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I am author of the books Political Internet(Routledge, 2017), Intimate Speakers ( Fingerprint! 2017), has finished the typescript of three books—first, on Internet and sexuality; second, on the negative impacts of social media; and third, a novel—and is presently working on a narrative non-fiction with the working title Lovescape: Why India is afraid of love.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Current Poltical Trends in India

CURRENT DOMESTIC POLITICAL TRENDS IN INDIA

While it is hard to detect trends, since by nature they are ephemeral - either becoming reality or being based on misperception - the following attempts to track some of the current undercurrents of the country’s domestic politics .
democratic representation in the face of democratic resilience
Ever since the Nehruvian times and the subsequent demise of the Congress-governed system of one-party-dominance there was constant ‘de-institutionalisation’ of the country’s political institutions, especially the party system. And indeed, the country’s democratic resilience in itse For most of the years since independence, the federal government has been led by the Indian National Congress (INC), Politics in the states have been dominated by several national parties including the INC, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) and various regional parties. From 1950 to 1990, barring two brief periods, the INC enjoyed a parliamentary majority. The INC was out of power between 1977 and 1980, when the Janata Party won the election owing to public discontent with the corruption of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In 1989, a Janata Dal-led National Front coalition in alliance with the Left Front coalition won the elections but managed to stay in power for only two years. As the 1991 elections gave no political party a majority, the INC formed a minority government under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and was able to complete its five-year term. The years 1996–1998 were a period of turmoil in the federal government with several short-lived alliances holding sway. The BJP formed a government briefly in 1996, followed by the United Front coalition that excluded both the BJP and the INC. In 1998, the BJP formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with several other parties and became the first non-Congress government to complete a full five-year term. In the 2004 Indian elections, the INC won the largest number of Lok Sabha seats and formed a government with a coalition called the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), supported by various parties.

lack of party-political professionalism and ideological confusion

Firstly, and contrary to all parties’ display of ‘people-oriented’ electoral campaigning rhetoric, there is a growing tendency of political parties being less and less able to take the lead in actually formulating and debating reform-oriented policies, which determine and reflect people’s aspirations and the societal mood. The same goes for their capacity to initiate as well as implement reforms instead of merely preserving the status quo for the sake of not endangering the current economic boom and, consequently, basically attending to the demands and anxieties of a vociferous middle class with its newly acquired power.

In sum, there seems to be a complete lack of ideological or programmatic coherence, cadre-based professionalism and strategic vision on behalf of the country’s main political parties. Or, as Harish Khare recently commented, ‘the point is that the political parties are losing their capacity and the skills to join the battle of ideas, values and sentiments in the polity (…) Unless the political leaders find the willingness and the imagination to reclaim their traditional role as moulders of collective ideals and aspirations, the polity will gradually be taken over by anti-democratic voices and forces’.

No Popular accountability and transparency - politics as ‘dirty business’

another trend is rather a continuing tendency of Indian party politics and will therefore only be briefly touched upon here. This trend or, for that matter, aspect of Indian party politics has to do with the still moribund or again deteriorating state of popular accountability and transparency of democratic representation and elected representatives.

It is linked to what had once been termed the ‘criminalisation’ of Indian politics and basically involves the widespread and resilient mindset among politicians, especially those representing regional parties, whose inclusion into national politics is a requirement of coalition politics, that getting elected means having access to state resources, very often for personal benefit.

Of course, new assets of Indian democracy, which are evolving in the course of a gradual, civil-society backed expansion of democracy’s participatory ethos, such as the ‘Right to Information Act’ introduced last year, and an ever more assertive, well-fortified and watchdog-like media, with its notorious ‘sting operations’, make it more difficult for perpetrators to get away with their lapses. They have left behind many a ‘tainted’ minister, who often finds his or her way back to the political arena nonetheless. But the overall image of (party) politics as a somehow ‘dirty business’ still prevails and this is not to deny that ‘old-fashioned’ corruption or ‘modern forms of lobbying’ permeate other sectors, especially the bureaucracy, as well.

