The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
POLITICS OF MANOEUVRE
THE fall in India's stock with her friends abroad is matched by the doubts that assail her own people. To misgivings about economic prospects have now been added a deep disquiet about the political future. The marked increase in tensions within Indian society, accelerated by intensified competition between the political parties since the general election in February 1967, raises fears that the consensus which has so far sustained the Indian experiment in democracy may break down. These fears, now at the center of the political debate within the country, testify to a crisis of confidence which is far more debilitating than the actual difficulties faced by India as a result of the loss of economic momentum and political coherence. But, paradoxically, the crisis is also a sign of hope. India has reasonably well- evolved political institutions and a fair leavening of educated public opinion, and these give her a sporting chance of pulling through. The practical solutions are still difficult to perceive, but the fact that all political elements are searching for them is itself reassuring.
Apart from the economic situation, on which a great deal will depend, India has, among developing countries, two special problems of a politically explosive character. A well-established educational system, one of the best legacies of the British, has been expanded very rapidly since Independence. There are twelve million students in secondary schools, about two million in colleges, and almost half a million in professional and technical institutions. Absorbing this very large output of qualified manpower was difficult enough even before the Indian economy started running down, but now the problem is even greater. The frustrated hopes of the unemployed, infecting those still in schools and colleges, constitute a major political liability, as evidenced by the rash of student violence spreading throughout the country. Add to this the handicaps imposed by a high rate of urbanization, with which the country simply does not have the resources to cope, and the result is a precipitate deterioration in living conditions in cities, especially in a metropolis like Calcutta. Both these factors contribute to a growing alienation of the politically articulate middle classes, thereby providing a ready market for extremism.
An election fought in this dismal setting had the predictable result of severely punishing the ruling Congress Party. Its share in the vote fell from 43.4 percent in 1962 to 40.1 percent in February 1967.1 The majority party's loss benefited neither the right nor the left in particular; the two came out of the election pretty evenly balanced. The Communists' share of the vote showed no rise, nor did that of the Swatantra (Freedom) Party, their ideological antipode. The Samyukta (United) Socialist Party (SSP), a militant social democratic party, did improve its showing, but this gain on the left was cancelled out by the gain of the Jana Sangh, the Hindu party.
In some states, the swing against the Congress was much sharper than the national average suggested: 12 percent in Orissa, around 8 percent in Bihar and Punjab, and 6 percent in West Bengal. The view is widely held that the Congress lost out among the newly enfranchised-the 36 million who have reached the voting age since 1962. Assuming that the Congress' share in the vote remained unchanged among the older groups, the support received from the new generation of the electorate would seem to have been as low as 10 percent in some states.
In a number of states the Congress lost more sharply in terms of seats than of votes. This resulted from electoral alliances of all the main opposition parties against the Congress. In the past, the Congress had obtained a majority of seats quite disproportionate to its actual share of the votes (58 percent to 68 percent of the Assembly seats between 1952 and 1962 on a vote which at its highest, in 1957, was 45.65 percent of the total). The Congress lost its majority in eight out of the fifteen states that went to the polls.2 In two of these eight, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (UP), it managed to regain power by securing the support of independents and defectors from other parties. In the case of UP, the success was short- lived: within weeks, a massive defection in the other direction brought down the Congress ministry and paved the way for the installation of a non- Congress united front. The same thing happened earlier in Haryana, and was to be repeated in Madhya Pradesh.
The breakdown of party discipline within the Congress was to be expected. It has been, and still is, an umbrella party combining many ideologically disparate elements which hang together because the Congress as an organization has held the key to power. The loosening of this bond was bound to lead those whose ambitions remained unfulfilled within the Congress to seek new moorings outside it. Before the tide began to turn last November, nine out of the seventeen states, accounting for half of the country's total area and two-thirds of its population, were under non- Congress governments.
