The United Front and the Crisis of Governance in India

Bedabrata Pain


The 50th anniversary of independence finds India in the midst of a severe crisis - one that encompasses economic, political, constitutional and social dimensions. Unlike previous crises, where the ruling circles were able to emerge unharmed, this crisis has the potential to be resolved in favour of the people.

Today, the crisis in manifest most acutely in the serious political instability and the recurrent dogfights particularly among the ranks of the ruling coalition. In just the past 18 months, Indians have witnessed the ouster of Deve Gowda at the centre, Laloo Prasad Yadav's split in Bihar, and renewed threats by the Congress to withdraw their support of the ruling United Front (UF), threats by the DMK to withdraw from the coalition, and the withdrawal and return of the Tamil Maanila Congress.

There has also been the eruption of numerous scandals, including the fodder scam, the JMM bribery case, the Hawala case, as well as the return of some old scams such as Bofors and St. Kitts.. All these taken together point to the high degree of instability at the Centre.

What is the Basis of the Crisis?

The present political crisis has been in the making for at least a decade. Its roots lie in the economic crisis that deepened throughout the eighties, when industrial output and agricultural production either stagnated or declined, and when foreign debt rose dramatically. The main content of the crisis was, and still is, that the economic developments of these years have failed to meet the needs of the people.

The disenchantment that this has engendered became evident from the drop in support for the long-ruling Congress(I) party. In the 1989 elections, V.P.Singh was able to emerge as the standard-bearer of the anti-Congress or anti-status-quo sentiment. His government subsequently tried to take some measures to reform various policies, but his government collapsed before anything could be initiated. During the interim government headed by Chandra Shekhar that followed, the country experienced a severe foreign currency crisis.

The next election held in 1991 took place as the foreign currency crisis reached its peak. Under these conditions, a minority government formed by Narasimha Rao embarked upon the policies of liberalisation and privatisation program to overcome the economic crisis by bringing in foreign capital. But the force of the crisis was such that not only could Narasimha Rao's policy shifts not turn the industrial and agricultural output of the country around, but it actually led to the phenomenon of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Subsequently Rao's Congress(I) party was soundly defeated in the elections of 1996. The results of that election has been universally interpreted as the rejection of Narasimha Rao's economic program.

The next government that emerged after the 1996 election had to deal with this economic crisis by making a departure from the policies of the previous Rao government. But to date, this government has only continued and deepened Rao's policies. The economy shows no sign of being closer to meeting the needs of the population today than it was a decade ago. The investments of the nineties, largely intended to tap India's consumer market, have only further distorted the economy and have literally left close to 700 million people in the margins of the economy, supposedly because they are not part of the 250 million strong "consumer" segment.

But the failure of the economic system to fulfil the needs of the people is not the result of failed policies - but is a result of the narrow scope of the economy itself. The main driving force of production in India is to increase the profits of a minority of big industrial houses. The state structure and the governments defend and manage the system so that this essence of the economy does not change.

Moreover, those who manage to gain access to the government also have the opportunity to enrich themselves from the public treasury. As a result, it is not a mystery why various factions of the ruling circles constantly fight among themselves to gain access to the state.

At the same time, the people of India have waged struggles to change their miserable living and working conditions. The origin of the economic and political crisis can be traced to these objective contradictions inherent to the Indian economy.

The economic crisis precipitates the political crisis mainly because the existing political institutions are primarily aimed at preserving the existing economic relations. This is done first and foremost, by keeping the political power out of the hands of the people and in the hands of the minority of big industrial houses and landlords.

The division in the ranks of the ruling classes, in the face of rising and sustained opposition from the people has seriously sharpened the political crisis.

Contradictory Responses.

Like the economic crisis, the political crisis too is objective, arising out of the incapacity of the political system to resolve its contradictions before they mature to a crisis point.

The economic crisis can be traced to the inability of the economy to look after the needs of all in society. The political crisis can be traced to the failure of the political system to empower the people to govern themselves.

The India that was created in 1947 inherited precisely this kind of economic and political system from its colonial past. These outdated systems are the main cause of the recurring crises in India that have raged since the first years of independence.

The Indian economy, like other capitalist economies, suffers from unemployment, inflation, job insecurity, etc., wreaking havoc in the urban life of India. In addition, India has a large peasant and tribal population with very low levels of production and income. In the seventies, the crisis that led to the clamping down of National Emergency was precipitated by large scale urban demonstration and armed peasant uprisings all over India. These agitations were for economic as well as political reasons. At that time, the ruling circles were split in their approach to the uprisings. Ultimately, one wing gained the upper-hand, and used dictatorial powers to suppress the mass struggles. The result was that by the early eighties, the Indian ruling circles as a whole had emerged out of that crisis, strengthening their positions.

This present situation can be compared in many ways to the days of National Emergency of 1975. At that time, the parliamentary method itself had been discredited in the eyes of the people as a means of solving their problems. Similarly, people today do not trust the big national parties in any sense. There remains, above all, a deep resentment and suspicion of the economic policies initiated by the Narasimha Rao government.

