India's benign earthquake

Antara Dev Sen
19 May 2004

The defeat of the ruling BJP by Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party was followed by Sonia’s refusal to become prime minister. As Indians reel in amazement at their own democratic handiwork, Antara Dev Sen in Delhi makes sense of a political world turned upside down.

“If you trust me, allow me to make my decision.” With that Sonia Gandhi, prime minister designate of the world’s largest democracy, stepped down from the podium in the central hall of New Delhi’s parliament. The moment ended almost three hours of hysterical begging and pleading by her fellow Congress politicians – a frenzied flurry of choked voices, joined hands, moans, tears, entreaties, eulogies, baby threats – some of the most senior people’s representatives beseeching their leader not to reject the prime ministership. But Sonia Gandhi had made up her mind.

It was close to 10pm on 18 May 2004: a day that saw endless twists and turns in the drama of democracy, a day that made history. There can’t be many designates in the history of democracy renouncing the post after carrying their party on their shoulders to a clear win. The original Gandhi comes to mind, but the Mahatma was a saint: he stood for simplicity, humility and renunciation.

Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand, with her Italian origin, lavish parties and impeccable sense of style, is not just unrelated to her great namesake; she is unlikely to be taken for “a naked fakir”, as Churchill had termed the Mahatma. Why, then, was she doing this? Was she buckling under the pressure of threats from the defeated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against the “white-skinned foreigner”? Were her children, who had lost their father and grandmother to assassins, scared for her life? Or was this just another stunt?

After all, the lady does protest too much. For years, she has been professing reluctance, then stepping regally into the power game. Only the day before, on 17 May, Sonia Gandhi had gone to meet the president to discuss the government she would be forming, then returned home and declined the post. Only after much pleading by senior Congress leaders had she relented.

For those few hours, the country had held its breath – except of course the stock markets, which had promptly plunged to a spectacular low. But that was largely due to the Left parties, allies of the Congress, waxing eloquent on television about their aspirations for economic reforms. This time, the renunciation drama continued through most of the day, and half the night, as the country waited to exhale.

Outside the residence of the reluctant Sonia, Congress workers were slashing themselves with razors, writing protest letters in blood, and threatening to kill themselves in various ways. Amid the frenzy, one old man clambered high up a tree with astounding agility and refused to come down until Sonia accepted the top job. A former MP stood atop a car, flailing a sword to keep people at bay with one hand and holding a gun to his temple with the other. He would shoot himself if Sonia didn’t accept the post, he said. And members of the Congress resigned en masse, as parliamentarians refused to accept anyone other than “our leader”.

Finally, late in the evening of 19 May, Sonia Gandhi declared that she would not change her mind, and that she had nominated for the prime ministership Manmohan Singh, distinguished academic, ex-finance minister and the architect of India’s economic reforms.

For the umpteenth time in the last few days, India staggered in astonishment. And relief.

Surprise, surprise!

The Sonia Gandhi melodrama was the culmination of a week of stunned disbelief for Indians. We had already keeled over when we discovered that we had thrown out the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – the right-wing, BJP-led central government – and elected ourselves a “secular” government to be led by the Congress.

This wasn’t expected to happen. Well, a lot of us in this country of one billion people hoped that it would – clearly a lot more than we knew about. But the exit polls, the media, the industries, the bureaucrats, the ever-growing breed of psephologists, the recklessly revered astrologers, even the politicians themselves, didn’t imagine that it would be such a cakewalk. Why was everyone wrong?

Frankly, can’t say about the astrologers, maybe their stars were not right. But all the others were heavily dependent on each other, and I am inclined to believe that the failure to gauge the mood of the people had two main reasons: the role of the media and the overpowering arrogance of the ruling party. The third reason would be the natural political unpredictability of a vast country wracked by poverty, corruption and violence and still beset in parts by vote-rigging and booth-capturing. Meanwhile, caste politics and religious factors will, I am sure, have been taken into account by the wise psephologists – and they are likely to be right on those.

First, the media. Traditionally, the Indian news media has been wonderfully free – hard-hitting, fearless yet compassionate. It has exposed injustice, forced constructive action and strengthened democracy through its adversarial relation with the ruling powers. But for over a decade now, it has been affected by the global “dumbing down” phenomenon. One result is a “narrowcasting” focus on the aspirational; selling dreams, always a good part of any business, has moved centre stage. The previously subsidiary role of entertainment has become the first priority, followed by news as entertainment, while drab, non-entertaining news is gradually turfed out.

