Sunday, March 23, 2008

Emergency miscalculated (new indian express, Friday March 21 2008)

MARCH 21, 1977, was indeed an important day in the history of independent India. The last of the results to the general elections, held during the previous week, were out quite early in the morning that day. And Indira Gandhi, her son Sanjay Gandhi, V.C. Shukla, Bansi Lal, Pranab Mukherjee, Om Mehta and such others who had presided over the semifascist Emergency regime had lost the elections.

And late in the night on March 21, 1977, Indira Gandhi presided over a cabinet meeting that resolved to recommend withdrawal of the Emergency. This was conveyed to the acting President, B.D. Jatti, soon after and the Emergency proclamation was thus withdrawn. Indira Gandhi finally resigned as Prime Minister on March 22, 1977.

There are two points to be made right at the outset. One is that the Emergency remained throughout the period when the elections were held and in that sense the citizens in general and the political workers in particular were vulnerable to being hounded by the regime in the same way dissent was dealt with since June 25, 1975. The notorious MISA and the pre-publication censoring of newspapers remained as law of the land even when the elections were held. And the proclamation withdrawing the emergency was issued only after Indira Gandhi and her party was voted out of power by the people of India.

And this leads to the second and more important point. That the people, in large numbers, whom Indira Gandhi and her followers thought had endorsed all that she did during the Emergency, waited for the moment when they could convey their contempt for the Emergency and the regime in such an unequivocal fashion.The voters in Rae Bareili, a constituency that was rural in most parts, rejected Indira Gandhi in the most emphatic manner.

Indira Gandhi had lost from Rae Bareli by a margin of 55,202 votes! And Sanjay Gandhi, who tried his luck from neighbouring Amethi too was humbled by Ravindra P Singh, a political novice. The margin of victory in Amethi was 75,844 votes. The Congress party was swept aside everywhere in the North. And all of Indira Gandhi’s men were defeated.

Indira Gandhi’s Congress party drew a blank from Bihar (with 54 Lok Sabha seats), Himachal Pradesh (with 4 seats), Punjab (with 13 seats) Uttar Pradesh (with 85 seats) and Delhi (with 7 seats). The party won just one seat each in Haryana (out of the 10), Madhya Pradesh (out of 40) and Rajasthan (out of 25). In West Bengal, the Congress won just 3 out of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies, 4 out of the 21 seats from Orissa, 10 seats out of the 25 from Gujarat and 20 out of the 48 from Maharashtra.

In all, the Congress strength in the Lok Sabha stood at 154 (in the House of 542), the lowest in the party’s history till then. It is another matter that, interestingly, this is higher than the Congress party’s strength after May 2004!Well. Indira Gandhi did not anticipate the debacle when she announced her desire to hold elections in March 1977.

The announcement on January 18, 1977, came as a shock to everyone. She had, after all, obtained Parliamentary sanction to extend the life of the Fifth Lok Sabha (until March 1978) by way of a resolution moved in the House in November 1976. While her apologists hold that the announcement on January 18, 1977 revealed the democratic core in Indira Gandhi and that she was uncomfortable all the while with the Emergency and the role that Sanjay Gandhi and his band were playing, there are some others who thought that her intention was to legitimize Sanjay Gandhi’s position in the dispensation and that the best way to do that was by ensuring that he held a formal position.Sanjay Gandhi’s abrasive behaviour and his contempt for some of Indira’s confidants such as Sidharth Sankar Ray, Devraj Urs and the former communists in the Congress as well as towards the CPI had caused some discomfort in Indira Gandhi’s mind. This, however, was not all that pervasive.

That Mrs Gandhi was pleased with Sanjay’s emergence was evident at the Guwahati session of the Congress. She did everything to promote her son in the same way as her father had promoted her. Similarly, if a formal role for Sanjay was all that she intended, she could have ensured a by-election from anywhere in the country for Sanjay to contest and enter the Lok Sabha.The point is that Indira Gandhi was impressed, time and again, by her son and his aides that there was absolutely no resistance to the Emergency.

She was also convinced by her aides, including P.N. Dhar, her secretary in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, that the Emergency measures had ensured a fall in prices and restored the people’s confidence in the dispensation (that had been lost in the couple of years before the midnight declaration on June 25, 1975) and that it was ideal in the moral and the practical sense to hold elections soon. More than all the reasoning, Indira Gandhi had made her own assessment of the opposition leaders.

She was aware of the confabulations among those who were released on parole (on health grounds) and the irritants that were thrown up every time they discussed unity among them. She had the information to suggest that the opposition continued to be in disarray and that the semblance of unity they had established during the couple of weeks between June 11, 1975 and June 25, 1975 had given way to mutual distrust. She was also aware that a section of the opposition, particularly Charan Singh and Asoka Mehta, were even willing to surrender.