The United Front government at this time has risen as a result of this broad resentment of the status-quo, a sentiment similar to that which led up to the events of 1975. In both cases, the approach was similar - to present a "left-of-center" image as a prelude to an anti-people offensive. Then, with the support of the CPI, Indira Gandhi succeeded in rescuing the status-quo. This time, besides the CPI, other left forces, including the CPI(M), Forward Bloc and the Socialist Party have come to the aid of the centrist forces in order to overcome this crisis.

However by continuing and deepening Narasimha Rao's policies, the United Front government is creating conditions for an even deeper popular resentment.

Today, the ruling circles are seriously divided about their response to the present situation and people have an opportunity to take advantage of this crisis to put forward initiatives to advance their interests.

Failure of the Band-Wagon Approach

Parliamentary democracy as it evolved in 18th and 19th century Britain, is a mechanism to iron out sectional interests within the ruling classes. This mechanism includes political parties, a cabinet form of government, as well as the armed might of the state. The role assigned to the political parties within this party form of government is to make the program of the ruling classes acceptable to the people The party form of government ensures that a ruling party emerges, which bears the program and ideas of the ruling classes. Establishing such a standard-bearer in the form of a party and its leader is an important part of this system.

This factor can become so important that at times, the ruling circles resort to violence to ensure that they have a standard bearer to carry forward their program. For instance, in the 1991 elections, it was only as a result of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination that the Congress party was able to come to power. At stake was the liberalisation and privatisation policy of the Indian ruling classes. Ironically, seven years prior to that, it was Rajiv Gandhi who came to power under similar circumstances to pursue "modernisation" following his mother's assassination.

Given the fact that a two-party system has not stabilised in India over the last 47 years of Westminster-style democracy, India's rulers have relied on other means to carry on their rule. For almost four decades, the Congress Party was given monopoly over government. During this time, slogans such as the "socialistic pattern of society", "garibi hatao", "modernisation", and "liberalisation" were advanced to create the impression that the Indian economic policies would provide for the people.

But experience has shown that none of these has delivered. Narasimha Rao himself admitted as much in January 1996, when he said that that liberalisation had failed to reach the people, and that what was needed were "reforms with a human face". As a result, the 1996 Lok Sabha elections failed to create a band-wagon and a standard bearer in this respect.

At the same time, the growth of numerous regional and alternative parties indicates the extent to which the multiplicity of business interests are clashing against each other. By the mid-eighties, the old "license raj" was no longer sufficient in the context of the changing world, and a new rrangement was needed to accommodate multiple business interests. The reforms of 1991 were directed at developing a new set of arrangements between different business interests regarding access to the state treasury, but an agreement has eluded them so far.

For example, in the power sector, Enron was given a 16% guaranteed return, and was freed from any liability for distribution costs. A section of Indian capitalists strongly opposed this, while another section actually wanted to increase the rate of return for international finance capital to 25% and above, in order to attract more foreign investment in infrastructure.

In fact, there exists much disagreement over how the infrastructure sector of India will be built or over which sectors of the economy are to be privatised. Furthermore, if the spectacle of multi-crore scams and corruption scandals involving top politicians are any indication, the stakes are extremely high at this time.

The 11th Lok Sabha elections took place amid such divisions, and resulted in the failure to create a bandwagon. For the third successive time, no party could emerge with a clear majority. But this time, forming the government turned out to be a far more formidable task than ever before. In their desperation, the Indian ruling circles first tried a communist, the Chief Minister of West Bengal. When this didn't work, they tried Vajpayee of the BJP. But the BJP, too was unacceptable to many regional chieftains and business circles.

Then they tried someone from Karnataka in the south. In less than a year, Deve Gowda too was forced to step down. It remains to be soon how long Gujral will last. What is clear is that the ruling circles do not have a standard or a standard bearer at this time. The lack of a "human face" which Rao bemoaned, continues to haunt them.

Rise of Regional Parties

The creation of a fourteen-party coalition in the United Front has also not sorted out the differences between the central and regional capitalists. Of late, their fight has intensified to an extent that even the much vaunted Common Minimum Program is now a bone of contention between different coalition partners.

While they are hoping that a "pro-poor", "pro-minority" image of the center left coalition will keep people disoriented and divided a little longer, the fact of the matter is that neither have the business circles been able to evolve a consensus, nor are they capable of providing a vision for the entire people. What is clear is that the rise of regional parties signals a shift in the balance among different capitalist groups as well as their internal division.

Not so long ago, the regional bosses flocked to Delhi to pledge their loyalty and to curry favour with centre. In exchange for delivering the "vote-bank", these regional leaders were given positions. But once they fell out of line with the centre, they were quickly dismissed. In his time, Rajiv Gandhi had dismissed and shuffled all but one of the Chief Ministers.

