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A yawning gap in India’s political spectrum

LiveMint logoLiveMint 20-08-2017 Narayan Ramachandran

In the years leading up to India’s independence, the Indian National Congress was a dominant political force. The singular focus on independence from British rule allowed the coming together of a wide spectrum of social, political and economic thought under one wide political tent. Even though they represented different generations, there were liberals like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Pherozeshah Mehta, Mahadev Govind Ranade and Jawaharlal Nehru. On the nationalist side, you had Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal, V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, Aurobindo Ghosh (briefly in Congress) and others. Economically, the spectrum was equally wide, with Nehru and Jagjivan Ram on the left and C. Rajagopalachari, V.P. Menon and others on the right. By sheer strength of personality, and because he is unclassifiable using these labels, Mahatma Gandhi held this diverse group together and kept them focused on the task at hand.

Even though the Congress held a significant majority in the post-partition constituent assembly (82% of seats), the first cabinet in 1947 led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel co-opted Baldev Singh (Panthic Party), B.R. Ambedkar (Scheduled Castes Federation) and Syama Prasad Mukherjee (Hindu Mahasabha). C. Rajagopalachari was persuaded to take on the role of the first Indian governor general and in 1950 became a minister without portfolio in Nehru’s cabinet. These individuals set aside their differences since unity of the country was paramount in the immediate aftermath of independence. That cohesiveness began to fray as the political and economic direction under Nehru became apparent. S.P. Mukherjee was the first to leave in 1950 and set up the Bharatiya Jana Sangh soon thereafter in consultation with M.S. Golwalkar, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). One of his main points of opposition was Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that granted special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir. Ambedkar, also opposed to Article 370, resigned from the cabinet in 1951 when Parliament opposed his move to create gender equality for marriage and inheritance. Subsequently, Parliament went against his recommendation to adopt a Uniform Civil Code, a decision that is a source of much angst in India until today.

In the first general election in 1951-52, the Congress party won 364 of 469 seats. The second largest party was the Communist Party of India (CPI) with 16 seats. The CPI was the only major party that had not been co-opted into the Congress tent in the decades leading to independence. No parties on the right of the political spectrum won more than a few seats. In the second general election in 1957, the Congress party gained further to 371 seats and the two largest parties after the Congress were the CPI and the Praja Socialist Party led by Jayaprakash Narayan and J.N. Kripalani. Disenchanted with the socialist policies of Nehru, Rajagopalachari left the Congress to first set up the Forum for Free Enterprise and then the Swatantra Party. The Swatantra Party’s leaders included Minoo Masani, N.G. Ranga, K.M. Munshi, Mariadas Ruthnaswamy, V.P. Menon and others. The party gathered 18 seats in the election of 1962 and 44 seats in the 1967 election and emerged as the biggest opposition to the Congress in Bihar, Rajasthan, Odisha and Gujarat. The Swatantra Party declined after Rajagopalachari’s death in 1972 and the final nail was the incorporation of the world “socialist” in the preamble to the Constitution in 1976.

In a seminal article, “Why Swatantra”, written in 1960, Rajaji said “the Swatantra Party stands for the protection of the individual citizen against the trespasses of the State. It is founded on the conviction that social justice and welfare can be attained through the fostering of individual interest and individual enterprise in all fields better than through State ownership and Government control”.

Governments through the decades have been dominated either by the statist, socialist tendencies of the Congress or, in more recent years, the statist, majoritarian tendencies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Statism appears to have caught the fancy of a liberal like Nehru, a democrat like Ambedkar, an autocrat like Subhas Chandra Bose, and authoritative figures like Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Caught between the perception of pandering to minorities on the one hand and pampering the majority on the other, the contemporary Indian citizen has not had the opportunity to vote for a socially liberal, fiscally conservative, economically free, enterprise-friendly party of the type imagined by Rajaji.

India must go down as one of the very few large democracies that does not have a credible centre-right party. During the last election, India hoped that a development-oriented candidate like Modi would nudge the BJP towards the political centre. Three years of administrative efficiency, a statist economic philosophy and a religious-right political DNA have belied that promise. Even though current evidence around the globe might appear to suggest otherwise, large heterogeneous, multicultural countries are best governed from the centre. With the discredited Congress tugging further left, and the BJP viscerally tacking right, Indians are left with a yawning gap in the centre. The space is wide open for a political party to capture the centrist narrative.

P.S.: “A middle path, O Bhikkhus, avoiding the two extremes, has been discovered by Tathagata—a path which opens the eyes and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to the higher wisdom, to Nirvana,” said Gautama Buddha.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com

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