This aspirational, Eurocentric, escapist culture being wrapped around media users – readers or television watchers – is not entirely invented or alien, but neither is it truly integral to their lives. It becomes unreliable primarily because it edges out other socio-cultural considerations that have more to do with the daily realities of rural and urban India: hunger, education, health care, unemployment — those tedious, unappealing segments that line the cutting-room floor of television news, or are buried in single column, four-centimetre news items on the inner pages of dailies.

If we had paid more attention to those news items, we may have known better.

And even when we were attempting to understand the trends, our tools were wrong. Commercial media, threatened by cut-throat competition, likes to give the reader what he or she wants. In order to customise news for the media consumer, it serves up what their consumers would “like” to see, and packages news as entertainment. It revolves around celebrities and fun stories, and offers a partial picture as representative of all of reality.

Moreover, different consumers of specific media products – in practice, mostly the urban middle class – get to see different versions of reality. I have earlier called this the “Sim-City syndrome” (the computer game Sim-City had just been released). This targets a particular audience as its citizens and mostly excludes others, the non-consumers of the media product, who may get a guest appearance once in a while, but are strictly to be viewed as aliens and not worth too much bother. As a result, we seem to be building imaginary and exclusive small islands, detached from any sense of the social whole, operating according to imaginary rules and experiences. We come genuinely to believe that our little Sim-Cities are our whole nation. The syndrome has become a serious affliction.

This was vividly clear as the May 2004 elections approached. Print and television news was full of celebrities (every second film star was either standing for elections or campaigning for some party) and attractive personalities; the same set of people held debates and discussions and generated the same set of views.

This apparently “commercial” imperative has a significant political dimension. The left has less visibility in the media — and when it does, its spokespersons are not always the best people for quick responses, given their inclination to hold politburo meetings before divulging little more than their names. The spotlight moved away from the centrist Congress during its years of exile from power, and all but its more glamorous stars were eclipsed.

The right, by contrast, contains excellent media managers, who have successfully used their six years in power to make friends and win over enemies in the media. And where they cannot convert you with ideology, they just make life so much simpler for you: in particular, the “promotional” culture that allows you to economise on time and news-gathering expenses seduces you into their comfort-zone. Several influential journalists and editors are also partisans of the right, and have been rewarded with prestigious presidential awards and parliamentary nominations.

The result of this media reshaping of reality is that non-news, smoothly presented by important authorities who pamper your ego, makes headlines; the alternative is harmful rabble-rousing quotes unleashed on the reader or viewer with very little editorial comment.

In short, Indian commercial news media in recent times has been losing the alertness and restraint it was previously known for. As, day after day, we saw these usual suspects debate the same middle-class issues and non-issues on various channels and publications, and as we saw the self-appointed psephologists derive their own news from these people and media – then tell us wisely which way we were headed – we became convinced that it was true.

Ah, the exit polls! What about them? Would you, living in a country where you might get killed for voting against the party you have been instructed – or paid – to vote for, come out of the booth and tell a perfect stranger how you marked your ballot?

Thus, immersed in our very cerebral, very stylish media-driven navel-gazing, we missed the basic issues that haunt the country where 70% of people live in villages. Just like the ruling BJP, in fact. And except in a few rare cases (like the Indian Express or The Hindu or small, regional-language newspapers) we didn’t get to see much of the unappealing side of “India Shining” – the governing coalition’s advertising campaign.

The ruling party’s self-immolation

Which brings us to the second reason for our failure to anticipate the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s routing at the polls: its unimaginable arrogance. Not satisfied merely to manipulate the news media, it decided to repackage itself as a media product. The result was a feelgood advertising extravaganza projecting India’s wonderful state of being, clearly borrowed from aspirational media. The NDA government reportedly spent about 2.5 billion rupees (Rs) on “India Shining”, but additional inputs from various government departments pushed the total cost of the campaign to an estimated Rs 4.5 billion. It is also believed that this money came from the public exchequer at the cost of social development programmes – like the one for “development assistance” under the department of economic affairs (which had only Rs 1 billion budgeted for it).

But “India Shining” backfired, spectacularly.

People saw these pretty pictures, their expectations were raised, their hopes soared – and then they realised that they had been completely left out of the picture. In a country where millions are unemployed, the NDA prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s promise to create 10 million jobs a year seemed to them an unkind joke. The landless in rural India now number 100 million. There is a serious deficit of working health centres and schools. The rural population still lack basic necessities like water and electricity; hunger and debt drive many farmers to suicide. But – sometimes – the rural poor do have access to television. When they saw the “India Shining” campaign, they wondered why they should “Feel Good”. So they walked for miles in the blazing heat and dust on voting day, and marked their protest. As Sonia Gandhi said in declining the prime ministership, it was not a vote for her, it was a vote against the BJP-led government.

