Uncertain Mandate: Dawn of Coalition Politics, 1996

Sometimes the most ephemeral occasions are draped in the heaviest symbolism. In May of 1996, as the world’s largest exercise in democracy drew to an uncertain and compelling close, India entered a cross-roads in its history as an independent republic. The grand old party of the nationalist struggle, the Indian National Congress, had received its most severe battering yet. Moribund for some years, it had been tactfully fending away threats to its monopoly of power since the death of Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. And the wheezing, corrupt and ideologically bankrupt party had done a valuable parting service to the Indian state in its final term of power under P.V. Narasimha Rao: the socialist economy of Nehru’s years began to be dismantled, the shackles of the ‘steel frame’ had been loosened; India had established itself fairly well internationally after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the uncertain international situation that emerged soon afterwards. The economic liberalisation, the flurry of diplomacy to address new issues of terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the globalisation of trade, all are credits to the Government of Narasimha Rao, perhaps the last ruling Government of a party that has been the institutional reflection of the nationalist legacy for more than a hundred years.

Politicians of all hues and their sycophants, journalists and other notable persons gathered in the Durbar Hall of the Presidential Palace in Delhi. Built as a residence for the Viceroys of India by the British, it was meant as a kind of court for the sovereign emperor of India, at that time the representative of the Crown. It was where Jawaharlal Nehru chose to be sworn in as the first Prime Minister of independent India, and where successive prime ministers have been administered the oath of office by the President. On that warm May evening in Delhi, President Shankar Dayal Sharma was flanked by the sashed and turbaned Presidential Guard, another inheritance of the Crown, a special ceremonial regiment of the Indian Army meant as a personal bodyguard to the Viceroy.

President Sharma’s decision upon receiving the uncertain results of the parliamentary election to call the largest, but not majority, party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to form the Government was a controversial one. Coalition and minority governments are disagreeable to the Indian public, who see them as troublesome and indecisive groups of opportunistic parties. They have never lasted except in times of uncertainty: following the Emergency in 1977, and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. The fear was compounded in this election by the inevitability of the Congress Party’s defeat, which meant that there would be no imaginable alternative to such a coalition as there had been in the past. The BJP had attempted to portray itself as having assumed a mantle of national reach and appeal, as ‘the alternative at the Centre’. But it had fallen short of a majority, just barely; the other parties that filled the House were from a variety of leftist, regional, caste and community groupings that had little if any national pretensions.

Nonetheless a minority government was sworn in. The symbolism of the moment, of a new group of ministers coming to swear their oath to the service of the Indian republic was made provocative by the clothing of the new Cabinet of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. From the earliest days of the freedom struggle, the symbol of nationalism had been handspun white cloth. The village cotton that Mahatma Gandhi and his followers donned in their protest of colonial economic exploitation, the symbol of resistance had become the politician’s uniform in India. The ‘Gandhi topee’, the simple cap modelled after Gandhi’s prison gear when he was first arrested in civil disobedience, had become the emblem of corruption and abuse of power. As the new ministers of the BJP approached the President to chant the oath of office in Hindi or English, not one was clad in either Gandhi topee or the white handspun. Most were still wearing the coarse cloth, but dyed saffron.

Saffron is the traditionally auspicious colour of Hinduism, as ascetics don saffron robes when they take their vow of austerity when retreating into the forest for a life of contemplation. The political perversion of this symbolism was meant to hearken to this traditional idiom, though the ministers were taking a very worldly vow of state office. When people talk of the ‘saffron wave’ in India they mean the collection of groups that support the Hindu extremist movement. In existence for almost as long as the other nationalist organisation, the Congress, they have come to the fore with the movement to demolish the Babri Masjid (Babar’s Mosque) in Ayodhya in north India; with the last election, they have entered the political mainstream. Though the BJP presents the face of a conventional parliamentary party, its tacit affiliation with the groups collectively known as the Sangh Parivar* is acknowledged. It is through their mobilisation and cultural and social activities that the BJP gathers its support, and it was after the demolition of the mosque and the rioting and political chaos that followed that it rose to its current stature as the largest party in the Lok Sabha.

