‘There’s no alternative to Democracy’

Published: March 14, 2012 - 12:51 Updated: March 14, 2012 - 13:02

Book: India's 2009 Election Coalition Politics, Party Competition and Congress Continuity
Edited by: Paul Wallace & Ramashray Roy
Publisher: Sage
Pages: 412
Year: 2011

On elections, coalitions and politics in India

Akash Bisht Delhi

The crisis-ridden UPA-II desperately seeks new allies to replace old ones who have been at loggerheads with the party on key political issues. Contrary to its position in 2009, when it won a resounding mandate and could dictate terms to its allies, the party today is struggling to bring a balance at the Centre and even within the coalition. Amid this instability, a new book on how the 2009 mandate emphasized political stability and governance coherence is oddly ironic. But that is exactly what India's 2009 Elections: Coalition Politics, Party Competition, and Congress Continuity does, suggesting that the future of Congress depends on how it performs as the leader of the ruling coalition.

Edited by Paul Wallace and Ramashray Roy, the book brings together chapters on national concerns with selected studies of states that played a crucial role in 2009. The fourth of a succession of election volumes beginning with 1998, the book provides an extended presentation of national and state politics in scope and depth. Wallace is Professor Emeritus, Political Science, University of Missouri, and Roy is a founding-member and former director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

The book explores how the 2009 elections played out and what factors influenced the electorate. It also explores how Congress won a decisive mandate in an era of coalition politics. "Does the Congress party's electoral triumph provide evidence for a trend that indicates India is returning to the earlier periods of Congress domination?" writes Wallace in his introductory chapter.

Part I of the volume is organized around themes, and Part II, around specific states. Four analysts from various backgrounds emphasize on positive changes in India's federalism. Roy stresses on the strength and importance of regional parties within the larger coalitions. He writes, "There may yet develop pockets of discontent that may make the UPA-II
stumble and fall between now and five years hence."

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time – Churchill

Pramod Kumar talks about regionalization of national parties and nationalization of regional parties,while Maneesha Roy deals with federalism, coalition politics, and structural changes in India over time. Rainuka Dagar provides somewhat paradoxical findings in women's electoral participation. But the chapter that stands out in the book is Christophe Jaffrelot's, with its special focus on BSP and Mayawati, and how the 2009 elections were a setback for BSP. He, however, argues that a general election is different from that of state elections.

Part II of the book has Ghanshyam Shah and Amiya Chaudhari provide inputs from Gujarat and West Bengal that continued with dominant parties for long periods. Five other case studies deal with alternating two-party systems from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Bihar and Jammu & Kashmir are considered multi-party states, and are dealt with separately. The last chapter is about the Northeast and how competitive democratic politics is transforming structures of power, redefining political practices, and crafting novel political traditions.

The book will be useful for political observers, journalists, students and anyone who wants to understand the 2009 elections. Hardnews caught up with Wallace and Roy, and spoke to them on a range of issues concerning democracy in India.

How do you look at Indian democracy – its strengths, its shortcomings?
Wallace: Indian democracy is alive despite all its problems. When it's about India's problems, we talk, we don't fight. There is violence in Maoist areas and in Jammu and Kashmir. Indian democracy is 60 years old and firmly embedded in core values. That's what this book really highlights. They deal with competition, factionalism, communalism, casteism, regionalism. This given diversity is ultimately India's strength and these volumes lay special stress on these issues. As Winston Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

There has been one failure in India already when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency, but even then democracy is so much a part of Indian culture that she had to hold elections, and those had to be free and fair elections. She tried authoritarianism and that did not work.
Roy: There is no other alternative to this. Moreover, the system will not fall, but might muddle through. Presently, we are only muddling through.

How do you see the future of Indian democracy in these times of increasing political fragmentation?
Wallace: I don't see much fragmentation. In fact, this book also talks about our hope for greater decentralization. There's Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement, there's also Irom Sharmila. Kashmir too is an area of concern. I would put all these national and regional
issues under this grassroots expression, which is indeed a key element
of democracy.
Roy: There is also a philosophical aspect to it. The main question is whether you depend upon legitimacy or legality. Legitimacy demands that you should respond to the demands that emanate from the grassroots, but then they correlate and then there is a state of exception. Then you tend to institutionalize liberal values, but the moment you try to do that, there is anger. And then you have to impose military rule or use the military to suppress people. So there you go by legality. There is a big conflict in this, especially in democratic regimes.

Wallace: Institutions in India are highly legitimate and you can see that. When there are big problems, people don't go to the Indian version of ISI to find the answers. You go to Supreme Court, the political sector or the grassroots, and things work out without the military intervening. Indeed, the real test of any political system lies in the extent to which it depends on the military.

