June issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 15 years ago

India may be a haven of calm in a rambunctious neighbourhood, but it is the siege within that is always on everyone’s mind.

On the west, Pakistan is fighting a civil war against the Taliban; in the north, Nepal is still caught between Maoist nostalgia and a transition to democracy; in the east, Bangladesh has barely been able to suppress a mutiny within its ranks and in the south, the Sinhala chauvinist government of Mahinda Rajapakse is consumed with its celebrations of victory over the Tamil Tigers.

Only India — at the risk of congratulating one’s patrimony — has shown that it has the capacity, time and again, of reinventing itself. With a smashing 206 seats for the Congress party, the Indian voter has decided that it has had enough of the complicated permutations and combinations that define caste and sub-caste, religion and community.

This vote supersedes everything else. It is a vote for stability and governance, and getting it right. By giving the Congress a significant mandate, voters have decided that excuses are not enough. If the 21st century has to belong to India, among other nations, then some beginnings have to be just right.

So, just as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, taunted as a “weak prime minister” by the opposition Hindu nationalist party, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) all through the election campaign, was putting together his own team in the wake of a victory — Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhigam (DMK), a regional party with overweening aspirations, threw a neat spanner right in the middle of the works.

On the night of May 21, hours after the Sonia Gandhi family marked the 18th anniversary of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi — and hours before the swearing in of Manmohan Singh’s cabinet on May 22 — the DMK decided that because it had won 18 seats and significantly given the Congress a push in the victory stakes, it deserved to sit in ministries “with potential.”

The DMK wanted the ministries of communications, environment, surface transport and shipping. In the last government, a coalition led by the Congress party, the DMK had headed some of these portfolios and they wanted to do so again.

That’s when the DMK met its match. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put the word out that he was not going to have DMK ministers with crooked reputations in his cabinet. Men like A. Raja, under whose communications portfolio in the last government the 3G spectrum had been auctioned — rumours persisted that Raja had made money to the tune of $10 billion in bribes.

Then there was T.R. Baalu, the minister for shipping in the last government, under whose jurisdiction the government broke up the natural coral reefs between India and Sri Lanka to everyone’s horror — so as to build shipping lanes that were not likely to be of significant use. At the time, the government flouted its own environmental laws to build the Sethusamudram channel and angered Sri Lanka for disregarding the joint impact.

At last, Sardar Manmohan Singh has bared his teeth. In his own, mild-mannered way, he has shown that he will not be pushed around. Congress president and chairman of the new coalition, Sonia Gandhi went to the PM’s residence in the middle of the night in the hope that a way could be found — but the PM would not relent.

This, then, is going to be the mood for the next five years. Manmohan Singh, whose economic policies gave India an unprecedented GDP growth of 8-9% in the last four years (before the economic downturn hit the country), is expected to give a new fillip to this process. The difference is, that this time, the aam admi or the common man will not be buffeted by the slings and arrows of coalition partners pulling in different directions and seeking personal fortunes.

The PM has decided that governance is the new mantra. His own clean and honest image underlines the fact that the government means business. Corruption is out for a variety of reasons, including political. The Congress knows that Mayawati, the Dalit leader who swept Uttar Pradesh in state polls two years ago, was swept into the dustbin of history this time because she was seen to have not only enriched herself to the exclusion of her state subjects, but also thrown all modesty to the winds.

If Lucknow, the old capital of Uttar Pradesh, looks like the new Rome, then the blame or credit — call it what you will — should go to Mayawati. Huge domes on the other side of the Gomti river, allegedly paved with titanium and surrounded by stone elephants which, in turn, flank statues of Mayawati and other Dalit leaders, are the new talk of the town. The cost of this massive self-aggrandisement, government sources concede, is a cool Rs 500 crores.

That is the real lesson of these elections: In Uttar Pradesh or in West Bengal, where the Left Front government has been in power for the last 32 years, the Indian voter is no longer willing to kowtow to empty hubris. If you have something to be arrogant about, then you have to state what it is. Everything else is sheer pretence.

In Bengal, for example, protests about the forcible acquisition of land from the small peasantry by the state was the trigger for the massive defeat of the Left Front government. Villages like Nandigram and Singur have become the battlefronts for the new uprising. So, when a woman in a white sari called Mamata Bannerjee, whose reputation for whimsicality matches Mayawati, decided to channelise this resentment, it resulted in a massive voter wave against the Left Front.

The fact that Mayawati has clamoured to offer outside support to Manmohan Singh’s government is an indication of how nervous she is about the Congress decision to revamp the party across the Hindi heartland. Rahul Gandhi, the young scion, is lapping up the compliments these days for deciding that the Congress would go it alone in UP and not be subject to the whims and fancies of unreliable allies, and for going against the grain of older and wiser men in the party.

The young Gandhi is now supposed to have decided that the next battle for India — and the Congress, which he deems to be synonymous with the country — will be fought in the south, in Tamil Nadu, where the DMK won its 18 seats and from where it is now fighting a pitched battle for key ministries “with potential” in the Manmohan Singh government.

Clearly, young Rahul can have the PM’s job when he wants it but to his credit, he has decided that he wants to earn it too. For at least the next five years, Manmohan Singh has the opportunity to reshape India in his own image — and imbue it with values of decency, honesty and integrity. If that means that he will have to do without DMK ministers like Raja and Baalu, then so be it.
As for Pakistan, Manmohan Singh will be ready to travel across the border, walk the extra mile and shake all the hands that are thrust in his direction. The contours of a Kashmir settlement are also pretty much on the cards.

There’s one problem though, and that is the need for Pakistan to take strong action against the Mumbai attackers. Ajmal Amir Kasab and his band of nine other men not only killed a few hundred people in Mumbai with chilling alacrity, but also sowed the seeds of suspicion and hostility in the entire country. Why did they do it? That’s a question Pakistan must still answer.

All of India’s goodwill for Pakistan to fight its own fight against the Taliban will not add up to much if the Zardari government is both unwilling and unable to take political control of the ISI and the Pakistan Army, and decide that India is not the main enemy. However, if the Pakistan army can withdraw its troops from its western border — the border with India — and employ them against the Taliban, it would be an indication that Islamabad has taken the first step in reinventing the relationship with Delhi.

The fight against the Mumbai attackers is actually a fight for Pakistan’s own soul. If Pakistan understands that, then the new Manmohan Singh government will be more than ready to walk in step.

There’s a new dawn on the horizon, a new seher-e-umeed in South Asia … or is that just a figment of our combined, fevered imagination?