To some the saffron wave represents a mortal threat to Indian society and the integrity of the Indian state; an affront to the founding values of secularism and democracy, a vandalism of popular Hindu virtues of tolerance and eclecticism, an attempt to impose a homogenous vision on a community of believers diverse and contradictory in their beliefs and practice. Their direct appeal to traditional symbols and a superficially ‘Indian’ or ‘Hindu’ idiom is noxious to many middle-class Indians obsessed with ideas of modernisation and historical progress. Their arrogance aside, many of these judgements hold true; it is the disgust that one must take issue with, and also one must accept the role of such traditional idioms in a society only slowly becoming aware of the newly endowed constitutional guarantees of independent India. What V.S. Naipaul described as a ‘million mutinies, a million little awakenings’i that have stirred and torn India in its past fifty years of statehood are too often seen as simply destructive phenomena, expressions of frustration. But they are more than that, they are the first rather chaotic and frightening signs of a new awareness that began to convulse the subcontinent as the freedom struggle brought the promise of a modernity to the masses. They are the creation of a new India, the attempts to fashion an uniquely Indian modernity.

The first to employ these symbols and manipulate their power for political purposes was the father of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi. Despite his reservations about the West and his obscurantism, Gandhiji inaugurated the polity on which the Congress wrested the control of the colonial state from the British Empire. Using mass mobilisation on a scale previously unimaginable in a country poor and uneducated to articulate very modern demands, freedom was won and enshrined in the state that Nehru refashioned with his vision of secularism, socialism and democracy. Through an aggressively modernist vision of India, Nehru attempted to decorate India with all the accoutrements of a modern nation-state: an industrial base and national economy, an independent foreign policy, and promotion of a national community vaguely based on the diverse reformist traditions given rise to by the British conquest and colonial encounter.

In India today, the moral squalor of public life, the disastrous consequences of a state-sponsored economy, and the bankruptcy of a homogeneous national vision are all obvious. The successes and disturbance occasioned by democracy are also obvious. The legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru’s statesmanship that brought India from freedom to statehood, it is a mixed and ambiguous inheritance, and any criticism of Nehru can never be wholly negative. What Nehru failed to appreciate about India is more owed to the age rather than to any of his own oversights. His enlightened statesmanship and constructive vision have maintained India as a democracy for its entire existence as an independent republic; the battered and abused Constitution he and the other founders wrote still is a rallying point for the polity; and the legitimacy of the state is well writ in the minds of the citizenry, though nowadays perhaps requiring a new articulation. Though the Congress may now be discredited and on the verge of political extinction, its achievements have been enormous and were it not for them, one could not imagine modern India.

But the essence of nationalism, the imagined community, has faded. And with it many of the illusions of Nehru’s time have evaporated. The saffron wave has swept into this vacuum with a ferocity that took most of India by surprise; the reactions of horror, shame and dismay following the destruction of the Babri Masjid shattered many of the myths of the nationalist tradition. Reading the newspaper and scholarly accounts of 1992 one detects an apathy and cynicism suddenly stirred by a horrible challenge. And neither the sermons of handspun-clad politicians about secularism, nor the exhaustive discussions of constitutional precepts and historical truths been able to counter what has been demonised as the ‘communal threat’. Certainly it has been reactionary, a horrible act of vandals, but one cannot deny the feat of mobilisation and the seductiveness of the ideology purveyed as the saffron alternative.

The Bharatiya Janata Party Government of Prime Minister Vajpayee lasted only thirteen days, reckoning with an imminent defeat in a confidence motion in the first session of Parliament, the Prime Minister chose to resign rather than be humiliated by a vote. It was a dramatic martyrdom watched all over the country on national television delivered by the poet-philosopher Vajpayee, an imposing figure as head of the Opposition for many years, and a master of rhetoric and debate in modern Hindi. The BJP would return, he claimed, and the next time no opportunistic band of country politicians absent of any common ideology would stop them.