The fact is that Indira Gandhi believed that the opposition was splintered and that elections would only accentuate the divide among them. And by winning the elections she could legitimise the Emergency and all that happened as part of it before the international community and also formalise Sanjay Gandhi’s position. That, perhaps was the reason why she chose to announce the dissolution of the Lok Sabha on January 18, 1977) and more specifically that she did that unilaterally in the same way as when the Emergency was proclaimed.

The ordinary voter, however, was convinced that she must not be allowed to bulldoze democracy. And that was why the Emergency was withdrawn on March 21, 1977. In other words, things did not happen the way Indira Gandhi had wanted.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Wrote this one last week….two newspapers refused to take it!!!!!

Dr. S. Ramadoss and his Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) have landed in an unenviable position. The party’s exit from the DMK-led alliance is more or less certain. And it is also certain that the PMK will be left with no other option than agreeing to an alliance with Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK as and when elections are held for the next Lok Sabha. It is also a fact that Ramadoss will end up cringing before the AIADMK chief and will not even be able to decide who hi party’s candidates will be.

It is also likely that the PMK chief’s son and Union Health Minister, Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss is asked to quit his position soon. The Minister, without doubt, is isolated even otherwise in the context of his war against Dr. Venugopal at the All India Institute for Medical Sciences. And if he is still allowed to continue as Minister for Health, it is because the DMK patriarch, M.Karunanidhi had not trained his guns against him.

Be that as it may. The present state of isolation of the PMK is rooted in the senior Ramadoss’s penchant to a brand of politics that Charan Singh devised in the Sixties in Uttar Pradesh. The strategy had two distinct aspects. One of it was to carve out an exclusive socio-political clout by way of consolidating on a Jat exclusive socio-political base; and thereafter to use this clout and the electoral gains from out of it to negotiate an alliance in which he would arrive as the leader. That was how, Charan Singh, who began as a Congress MLA ended up as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in April 1967 by heading the Samyukta Vidayak Dal coalition that was essentially a formation inspired by the anti-Congress project that Ram Manohar Lohia envisaged.

Ramadoss too followed the same path. In the late Eighties, he managed to capture the imagination of the vanniar community, until then categorized as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) who had constituted the DMK’s social base from 1957, by setting out on an agitation demanding to them the status of Most Backward Classes (MBCs). The community constituted the dominant intermediate caste in the Northern districts of Tamil Nadu and despite its clout, both in terms of its muscle that its members wielded against the Dalits in the region and financial by way of investing in road transport and other such sectors, perceived that a MBC status will help its members land up in the bureaucracy.

Ramadoss’s agitation thus gathered strength and the DMK lost a substantial chunk of its vanniar support base to the PMK that was set up later. The agitation, violent in its form, was carried out by the vanniar sangam and the PMK as a party evolved out of it. This was the first stage. And it was perceived, by almost everyone in general and Karunanidhi in particular, that Dr. Ramadoss will not and cannot align with the AIADMK. This, after all, was how Charan Singh too was perceived by the anti-Congress formations in Uttar Pradesh. The fact is Charan Singh was not a prisoner of such ideological purity or steadfastness and he negotiated an alliance with Indira Gandhi in just a couple of years after April 1967.

Ramadoss too baffled everyone in 1998 by entering into an alliance with the AIADMK for the general election then and ensured a berth for his party’s Dalit Ezhilmalai in the Atal Behari Vajpayee cabinet. The consolidation of the vanniar community behind him was total by then and Ramadoss could claim the credit for the community being listed as MBCs. Ramadoss shifted to the DMK-led front in 1999 and had his men in the Union Cabinet once again and the iron grip that he had on his party helped him negotiate civil and other contracts for himself from the departments under the Central Government. His resources shored up and in May 2004, the PMK leader gave up all pretensions to make his son a Union Minister.

The comparison with Charan Singh will not be complete without mentioning that Ramadoss moved back into the Jayalalitha camp in May 2001 when elections to the Tamil Nadu assembly was held. And the deal was based on an understanding that either himself or his son will be given the Chief Minister’s job in Pondichery. To his dismay, the PMK lost miserably in Pondichery (even while the ADMK, its ally, won most seats it contested) and Ramadoss’s dream of ruling a State, even if it was as small as Pondichery, did not materialize. And Jayalalitha simply shoed him out of her ruling alliance in Tamil Nadu and the PMK chief returned to the DMK fold by May 2004.