The latest manifestations of this second tendency were the scandal involving parliamentarians from various parties taking bribes for asking (fake) questions in Parliament in late 2005, and the ‘office of profit’ controversy over politicians holding additional offices as chairman, board members etc. of foundations, committees, state institutions etc., thus profiting from their stand and reputation as elected representatives, erupting in early 2006. It led to the resignation of some high-ranking parliamentarians, including Sonia Gandhi, who nonetheless benefited from her resignation by once again turning it into an opportunity to claim the moral high ground, as in 2004, when she stepped down from her claim to the prime ministership. It came as no surprise when soon afterwards she was re-elected to parliament by a massive margin in the following byelections in the Rae Bareli constituency, which is some sort of an ‘electoral fiefdom’ of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The ‘dirty business’ image of party politics also extends to the way, in which the struggle for political power and survival is carried out, often including the manipulation and instrumentalisation of political institutions. While definitely no foreign word under the previous BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, the Congress/UPA as well had its fair share of resorting to dubious political manoeuvres in its attempt to consolidate power, including the use of politically appointed governors to topple non- Congress governments, as in Goa in early 2005, or to prevent elected non-Congress governments from coming into power, as in Bihar and Jharkhand last year. And since long, the CPI (M) in West Bengal is known for following a practice, popularly known as ‘scientific rigging’ of elections, a practice stalled during this year’s assembly elections in West Bengal, thanks to the vigorous check-ups and inspections by a reinforced independent Election Commission.

Public space vacated by the state – the need for state- society synergy

Finally, the third trend, closely related to the first one, is the phenomenon of non-party, non-governmental actors taking over roles and responsibilities formerly occupied and assumed by parties and the state as well as (decision-making) space vacated by parties and the state, as to be found, for example, in growing civil society assertiveness or judicial activism in all kinds of public affairs.

Be it the controversy over the Narmada valley dam(s), which erupted again this year after famous social activist Medha Patkar had gone on a hunger strike to protest against the concerned States’ non-compliance with a Supreme Court order directing the respective States’ governments to guarantee a proper rehabilitation of the evicted families before raising the Sardar Sarovar dam’s height and flooding a vast area, and, subsequently, the Supreme Court telling the Prime Minister to come forward with a decision on the issue. Or be it this spring’s Delhi High Court ruling - a reaction to complaints and petitions from the powerful Residents Welfare Associations - on taking action against the many illegal constructions and businesses running from residential areas in the city, a hopeless task of course, given the scale of these constructions and businesses and the lack of commercial space available, but clearly disclosing what went wrong with regard to urban planning in Delhi since a couple of decades. Or, on a smaller scale, the many NGOs providing services to the poor and marginalised, predominantly a state prerogative, and taking on Public Interest Litigation against pollution, slum evictions etc., often on behalf of those and covering issues neglected by the state - all these examples, and there are many more, are evidence that a formidable retreat of the state from public affairs has taken and is taking place, be it necessary political decision-making, fulfilling its public monitoring function or providing delivery of public goods. In a sense, even the Naxalite menace of impoverished, marginalised and radicalised social groups, especially in the States of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, who are taking the law into their own hands, can be seen as a result of this retreat of the state.

It seems that the abrupt ending of what had once been termed by the American scholars Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph as the ‘omnipresence of the state’ in all public, and often also private, affairs in the wake of liberalisation, has created confusion as to who is to fill the gap. Now, one could argue that judicial activism or increased civil society assertiveness are good and healthy signs for a constitutional organ fulfilling its watchdogrole or for the gradual development of a more participatory democracy. And, indeed, they are. But it is not the task of civil society or the judiciary to fill the space the state has vacated. Nor is it a good sign, if the state and the political class abandon crucial and necessary roles and responsibilities.

In fact, a transformative compromise on the question of ‘how much state and how much market’ is needed, an agreement on clearly defined roles for every stakeholder in the governance process, and, finally, what American sociologist Peter Evans termed a ‘strategy of state-society synergy’, designed to engage the energy and imagination of citizens and communities in the co-production of services as a way of enhancing the state’s ability to deliver services without having to demand more scarce material resources from society.

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