Upon accepting the invitation of President Shankar Dayal Sharma to form a Government in a Parliament with no clear majority, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee set about appointing his Cabinet and ministries were constituted accordingly. Vajpayee had been projected as the ‘liberal’ and kind face of what was, admittedly, a party of vandals who had incited the destruction at Ayodhya and were seemingly not averse to using such strategies again. What few observers cared to mention was that communal mobilisation had become a fact of Indian public life; in post-colonial India, only in times of national emergency and economic crisis has the unity of all Indian citizens been invoked by state or society. All the various parties from each end of the political spectrum, excepting perhaps the Communist Party, have at one time or another exploited caste, regional, religious or other affiliations in their bids for power. At times elections in India, from the most local village council to the general election, have been structured around cynical calculations of communal interest and representation, and urgent issues of development and transparency have often been completely ignored.

The 1996 general election was little different, but when the BJP assumed power, the climate of opinion took on the air of emergency. The opposition parties criticised the President, who, acting with full constitutional sanction, invited the BJP to make real its electoral mandate. The much-battered slogans of secularism were again invoked, and the BJP was demonised as a communal party hostile to democracy and civil society. As ministries were being formed, the diverse parties and individuals of the opposition commenced negotiations on the formation of a coalition to upset the required motion of confidence. The new Prime Minister took to the airwaves in his first address to the nation to affirm the commitment of the BJP to the secular, pluralistic traditions and structure of Indian society and decry the parties now banding together in an ‘unprincipled coalition’ to overthrow the ‘people’s mandate’. He made a plea to the Muslim and other minority communities that the BJP would dedicate itself to the secular traditions of the Constitutionii, claiming that Ayodhya was never intended to happen, and that it was the fault of the government in not addressing the issue before the festering resentments exploded in the way they did. (Harish Khare, ‘Vajpayee Strikes Moderate Tone’, The Hindu (New Delhi), 20 May 1996).

In those heady days of political uncertainty, many of the developments of the past decade were finally being adjusted in the arrangements of power in India. It is a heart-rending tribute to the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru that they were all carried out in the utmost spirit of constitutional propriety, for it seemed that the structural stability of the Indian state was very much at stake: a party that had violated the unspoken compact of communal neutrality that lay at the heart of the Indian state had ascended to power at the Centre. Throughout the election campaign the BJP had portrayed itself as the first truly viable national alternative to the Congress Party, whose mandate had been eroded with increasing scandals and allegations of high-level mismanagement and corruption; with cynical manipulation of communal feelings to bolster its moribund rule; and with the dismantling of the socialist straitjacket of the past four decades, which had at least charged the state with the improvement of the lot of the impoverished masses. In its aspiration to national prestige and appeal, the BJP had of necessity demoted communal tactics to the bottom of its electoral strategy, and made a decent attempt at respectability — focusing on issues of corruption, equity and social upliftment — which won it the largest number of seats in the House of any single party.

However, it could not so easily play down the memories of Ayodhya which were still fresh in the minds of the electorate and which were invoked by the coalition of regional, casteist, and Left parties which came together — with the outside support of the Congress Party which had yet garnered the second largest number of seats — to form what became known as the United Front. It was another great tribute to Nehru that the system would so adjust itself at such an uncertain time under the banner of secularism and assert the necessities of governance in India’s diverse and unwieldy society. When Vajpayee affirmed his Government’s commitment to secularism, he was decried by the cadres of the RSS and VHP as betraying the legacy of the saffron brigade and all that had brought it to its current position. However, when Vajpayee spoke of secularism he did so not in answer to community, but as a necessity of governance. Communal mobilisation and representation of sectional interests had become pervasive throughout the campaign, but upon assuming power the exigencies of administration became very clear.