But we are witnessing a conflict among institutions – be it the judiciary, executive, or even legislature. How do you see this superimposing of will or interventions?
Wallace: That's normal in any democracy. You have these different institutions and when one doesn't seem to be dealing with a problem, the other one comes into the picture. Supreme Court ends up dealing with problems that the bureaucracy or the legislature usually deal with. I was amazed, for instance, by the court's order on the homeless, but in India that's how the political system works.
Roy: And they condemn it by calling it judicial activism. If you are in power and you want to retain yourself, you will utilize all means that are supportive of your endeavours. So sometimes they do cross their line, and that's when the Supreme Court needs to intervene.

You train military forces to be violent and then you want them to be non-violent. That’s a paradox

The chapter on Jammu and Kashmir documents how despite a call to boycott the elections, large number of people came out to vote. How do you explain this?
Wallace: That's notable in both the Assembly and General elections. While the earlier elections were all managed ones, these turned out to be quite peaceful and fair. It does show a greater degree of trust. Notably, the 'Intifada' last summer tended to be more internally motivated than influenced by jehadis. But this summer, there's normalcy in Kashmir. Because the central government had chosen to respond by sending interlocutors and that initiated the dialogue. There's better training of the military, too, and there is an active Human Rights Commission. There are a number of institutions trying to deal with a number of different problems. Is everything normal in Kashmir? No. But there is certainly some progress – towards soft borders between Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Indian Kashmir. Neither India nor Pakistan would allow a full and open border, and the UN is not going to intervene and internationalize the issue. I see progress, but slow progress.

How do you look at the future of India's two major political parties, Congress and BJP?
Wallace: They are becoming more and more catch-all parties; ideology becomes less important than integrating different kinds of groups in order to put a coalition together. The two parties are doing rather well. Coalitions at the national level change depending on what the partners do at the regional level, the way they look at their regional aspirations. So the basis of national coalitions is regional perceptions.

Do you think that coalition politics is leading to a blurring of ideology?
Wallace: See the Anna Hazare movement, for instance, and you see BJP supporting it. What is Ajit Singh's ideology? Historically, all the parties in India, except for Left parties, have carried a mixed bag of ideologies.

How do you see the future of Left in India?
Wallace: The Maoists have highlighted the plight of tribals in India, but it is too late already for the government to come to the tribal's aid and ensure justice. Governments have to anticipate these key issues. They are doing it to a certain extent in the case of dalits, but tribals have been ignored since Nehru's era. Tribal areas in India are hotbeds of minerals that corporates are interested in. However, there is a new problem. Are Maoists justified in killing people? No. That's why the Gandhian approach in terms of highlighting problems through non-violent means, an Indian method, is being adopted the world over. Whether it was Martin Luther King, conflict resolution in the Czech Republic, Arab Spring and even protests in Russia – all these have elements of this Gandhian approach.

The Maoist problem is quite serious and cannot be dealt with force alone, and the security forces have to be more humane. Illegal executions by security forces end up helping the Maoists to mobilize more families and clans, and then you need 'special forces' so that it does not get worse.
Roy: You train military forces to be violent and then you want them to be non-violent. That's a paradox.

Wallace: The mainstream Left has found its enemy; they found out that it is within them. The factionalism in CPM, especially in Kerela and West Bengal, is hurting its prospects. Mamata Banerjee is more Left than the Left, and that is why she could take over their base. They were in power for way too long. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Is everything normal in Kashmir? No. But there is certainly some progress – towards soft borders between Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Indian Kashmir

Do you think there is any hope left for the Left?
Wallace: In politics anything is possible, but they will have to adapt. Indian politics is changing and I compare it to a multi-layered cake and a new layer has emerged while Communist parties are still stuck in Lenin's era.

What are your views on the Rightwing parties, especially BJP? And on Narendra Modi?
Wallace: RSS today is quite different from what it was in its early years under a charismatic leadership. I don't see a clear or strong opposition in BJP. Since 2004, Modi has been carefully trying to build his image on the 'development' plank. He has been trying for some national role, but even BJP wasn't too happy with his posturing. He has been trying to recast himself. The question is whether he has been able to do it? I don't think that is happening because of what happened in 2002. Judiciary in India is slow, and there is always something or the other coming up against Modi.

What is your take on dynasty politics in India? Do you think Congress can survive without a Gandhi at the helm?
Wallace: Rahul is the one being projected by the Congress party and its coalition partners, and he has been working very hard on this. However, he may or may not have the confidence or ability to do that. No party should depend on one family. He has been trying to work with Youth Congress in some states. Every party has dynastic politics. We have this in the US as well, like the Bushes, the Kennedys. Narasimha Rao and his group didn't have any dynasty, and at that time Sonia Gandhi didn't have the ability to take over. So, they manufactured Rahul. Hopefully, the future leadership of these parties would emerge by a democratic process.

What are your views on Anna Hazare?
Wallace: It's an example of how grassroots movements are mainstreaming themselves with the use of modern technology. But the problem with grassroots politics is that they become too populist. Grassroots populism is good, but the opportunism is questionable.

This story is from print issue of HardNews