The almost complete monopoly of power enjoyed by the Congress since Independence (a Communist ministry held office briefly in Kerala, while Orissa had an equally short-lived coalition led by the Congress) lay shattered. This need not have been a disquieting development; the punishment inflicted on the Congress via the ballot box would, in fact, have earned the Indian experiment in democracy high marks if viable alternatives to the Congress had been thrown up in the process. A change was indicated on several counts. The Congress had been getting flabby for want of competition; at the grass-roots level, its leadership had come to take its position so much for granted that its links with the electorate were sadly in need of renewal. Quite apart from the fortunes of the Congress, India's development effort would have gained if a different set of politicians had asked the people to sacrifice in the present for a brighter future. More important, the emergence of a successful alternative government could have deepened India's commitment to democracy by proving that the ballot can accomplish peaceful change.
The reason none of these hopes has been fulfilled by the dramatic swing against the Congress in the 1967 election is that the voting was essentially negative in character. Clearly enough, it reflected widespread exasperation with the party in power but did not reveal a specific preference for any alternative. Against the Congress Party's 40 percent share in the national vote, the Jana Sangh-the Hindu party, which was the runner-up-got less than 9 percent, though it may be argued that the national percentages are misleading, since the other parties have influence in pockets but not in the country as a whole.
As an illustration of the seeming absurdity of electoral results, the Congress increased its share in the vote in Kerala, the state where it faced the strongest challenge. Although the Congress has been reduced to insignificance in the state legislature, this reflects the eccentric way in which the system of simple plurality sometimes works, as well as the disadvantages at which the party was placed by the electoral alliances of its opponents. Kerala is the only state where Communists have secured a position of decisive influence in the legislature. Its two Communist parties, having managed to avoid an electoral clash, gained sufficient seats to obtain a legislative majority on their own. In West Bengal, the pro-Peking Communists emerged as the second largest party despite losing a good many seats in an electoral confrontation with the pro-Moscow wing. Their superiority relative to all other non-Congress parties gave them a dominant voice in the united-front government that held office in West Bengal for nine months.
This possibility of a legislative stalemate was foreseen-hence the appeal of some politicians for broad unity among the lesser parties in disregard of ideological considerations. The right, represented by the Swatantra Party and the Jana Sangh, had scruples about this approach, and so had the Moscow-oriented Communist Party,3 but scruples of both the right and left were cast aside at the prospect of power opened up by the Congress débâcle. In state after state, ragtag coalitions came into existence to unite the Communists, the Jana Sangh (or the Moslem League, its counterpart in Kerala), and even the strongly conservative Swatantra Party. The alliances were defended on the plausible ground that the people had shown an unmistakable desire to end Congress rule; it would have meant a breach of faith if differences among non-Congress parties were to pave the way for a return of the Congress to power. For a while the mutual forbearance of the parties seemed a fine example of the give-and-take that is the stuff of democracy, but it was too unreal to last.
Ideology, some Western observers argue, is irrelevant to Indian politics, but this is an oversimplification. Socialism may be a meaningless abstraction which leaves the voter stone cold, but he certainly knows which side he is on when it comes to deciding issues like the proportion of the produce to be allocated between the sharecropper and the landlord, or the preëmptive claim of the state on the surpluses of the better-off farmers, to be used to feed the cities and the rural poor. It was on issues of this kind that the contrived unity of the coalitions soon came to grief.
Despite the attempts made in every state to consolidate the non-Congress vote through formal electoral alliances or informal adjustments among parties, in votes as well as in seats they remained hopelessly divided. Except in Kerala and Orissa, majorities based either on preëlection alliances or subsequent understandings among like-minded parties proved quite out of the question. Madras was the only state where a single non- Congress party managed to win an outright majority.
Mercifully, the Government at the center was spared these experiments in ideological promiscuity. In contrast with its poorer showing in the states, the Congress managed to bag 55 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha on the basis of 41 percent of the votes, giving it a majority of 48. Bigger majorities have crumbled in the states, as in Madhya Pradesh, but the reason why the Congress stays safe at the center is that the kind of spurious non-Congress unity achieved at the state level would be even more unworkable in the federal legislature.