India possesses a political system whose structures cannot rest upon any single community, for no community is large or resourceful enough to construct even a regional state. The country has no single permanent majority and is itself a mosaic of minorities. This being so, no structures with statelike properties can be maintained, and no government can rule over such a construction, which do not depend upon mutual collaboration of minorities…Without such collaboration and ‘contractual’ arrangements, (either implicit or explicit), no political system can survive for long”. (Robert Frykenberg, ‘Hindu Fundamentalism and the Structural Stability of India’, p.233)

Despite its ideological claim to represent the eighty-five percent majority of those nominally ‘Hindu’, the saffron brigade had garnered less than thirty percent of the vote from those who subscribed to its catholic notions of a monolithic Hindu nation, an idea which is still less a social reality than a perverse dream (though a brilliant strategy of mobilisation). What was more being asserted at this point in the transition of Indian politics was a logical continuity that finds its origins in pre-colonial India: that any state that would seek to upset the structural stability of communal consent could not last long in power. The theme holds true for Aurangzeb, the last Mughal emperor who through his bigotry and intolerance incited the backlash of the Maharatas in defence of Indian tradition; the East India Company, which was dissolved after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 when it provoked the paranoia of its native employees by threatening their customs and ways of life, raising fears that the Company sought to proselytise and convert all of India to Christianity; and the British Empire, in its manipulation of communal passions in order to prolong its rule, which ended amidst the holocaust of Partition.

As I write, it seems that in the reign of the “corporate dynasties” (ibid., p.236) of modern India, the Company, the Crown, and the Congress, will be succeeded by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has stepped into the vacuum at the centre of Indian politics and has already made adjustments to the exigencies of becoming the defining axis of the system, among which has been a quieting of its communal rhetoric.

Nonetheless the United Front provided enough of a threat to the nascent saffron Government to prompt Vajpayee to choose martyrdom over humiliation and resign his office before the confidence motion was tabled in Parliament. The affirmation of the structural necessities of Indian statecraft, in the language of Nehruvian nationalism and secularism, brought together diverse parties that President Sharma called to his palace to administer the oath of office. And whereas before the ministers displayed saffron, the new Cabinet of Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda was a somewhat rustic lot, among which were some future ministers who knew neither of the official languages of the Indian Union — Hindi or English — very well, and for whom the swearing-in was a little stulted.

But the majesty of the Cabinet was precisely in the very coarseness of its members, most of whom hailed from the newly enfranchised classes of post-Independence India, including the Prime Minister, a farmer from Mysore in south India. It was indeed a motley batch of local caste leaders, urban Marxists, a Harvard-educated economist and regional bosses, but one that in its diversity reflected the multiplicity of interests and communal identifications within Indian society. And among their demands contained in their Common Minimum Programme was for a rededicated effort to the upliftment of the backwards countryside, provision of such basic services as clean drinking water, housing, and roads; and an effort towards greater transparency and less corruption.

Perhaps most significant was an acknowledgement of the need in India for decentralisation of the administrative machinery commensurate with the economic liberalisation initiated under the previous Congress regime. The calls for regional and linguistic identity and the end to a monolithic conception of Indian state and society were voiced in constitutional terms as a return to ‘true federalism’. Inherent in this demand was a dismissal of the type of homogeneous vision of India and its people and culture that was not only a part of the saffron vision, but of the secular nationalism of the Congress Party. In the plea for federalism was also contained a new notion of community in India, that of the regional identity peripheral to national struggles but which have been the most significant movement of communal mobilisation and awareness in the past fifty years. Politically it was represented in the linguistic states constituted shortly after Independence, whose autonomy had been eroded by a central government bent on preserving the unity of India from numerous external threats and internal disturbance. With the unity of India now well-established fifty years on in the experience of a democratic republic, regional claims for autonomy and federalism could be voiced less threateningly, asserting a multiplicity of community representation within the political domain, and a reconsideration of the imagined community of modernity.