The fact is in all these while, the consolidation of the vanniar community behind the PMK too began to give way and Ramadoss suffered the worst shock when film-star turned politico, Vijaykanth, won the Vridhachalam assembly constituency (deep inside the vanniar heartland) and the DMDK, his new party, secured substantial votes in the May 2006 assembly elections. The DMDK secured as much as 8 per cent votes across the State and its candidates in the Northern districts (considered Ramadoss’s fief) did better than the others from the party.

The point is Vijaykanth has shocked political observers and players by ensuring that his appeal went beyond caste concerns and the single largest loser is Ramadoss and his PMK. His radical positions in the past few months, seeming to take up the cause of the farmers may irritate Karunanidhi; but with only 17 MLAs in the assembly, he is in no position to pull down the Government. And the masses, whom Ramadoss claims to represent, seem to have seen through the PMK’s game. The message that he is simply desperate has percolated down and that makes his position today unenviable.

This, incidentally, happened to Charan Singh too in his own life time. And by the time his son, Ajit Singh inherited the Lok Dal, it was a pale shadow of what it used to be. The point is that the strategy to consolidate oneself on the margins and negotiate a space in the centre thereafter and achieving that by displaying a certain innocence of ideology may help a party and its leader to succeed momentarily. It cannot be sustained because the masses that constitute the muscle also develop contempt to those to whom political activity is a means to self preservation.

Ramadoss, now, has the following options. To swallow all his words and mend fences with Karunanidhi and ask his 17 MLAs to vote for the alliance’s nominees in the Rajya Sabha polls. Or, assure Jayalalitha of support and that will not mean anything because the AIADMK-MDMK combine is far too short of numbers to send two of its candidates to the Rajya Sabha even if the 17 PMK MLAs vote with them. Charting an independent course now will mean end of the road for him and his party and Karunanidhi will ensure that Manmohan Singh drops Anbumani from the cabinet!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Some rambling thoughts on the budget and the middle class media

After Lalu Yadav’s friendly Rail budget, Finance Minister P.Chidambaram has beaten him in the game. Or so it appears. Small cars and motor cycles will cost less and the salaried classes will pay less as taxes come April 1, 2008. Those buying the big car, however, will pay a little more than they would have to until March 31, 2008. And investors in the share market will have to cough up a small amount as tax.

The media has presented the budget as election eve and is gone ballistic over the Rs. 60,000 Crores loan waiver for the farmers. There is an element of disappointment among the media pundits that Chiambaram has resorted to populism; the complaint is that he has sided with the farmers. The media is not critical that the Income Tax rates have been slashed. Nor is the media worried over the loss of revenue due to the reduction in taxes for small cars and motor cycles.

There are a few things that must bother those reading this column. And in a way, this has to do with the two different worlds that has come to constitute the India that we live in today. One world that is catered to by the English language press and the other world that reads this column. And before going further, let me clarify that I am engaged in both these worlds. And I do not have anything against the loan waiver as such. I am, of course, angry with the lowering of the taxes for small cars and motor cycles.

The reason for this is very simple. When the farmer is freed from the bondage of repaying his loans and that too because the farm sector is in a crisis, it is an incentive to him to return to his field and when he does that, he will end up producing food and other grains for the next year. This is not the case with the lowering of taxes on cars and motorcycles. The middle class man will now buy a car, drive it around, stop concerning himself about public transport and end up spending more money on his day to day life than he was until now. And he will also contribute to the country spending more of its foreign exchange reserves because petroleum crude will have to be imported.

The point is that when the farmer’s concerns are taken care, he contributes to production and when the middle class is indulged by the state, it contributes to increased consumption. This is why I will call the lowering of taxes for small cars as populist and not agree with those who frown at the waiver of farm loans.

The other quarrel I have with our ballistic media is the contempt with which the farm-loan-waiver is described as an election eve maneuvre. This is based on a premise that the farmers are un-intelligent and with such loan waivers, the manipulative politician will be able to get their votes in exchange for the loan waiver.

The point is that this will apply and certainly does in case of the urban middle classes to whom the lower IT rates and the cheaper car will be good enough reasons to vote Chidambaram’s party. But the farmer, in history, has proved his superior intelligence by punishing anyone and everyone who cheated him or those who took him for a ride. The farmer is capable of doing this only because he has a lot of time to think and reflect over a variety of issues than fall for the words and the antics of a demagogue. This attribute – of falling prey to demagogy – is true of the urban middle classes and we have a lot of evidence of this in our own history as well as across the world.

The third point about the discussion on the budget is the great invention by the media pundits that this is clearly meant at the next election. Well. This budget in any case had to be the last one for this Government because there is no way that another budget could have been presented before April-May 2009, when elections are due in any case. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to realize this and wait until Lalu and Chidambaram presented their budgets to write that this was the last budget before the next election!