Sunday, April 08, 2012

The centre cannot hold

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is easy for historians, writing with the benefit of hindsight, to identify the roots of developments that subsequently evolve into a ‘crisis’. For contemporaries, however, long-term trends are more difficult to detect, and in the Made in Media age the inclination to equate individual trees for the wood is often irresistible.

In 2004, prior to a general election it imagined was already won, the BJP projected itself as the “natural party of government” and targeted 300 Lok Sabha seats. Today, after a long bout of incoherence stemming from unending factional battles, it faces the ignominy of being dubbed the Big Joke Party by a reputable international publication.

In 2009, the Congress emerged from an election few expected would yield a clear outcome, with a tally of 206 seats. The 2009 verdict convinced the party leadership it was on a comeback trail—one that would fulfil its grand dream of governing India with a clear majority of its own. Today, after a series of humiliating election defeats, it is shell shocked and blundering from one crisis to another.

For the commentariat, the two parallel developments signal the ‘crisis’ of the national parties, with no clear indication of what is to come in its place. For the parties, however, dejection hasn’t triggered soul searching. The Congress still believes that with Rahul Gandhi as its mascot, a bagful of mega welfare schemes and the magic of secularism, it will somehow crawl back to power again. After all, assert Congress loyalists cockily, the nation is always bigger than the sum of all its states.

An equally smug BJP believes that a generously-funded campaign centred on anti-incumbency will allow the NDA to be in a position to attract post-poll allies and cross the hump. The saffron generals aren’t needlessly bothered by their lack of a big idea, their inability to attract new talent, their wariness of their star leader from Gujarat and the sleaze factor within. In a two horse race, they believe, their pony will outpace the injured Congress stallion.

It is possible that either of these scenarios will play out in the summer of 2012 or even earlier. But that doesn’t negate the fact that both pan-Indian parties are in deep crisis for reasons they have not been able to yet comprehend.

Since the Crown replaced the Company in 1858, India has been taught to believe that a strong Centre is a precondition to peace and prosperity. A firm but benign dispensation in Delhi has been projected as the maa-baap sarkar. Earlier, this system of paternalism offered peremptory justice, famine relief and protection from thugees and marauders. Today, blessed with bewildering acronyms, it also promises 100 days of work, subsidised foodgrain and other ‘entitlements’. On the face of it, Incredible India has remained Timeless India—interspersed with Bollywood, cricket and mobile phones. Or at least that’s the caricature the babalogs fondly believe as they navigate their SUVs into their constituencies.  The rule is simple: smart casual in Delhi and meeting ka kapda—as a venerable Bengali barrister politician called it—in the boon docks.

But amid the timelessness, something else is also happenings. In just two decades, India has witnessed more encapsulated growth (albeit uneven) than the past century taken together. Prosperity, education, information, mobility and rising expectations have changed the Indian mentality profoundly. There is an air of impatience which has translated into a greater concern for the quality of life, not in abstraction, but in their localities. A strengthened democracy is witnessing a relative disinterest in the nation and a greater identification with the regions. Patriotism hasn’t eroded, but among the rising elites and local notables there is unconcern and indifference to Delhi.

This is what happened in the US, as prosperity strengthened localism. The phenomenon is being replicated in India. What is a ‘crisis’ today is waiting to become an opportunity.

There is a constituency anxious to express its exasperation with the remote control of the metropolitan elite. With their high commands and controlled leadership structures, the national parties are living in a make-believe Beltway. They have a choice: to either reshape themselves into loose coalitions of state interests or live out their unitarian fantasies in irrelevance.

Sunday Times of India, April 8, 2012 

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