India's Dissolving Glue

As the forces holding this vast and diverse nation together lose their grip, the logic of its unity and politics faces its severest test in 40 years

IN the wake of the continuing violence that has convulsed India over the past decade and claimed the lives of both Indira Gandhi in 1984, and now her son Rajiv, pundits are questioning the viability of the Indian political system. Yet the only alternative to a democratic India is no India at all: a regression to the pre-colonial condition of predominantly despotic states built on the supremacy of a single religion, language, or caste. It was only after India's independence from the British in 1947 that this troubled "nation" was truly united for the first time. In 1951 the country was constitutionally proclaimed a "federal democratic republic," in which the interests of many deeply divided groups could be balanced, however precariously.

For a time, the Congress Party seemed tailor-made for this situation. As a self-proclaimed "secular" party, it succeeded in bringing most of fractious India under its umbrella. There was a place in the party for all Indians: Hindus of every caste, Muslims, and other minorities, irrespective of their regional backgrounds.

The idealistic ethos of the first generation of leaders like Mohandas Gandhi gave way to a different kind of Congress Party. Three kinds of glue kept this conglomerate together from the 1960s onward. First was the spoils of politics, from petty patronage to massive and institutionalized corruption. At the heart of this spoils system was the "license raj," under which no business could thrive unless it paid regular bribes to Congress Party operatives and government bureaucrats to bend regulations and res t

rictions to their advantage. Paradoxically, this may explain why free-market policies in India might destroy the political sinews that keep this country united.

The second glue holding India together is comprised of the only two truly integrated national institutions, the armed forces and the Indian Administrative Service, which survived the transformation from the Raj to post-colonial independence. Together, they proved critical in establishing Indian sovereignty over such disputed provinces as Kashmir, Hyderabad, and Goa. Subsequently, however, they also preserved New Delhi's hegemony over the various states.

The third kind of glue was the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. For more than 40 years, this family dominated Indian politics, transforming the Congress Party into an appendage of its ambitions. At best a group of family retainers, at worst a political mafia, the party is a headless organization.

Riven by communal passions, divided into countless factions along regional, religious, caste, and linguistic lines, Indians for the first time since independence are facing intimations of their own mortality as a unified nation. As the binding glue dissolves in a morass of violence and reaction, there is a crisis of legitimacy.

At one end of the political spectrum, the Janata Dal Party's policy of job-reservations has heightened caste tensions and violence. Moreover, the left-wing statist platform of leader V. P. Singh ignores the fact that the socialist legacy of the state as the preferred employer is bankrupt.

Where the Congress Party is concerned, Rajiv's death has decapitated the organization he led, leaving a vacuum in the critical center of Indian politics.

IN light of this situation, the attraction of a program of "order and stability," such as that held out by the Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), becomes comprehensible. Riding on the wave of a resurgent Hindu fundamentalism, the right-wing BJP promises to "make India strong again," albeit a fundamentalist India riding on the backs of the non-Hindu minorities and the Hindu lower castes. The BJP's foreign policy envisages a subcontinent of subservient neighbors dominated by a militarily asse r

tive, nuclear-armed India.

The likely short-term scenario, however, is a coalition government at the center, biding time till one of the three factions at the right, left, or center of the political spectrum emerges with a dominant strategy. That would be the most advantageous fate for India's troubled democracy, for it would afford time for supporters of democratic institutions to regroup and consolidate.

A less likely possibility would be armed forces intervention, in a neutral capacity, to contain political meltdown. This could result in some kind of "imposed democracy," with ineffectual national governments, and martial law prevailing in many areas, punctuated by intermittent elections.

The worst-case scenario would be that of a BJP-dominated center with close links to the armed forces. While the army is by no means a haven for Hindu zealots, it could feel compelled to respond to political anarchy by supporting the BJP's platform of order and stability. Such a coalition could deal democracy the final blow, for it would have little compunction in responding to internal failures by raising the time-honored political specter of the "foreign hand" and striking at the "source" of the proble m

, whether in Kashmir or in the Punjab. And that would be disastrous, not just for Indian democracy, but for the larger geopolitical stability of the subcontinent itself.

Indians today are at the crossroads of their political future. In the past, the Indian electorate has repeatedly confounded experts and reaffirmed its political maturity. The present elections, however, will require reserves of strength and objectivity that may well have been exhausted by the rogue politics of the last decade. Their outcome will determine not only who will lead the nation, but what kind of nation there will be left to lead.

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