support among a section of backward castes and a slice of Dalits, this, it is said, will see Nitish prevail in a triangular contest.
The JD(U) strategists may have got their arithmetic right. But an election (particularly a Lok Sabha poll) is fought and won on a combination of both arithmetic and chemistry. If Modi is just a flash in the pan or merely a Gujarat leader with national pretensions, neither Nitish nor for that matter the UPA has anything to worry about. In that event the 2014 general election will be an aggregation of different state elections and result in a truly mish-mash government, with the new PM being chosen by lottery.
Alternatively, if Modi does represent an idea that appeals to voters at a time of national drift, Nitish needs to pause and re-think. He must consider the consequences of opposing a campaign based on fulfilling India’s potential through rapid development with a sectarian question mark. The 2014 election will not be about identity politics. Is Nitish determined to make it so?
Nor can he overplay the ‘backward card’: Modi is not merely OBC but from a Most Backward Caste. Denying someone from such humble origins a shy at the top job on the strength of a minority veto offends a simple sense of right and wrong.
Sunday Pioneer, April 14, 2013