No one need have shed any tears at the collapse of non-Congress united fronts in one state after another since last November but for the chaos which has followed. Instead of the Congress coming forward to form viable alternative governments with the support of like-minded groups-which it could well do as the largest single party in all but three state legislatures-it continues to sit on the sidelines. This is not wholly by choice: the electorate's antipathy to the Congress is still so strong than any party joining with it risks losing out with the people. In a period of political uncertainty, when at any moment a mid-term poll may be called, parties are understandably chary of taking risks.
Another disincentive to coalition is the quite legitimate fear of small parties that they will lose their identity in alliances with the Congress. This danger is greatest for parties least differentiated from the Congress ideologically, as for instance the Praja (People's) Socialist Party (PSP), a mildly social democratic party, or the various groupings of those who have recently bolted the Congress. In fact, antipathy between these ex- Congressmen and the present-day Congress leadership is particularly sharp, and compromise is difficult to achieve.
Finally, the Congress is caught in a dilemma when it comes to making a choice between possible partners. To offer an opening to the right-as S. K. Patil, the Bombay Congress leader, has suggested more than once-would be to relinquish the long-cherished claim to the middle of the road. A large part of the Congress leadership seems convinced that the party can regain the support it has lost only by attuning itself more closely to the radical temper of the Indian people. This explains the hurry with which the Congress, immediately after the election, reaffirmed a series of socialist pledges of long standing. If the Congress should now take the pledges seriously (and it well may, judging from the mood of the rank and file), it might have to shed its rightist membership. That would be no great calamity. But just as the party will resist moving to the right, it will also avoid identifying itself too closely with the left. Should polarization in Indian politics proceed farther than presently seems likely, the Congress will draw the moderate elements on the left within its fold, rather than lose its own left wing. But polarization of this kind is still not a serious possibility.
Just now, any move to seek allies on either the right or the left would expose the precarious unity of the umbrella party to an intolerable strain. Therefore the Congress cannot take advantage of divisions among its opponents and has relied instead on weakening the united fronts by luring away their individual members, a course which encourages opportunism. Worse still, resentment of these tactics gives the spurious unity of the united fronts a new lease on life and prolongs the isolation of the Congress. This is precisely what has happened in West Bengal, Punjab and Bihar and is likely to be repeated elsewhere. In each of these states, the Congress secured enough desertions to deprive its opponents of their legislative majorities. The turncoats, however, were for the most part political nondescripts and the governments they have formed with Congress help lack the stamp of legitimacy, making it well-nigh impossible for them to win popular support. The ousted united fronts, invested with a halo of martyrdom, are able therefore to take the issue to the streets. This continuation of the political debate by violence erodes the confidence of the people in the possibility of peaceful change via the ballot box.
The Congress has also suffered from changes in party affiliations and in consequence was unseated in three states. A partial tally shows that one in every ten state legislators has changed sides since the election, some more than once. The motive in many cases was personal aggrandizement; but the individual legislator's lust for the powers and perquisites of office (in some cases an outright cash reward) was less distasteful to public opinion than the willingness of party leaders to offer them. In Haryana, where horse-trading was mercifully brought to a halt by the Governor's dismissal of the ministry in preparation for mid-term elections, three out of every four members of the ruling party had been given offices of one kind or another. In Bihar, the united front, retaliating for the defections from its ranks, induced six Congress legislators to cross over: five of them were immediately rewarded with ministries. Although this problem of fluid loyalties afflicts only some states, chiefly in politically backward North India, it contributes to a much wider loss of faith in the political system. An ominously similar instability in party loyalties in Pakistan created a mood of disenchantment with parliamentary democracy which paved the way for the military take-over of 1958.
