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A crisis of leadership

There is a political logjam in India, and each election appears to make it only more intractable. The BJP has, of course, taken much heart from the decisive victories in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, but the truth is, these reflect the peculiarities of the local situation and not any kind of national crystallisation in the party's favour. 'Analysts' have, of course, come up with many wily theories to explain the Assembly election results in these two States, blaming the 'anti-incumbency factor' in Himachal Pradesh, but then standing on their heads to explain away Mr Narendra Modi's victory in terms of communal politics and a hate vote, ignoring the reality that Mr Modi's polarising impact had become secondary to his overwhelming focus on development and on actual attainments in the sphere of governance.

But the BJP can derive cold comfort from these victories, and there are sufficient indications that, with the general election a little over a year away, there is no political crystallisation across the country in favour of any single party. Indeed, with Assembly elections scheduled for 2008 in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Congress may well be able to secure some vengeance for its humiliation in Himachal Pradesh (the outcome in Gujarat was never really in question, though its magnitude may have astonished many). In Uttar Pradesh, similarly, Ms Mayawati's unprecedented sweep had fuelled prime ministerial ambitions in the Bahujan Samaj Party's mercurial leader, but the defeat in the Ballia by-election has already demonstrated inherent limitations, even on her home turf.

Years of electoral fragmentation and appeals to limited vote-banks and divisive politics have resulted in a situation that now denies all political advantage to any single formation. Virtually every political party has manoeuvred itself into a corner, and all political calculations have been reduced to the mathematics of stifled spaces. With polls at various levels now staggered virtually throughout the year, parties are in perpetual 'election mode', focussed on the stratagems and postures that will help them win the most proximate contest, with little concern for the larger, national, picture. Thus, the 'secular' Congress finds it expedient to project BJP defectors as its face in Gujarat, peddling 'soft Hindutva', instead of articulating and advancing its own ideological and political agenda. It is not issues of policy, but, overwhelmingly, small elements of electoral positioning that define victory or defeat today, and these, consequently, have become the exclusive focus of the political calculus.

Such shortsightedness tends to mark the orientation of almost all political formations in the country, and is likely to prevent any crystallisation in favour of any particular party. A fragmented outcome in the coming general election is, consequently, an integral part of every political party's current calculations, and the overwhelming emphasis is not on seeking stability or strength on a national policy platform, but in arriving at the right 'formula' for fragmented mobilisation and advantageous 'equations' with other parties.

This has been the trend for nearly two decades now, and has resulted in many paeans being written to the 'coalition dharma' and theories propounded that the alliances of opportunity that are forged somehow better 'represent' the 'will of the people' within a complex India. The reality is that there is no 'dharma' here, just rank and unprincipled opportunism, rooted in political incompetence and ideological bankruptcy. And far from better representing the 'will of the people', these outcomes end up representing no public interests, and install feeble Governments in power, with very limited capacities to secure the minimal consensus necessary to push any meaningful policies or programmes forward.

It is now necessary for some political party to break through the tired and failing politics of the past, and to propose an agenda for the 21st century; to recognise that a political party must stand, consistently, for some identifiable set of values and polices; and, to acknowledge that political leaders must have the capacity to envision the future and to lead, not merely to calculate transient electoral advantage. Incumbent Governments whose performance has not been altogether negative -- certainly including the current regime at the Centre -- must also address their abject failure to translate their successes into electoral gains.

A tremendous revolution has occurred in every sphere of life across the world -- and this revolution has reached out to millions in India as well; but political India appears to lie entirely outside its ambit. Our politics remain trapped in the caste, communal, regional and divisive politics of the last century. Our economy -- or at least parts of it -- appears to have moved beyond what the Nehruvians described as the "take-off stage", but our politics is trapped in the quicksand of prejudice, ignorance, incompetence, and, of course, nepotism and corruption.

It is little realised that the tremendous gains of the recent past can all be wiped out by India's anachronistic politics, and the evidence of these dangers is visible everywhere. Many are tempted to celebrate India's success in a region where almost every state (with the exception of China) that shares our borders, is skirting failure. The reality, however, is that there are many circumstances that prevail in large parts of India that are not significantly distinguishable from the rising anarchies of our neighbouring states, and the past decades of 'rapid growth' have seen these areas expand, rather than contract, in the visible absence of effective governance and equitable development.

Small sectors of our economy -- carrying small segments of our population with them -- have made astonishing progress, and are now able to compete as equals with the best in the world. As a nation, however, we are still generations behind the advanced powers, and the multiple revolutions in the knowledge sphere have entirely bypassed an overwhelming majority of our population. Indeed, the reach and quality of our education systems are in most part so poor that a vast proportion of our human resources has - and can have -- no productive role in the modern, globalising, sectors. Poverty remains endemic, and the distress of the poorest of the poor appears to have augmented over the past years. Crucially, human security in all its complex aspects has shown marked decline in every sphere -- and even the most privileged in the population feel the impact of this deterioration.

Where are these issues in the electoral strategies of our political parties, or the vision of our leaders? What influence do they have in the formation of alliances and coalitions? What power do the weak and unstable regimes -- held to perpetual ransom by internal factions and marginal coalition partners -- have to implement a national strategy of reconstruction and enduring, equitable, development? Does any political formation, any leader, today, have the courage, the conviction and the capacity to break through India's persisting political impasse?

(Published in The Pioneer, January 5, 2008)





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