Midnight’s children come to power

Rajnarayan Chandavarkar

  • Nehru: The Making of India by M.J. Akbar
    Viking, 609 pp, £17.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 670 81699 X
  • Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto
    Hamish Hamilton, 333 pp, £12.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 241 12398 4

When Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto recently signed their Islamabad accord, the similarities in their lives and backgrounds immediately attracted widespread attention. They were born, after all, to the same, Western-educated, international, urban élite in the Indian sub-continent. They were both, more and less, midnight’s children, although the younger Benazir might be more accurately attributed to the early hours of the morning. They shared an Oxbridge past. Their parents had been assassinated by their political opponents. They entered office almost as naturally as if they were claiming their inheritance. Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother, is the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister; wearing the mantle of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the former President who was deposed and then hanged by her predecessor, Benazir presents herself simply as the Daughter of the East. The pundits have been swift to discern in these lineages the peculiar weaknesses of south Asian democracy.

While the recent election of Benazir Bhutto has rekindled hopes for democracy in Pakistan, the outcome of the Tamil Nadu elections in India, in which the Congress Party was seemingly trounced, has prompted the experts to conclude that the days of the Nehru dynasty to numbered. But the Tamil Nadu elections should be regarded more nearly as a triumph than as a disaster for Rajiv Gandhi. His objective, with the prospect of a general election looming, was to use the campaign to rebuild the moribund Congress organisation in the state. Regional parties in Tamil Nadu, while protesting states rights and preaching separatism, have since 1967 worked an electoral pact with the Congress, making their machinery available to the latter in national elections in return for its abstention from state-level contests. With existing political alignments in flux, Rajiv Gandhi’s aim to exercise the atrophied muscles of the state Congress was handsomely realised. For the Congress polled nearly a quarter of the votes, increasing their share substantially since the last election. On the other hand, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham’s (DMK) massive majority in the assembly, despite the disarray of their rivals, was founded on only a modest electoral improvement. So the fate of the Congress in the Tamil Nadu elections provides no text for the prophets of Rajiv’s doom.

If it was necessary for the Congress to make new friends and perform well, this was none-theless a good election to lose. In essence, it is to the advantage of every Congress prime minister in New Delhi that the states elect chief ministers who are able both to manage the diverse, demanding and often fractious interests over which they preside and to deliver bargains struck with the centre. This could mean that a Congress prime minister in New Delhi might often find it easier and preferable to work with a chief minister from another party in the states. Thus, for instance, while G.K. Moopanar, the Congress leader in Tamil Nadu, is a political nonentity, whose future lies behind him, Karunanidhi, the DMK leader, commands the influence, experience and power to make deals stick.

Political parties in India, perhaps anywhere, as Rajni Kothari pointed out long ago, are less a direct reflection of class interests or coherent ideologies than ramshackle coalitions competing around the structure and resources of government. Political groupings sometimes seek to gain access to the Government by operating within the Congress, and sometimes, more effectively, without. Accordingly, such groupings have, since its inception in 1885, moved nimbly into and out of the Congress. Moreover, most political parties have been cut from the hide of the Congress. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Congress contains within itself the full range of political ideologies and social and economic interests to be found across the whole political spectrum, and conversely, opposition parties of every description, whether Communist or Hindu nationalist, representatives of business or spokesmen for poor peasants, are liable to find kindred spirits somewhere within the Congress Party at the centre. In national politics, as a result, opposition parties in general, and especially the networks which comprise them, cannot always be sure to gain more by sinking their differences in a large and happy alliance than by pursuing their objectives through sympathetic factions within the Congress. These factors have traditionally favoured the Congress at the national level, and now ensure Rajiv Gandhi’s prospects at the coming general elections.

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