This same blinding arrogance led the government to do badly in urban centres as well. The target of “India Shining”, the urban middle class, especially its younger members, had bought the dream. In a globalised world, you want to be a global citizen. You don’t want tiny salaries in public sector organisations – you want Silicon Valley, holidays in Europe, all that the TV is selling to you. But the sectarian rhetoric of the government in power, with its emphasis on Hindu temples. or Sonia’s “foreign origin”, seemed dissonant with these aspirations. The role models, and the needs, of this urban middle class had changed. A large chunk of them were tired of minority-bashing and ashamed of the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. They wanted to be not just members of a Hindu nation, but global Indians.

The fact that the BJP’s allies in the south included autocrats like Jayalalitha and Chandrababu Naidu didn’t help either. The party that had come to power with a show of humility and the promise of honesty and integrity had degenerated into a haughty, corrupt and self-important unit that allowed pogroms like Gujarat and refused to dismiss its hardline chief minister, Narendra Modi, even after criticism of him by the Supreme Court.

There is a further irony. The repackaging of the BJP-led government as a brand meant that slogans and quick brand-identification stood in for real issues. Atal Behari Vajpayee was chosen as the brand logo, and a personality cult built around him. It didn’t stand a chance against the mother of all personality cults – the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The Congress is the party of India’s first prime minister (Indira Gandhi’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru), two assassinated prime ministers (Indira and Rajiv) and three waiting in line (Sonia and her children Rahul and Priyanka).

The killer blow was that Congress, like its allies on the left, raised real issues: poverty, water, health care, the minorities’ right to live. It wasn’t difficult for it to show that India was not really shining.

Sonia Gandhi: the path to victory

It is all clear in retrospect; but to be fair, the NDA, pollsters and everybody else were not entirely unjustified in believing that the NDA would win. The coalition had swept the elections for four state assemblies in December 2003. The economic growth figures were good. Besides, there was a doubt about Sonia Gandhi’s acceptability among Indians – she was Italian by birth and looked foreign enough, she spoke accented English and broken Hindi, she wasn’t a great orator. Her political judgment was also in question: when the Congress party finally managed to inflict a parliamentary defeat on the BJP-led government in 1999 by a single vote, she enthusiastically declared that it had the numbers to form the government, but she was proved wrong. Congress couldn’t find partners and India went to the polls, where the party lost badly.

Sonia Gandhi was never interested in politics, and fought long and hard to keep her husband Rajiv out of it as well. It took seven years of pleading, and the 1998 election drubbing, for Congress to persuade her to join. Even as the country’s symbolic daughter-in-law, she did not fit in. She was, it is true, Indira Gandhi’s favourite; the prime minister had died with her head in Sonia’s lap after being fatally shot in 1984 by one of her own guards. She was also the ideal wife to Rajiv Gandhi, and maintained a remarkable dignity and composure even at the time of his assassination in 1991 – qualities in contrast with the emotive breast-beating in the rest of the country.

But she was heavily dependent on a coterie inherited from her husband – a group that was neither represented nor trusted by Indians. Moreover, her connection to Ottavio Quattrocchi and the allegations in the Bofors howitzer scandal persisted. The BJP floated rumours that her father had been an antique smuggler. She was politically uncultured, a housewife, a foreigner – what chance did she have of winning against the manic muscle and ruthless diligence of the Hindutva forces of the Indian right?

But the right underestimated both the drawing-power of the Gandhi name and the staying-power of the Italian daughter-in-law. Faced with humiliating defeat in the December state elections, Sonia tucked in her sari and did what she had seen her mother-in-law do: go from village to village, mingling with the people, sharing their fears, finding out their problems.

Her roadshows were very different from the high-flying, “now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t” campaigns of other major leaders. She forced the Congress to descend from its pedestal and appreciate the importance of regional parties, prepare for a coalition, and forge wise pre-election alliances with secular forces. She made friends with opponents, sent birthday messages, made phone calls, graciously hosted non-Congress leaders who were screaming against her. And – perhaps to keep her sanity, after hearing out all her party colleagues and cronies – she turned for final advice to her children: daughter Priyanka, an excellent speaker and her campaign manager, and son Rahul, who after finally entering the political arena won his first election in his father’s constituency, Amethi.