The Indian people have cause to be wary of these developments. The weakening of the centre - while the political system remains in place - does not in any way imply a shift in the balance of power in favour of the people. It is only the beginning of a new phase of battle between the centre and the regional bosses for the supremacy of one kind of narrow interest over another. The defiance of Laloo does not mean that the Bihari people are now empowered to change their lives. Biharis will remain marginalised from the political affairs of India and of Bihar, with or without Laloo.

Throughout history, the rise to power of warring regional chieftains in India, has always left the country vulnerable to invasions and plunder. On the other hand, the rise of a central state, under the Mauryas, Guptas, or Mughals, has been associated with the progress of society - with developments in infrastructure, as well as the growth of science and technology. The pooling of resources from different regions has provided a basis for development.

The failure of the present central state to lift India out of her crisis does not call for the enthroning of the regional bosses. It means the content of power at the centre needs immediate change. Either the power changes to the hands of the people - who will then form a new Indian union in the interest of all peoples - or the clashing regional bosses will ultimately plunge India into a land of bloodshed as they fight to protect their narrow interests.

The Crisis Can be Resolved in Favour of People

The crisis within ruling circles and their inability to create a standard and standard-bearer provides people with a great opportunity to organise to take charge of the affairs of the country. The eruption of narrow factional fights amongst the ruling circles makes it all the more necessary to take this step. For the time being, the regional parties have been able to convince many in their regions that they can defend regional interests if elected to power.

It is a great opportunity to create those political mechanisms which will ensure that the central role of the people in governance and in decision-making can be affirmed at this time.

National Question and Renewal of the Union

The biggest hindrance to sorting out the differences between the regions is the existing political set-up that denies the rights of the nations, nationalities and tribes that constitute South Asia. This is one of the outstanding problems of Indian polity since 1947. The denial of this right and the use of military force in solution of any problem - be it Punjab, Kashmir, Nagaland, and so on, have convinced many of people in India that the present central state is not an asset for their advancement.

The fact that the formation of the central government required forming an alliance among the representatives of Tamils, Telugus, Kashmiris, Assamese and others is an indication that various nationalities can join hands to form a union government to satisfy their common interests. Various nationalities see that it is in their interest to unite with each other. What is needed is a voluntary and equal union of all the nations, nationalities, and tribals, that will be the new India. Only such a union can truly embody the long-awaited desire of unity in diversity.

Democratic Renewal

Another key failure of the party system is that decision-making power is concentrated in the executive wing of government. Once an election is over, the executive claims the mandate to do as it wishes. The feeling of powerlessness, and the distrust of the existing political mechanisms is so acute that no government in power anywhere in the world (that has the party system) can claim to the support of more than 25% of the electorate.

Over the last five years, the appearance of some minor changes to the electoral code have evoked a flutter in the Indian political arena. Even though these reforms have done little to empower people, the mere fact that they seemed to tackle the excesses of political parties evoked a strong response. There is a real need to have genuine and serious changes to the election laws to eliminate the power of political parties. The time is right to take away the privileges of political parties to select and impose candidates on people. The selection of candidates is one way that people are disempowered, even before elections have taken place. The primary loyalty of these candidates is to their parties that stand behind them and finance them. People have no control over these candidates themselves or the policies of their parties.

In its place, electoral reforms can be instituted to say that people have the right to select candidates from among their peers in work-places, educational institutions and so on. This way, these candidates will represent the people, and not the parties. In the process, people will begin discussion on the agenda for the country, and political parties can play a significant role in organising people to govern themselves.

The present political system greatly eclipses the right to elect and be elected. First of all, without large sums of money and the backing of a major party, one's chances of winning are negligible. Within the electoral scene, some parties are declared "major parties" with a chance of winning, and are granted greater access to radio, and Doordarshan - in addition to their vast spending power.

On the other hand, the voices of the so-called "smaller parties" and independents are effectively silenced. An election process that is based on the division of the polity into "major" and "minor" parties, into "electable" and "non-electable" parties and that furthers such divisions is in contempt of itself. Secondly, most representatives get elected even though they receive only a fraction of the votes. The time is ripe to reform the electoral system to reflect that wishes of all electors, including those who could not bring themselves to vote for any of the candidates can be incorporated into the governance of the country.

These are only a few areas in which electoral reforms need to be carried out immediately. It so happens that the Indian ruling circles are also instituting electoral reforms at this time. But a close examination of these reforms suggests that they will only strengthen the stranglehold of the existing political parties and further restrict the role of people in politics.

An Immediate Task

The agenda of the United Front government is to rescue the Indian ruling circles from the crisis, just as National Emergency had done in 1975. At this time, four of the left parties have joined the United Front in different capacities. It is implied that the left parties are agents of change. But far from this, the left-parties are duty-bound to organise people, so that they can replace this system with one in which power resides with the people, and where the economy works for the well-being of all.

Instead of playing the cat's paw in this coalition government, they should extend their co-operation to all forces - parties and organisations, small and large - that are interested in changing the status quo. Rather than becoming electoral machines, they can work to create a national slate of candidates which can be put up to carry out electoral reform, renew the Union and take up other such programs which will open the path for progress. In this manner, the present crisis of governance could be transformed to empower the people.