It worked. The allied forces, now referred to as the United Progressive Alliance, won. They captured most seats in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the states ruled by the NDA’s allies Jayalalitha and Chandrababu Naidu, and took about half the seats in the BJP’s bastion of Gujarat, laboratory of the Hindutva experiment. Also, the belief that the Left Front would back the Congress made the communist parties perform better than ever in their Kerala and West Bengal heartlands. By shedding its arrogance and bowing to the age of coalition governments, the Congress achieved what it could never have managed on its own.

Where next?

Late on 19 May, the name of India’s new prime minister was announced: Manmohan Singh. Singh lost (to the BJP) the only election he ever contested; he is a nominated member of the India’s upper house of parliament. He may also lack the kind of charisma that voters love in a prime minister. But, against this, his range of positive qualities is formidable. Singh has an impeccable record of unquestionable integrity, honesty and efficiency. Though he laughs at himself as “an extinguished economist”, his track record is impressive: educated at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the architect of India’s decade-long economic reform strategy, a former member of the governing board of the International Monetary Fund, and secretary-general of Geneva’s South Commission. He is also a passionate campaigner against corruption in politics, and he enjoys the confidence of the financial sector.

Yet as Manmohan Singh ascends to office, the reasons for Sonia’s refusal remain unclear. The Congress wants to credit her with a concern not to divide the country on the issue of her foreign origin. The BJP has indeed been playing the issue for all it is worth. The spitfire BJP minister Sushma Swaraj had dramatically declared on national television that this was a matter of India’s honour – that she would tonsure her head, wear widow’s white, sleep on the floor and live on horse-gram and water as long as a “foreigner” was in the prime minister’s chair. Uma Bharti, another flamboyant BJP chief minister and a sannyasin, had elaborately resigned in order to start a nationwide campaign against the “white-skinned woman” who had humiliated the country and threatened its national security. If this campaign did have an effect, this would be the first time that the fear of mob rule has prevented a legally elected leader of India from assuming its top political office – and yet another example of our failure to live up to the egalitarian values of our liberal constitution.

In any case, the Congress-led coalition is a curious alliance. Of the 542 seats now declared (in a total of 543), the Congress and its allies have 219, the NDA 188, the Left Front 63, and others 72. Around 100 MPs – including leftists, regionalists and secularists – might support the government from a safe distance, but not join it. But any prime minister will be aware that this group could also withdraw its support at any moment. In short, the next government will not be easy to run.

The massive dip in the stock markets on 17 May is another indicator of the difficult task ahead. The shy, unassuming Manmohan Singh swiftly moved in, advising the outgoing finance minister, making calls, using his personal contacts and experience – as former finance minister and former governor of the reserve bank – to halt the markets’ nosedive. When, next day, his name was floated as the possible prime minister, the markets rose swiftly, blossoming in relief. The left, for its part, kept its counsel or approving noises – India’s economic reforms, after all, had been launched by Manmohan Singh and a minority Congress government that it supported. There is little danger of the left stopping reforms, or pulling down the government on that issue.

The new government’s challenge, then, is fourfold. First, the new government has to continue the economic reforms, but in a way that puts the poor back in the picture. It needs to balance Nehruvian socialism with better living standards and economic growth, to combine reforms with social justice. In short, in an era of heightened expectations and the inescapable aspirational media, it has to deliver. With Manmohan Singh at the helm, that is achievable.

Second, it needs to be truly secular and discard the soft Hindutva line that the Congress often takes a trend inaugurated by Indira Gandhi, continued by Rajiv, and even now indulged by senior leaders like Digvijay Singh who seek legal protection of the cow as an object of worship. The new government cannot gloss over the issue of secularism anymore.

Third, it has to take a clear stand on human rights issues. When the NDA brought in the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota), which suspends the democratic rights and freedoms of the accused and was used mostly against Muslims, the Congress and secular forces protested. They need to prove whether they meant what they said: the act should be repealed.

Fourth, the coalition government must be democratic. The Congress, which ruled the country for decades, has its own history of arrogance, which it needs to check. The BJP-led NDA was not democratic; only two or three parties (among an alliance of twenty-four) had a real voice in its decisions. The new government has an even more difficult alliance to maintain; but unless every partner in a coalition really has a say, we cannot have a working democracy.

India’s people, after this astounding week in the history of their democracy, deserve no less.

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