In this unedifying game of musical chairs being played by political parties, the Congress' control over the federal Government gives it a definite advantage. The Indian Constitution gives the center very substantial powers of intervention in state affairs via the President, who acts on the advice of his Council of Ministers. There has been growing disquiet about these prerogatives since the election. Both left and right parties, especially the former, voice the apprehension that extraordinary constitutional powers may be used illegitimately to advance party ends. India, it is conceded on all sides, is too large (and perhaps also too highly evolved politically) to fall prey to a military dictatorship. But a constitutional dictatorship, sustained by the backing of the police and the military and claiming legitimacy by reference to the emergency provisions of the Constitution, is conceivable.
The sorry record of Congress interventions in the past gives warrant for these fears. In 1959, a Communist government was dismissed from office in Kerala ostensibly because of a breakdown in law and order which a Congress- supported agitation had helped to bring about. The functioning of the Rajasthan State Assembly was suspended under Presidential orders immediately after last year's elections on the ground that a stable government was not in sight: neither the Congress nor the alliance led by right-wing Swatantra, it was argued, had a durable majority. The suspension was lifted a few weeks later when the Congress had made sure of gaining office by weaning away some support from the other side. Unfortunately, the founding fathers failed to write into the basic law adequate safeguards against the use of arbitrary power by the center; the need to obtain ex post facto parliamentary approval does not serve as a control since the Central Government must, by the very fact of its existence, be assumed to have the majority to obtain endorsement of its actions.
As it is unlikely that India will ever return to universal one-party rule, the first requirement for peaceful coexistence is a new set of norms to guide the center's relationship with the states, not only with regard to the emergency provisions but also to the extra-constitutional leverage which the federal Government enjoys through its vast economic and financial powers. When the Constitution-makers, following the centralizing tradition of British rule, deliberately strengthened the center at the expense of the states, they failed to foresee the present phase of intensely competitive politics in which excessive central authority may do more damage to the country's unity than a willingness to accommodate diversities.
While it may not be practical to make major changes in the Constitution, the Congress could, while it still has exclusive control over the center, enunciate healthy conventions to achieve the same ends. As the only party with roots all over the country, it is uniquely qualified to reconcile the divergent pulls of the states vis-à-vis the center. The party's leadership has the political maturity and the skill required to perform this task, as well as the incentive to undertake it. The Congress' strongest suit in the electoral free-for-all is its demonstrated ability to hold the country together: this could be strengthened further by a display of statesmanship in steering the country safely through its present troubled phase.
Placing the responsibility for unity on the Congress is not to belittle the role of other parties. It cannot in its present enfeebled circumstances do the job all by itself: it will certainly need allies. Yet because of its sheer size and spread, the Congress must act, at least in the foreseeable future, as the pace-setter. The extent to which its initiatives meet the felt needs for unity, stability and the rule of law will determine the response it evokes-tacitly from political rivals and explicitly from public opinion.
This has been clearly brought out by the progress made on the highly emotive issue of language policy during the past year. The Constitution gives full freedom to the states to conduct their official business in the language of their choice, but in practice the widespread use of local languages was made difficult by the inadequacy of educational resources- especially textbooks. Following a report by a new Education Commission, the Central Government now stands committed to support a switch to regional languages at all levels of education, the pace wisely being left to the judgment of individual authorities.
On the trickier issue of the official language of the Union, a law has been enacted to provide legislative assurance (which Mr. Nehru shied away from giving) that English shall continue to be used until every single non-Hindi state decides otherwise. The willingness of the pro-Hindi majority to accommodate the non-Hindi minority in this matter is a splendid example of forbearance; it is the result largely of patient efforts by the Congress leadership over a number of years, and has led to changes in the attitudes of other parties as well. The language controversy is by no means ended: wrangling over important details continues, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of arson and violence by unruly student mobs. Yet the thrust is unmistakably toward a consensus, with all national parties taking a hand in hammering out an acceptable formula.
Predictably, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has upped its demands; the party could hardly do otherwise, since its phenomenal rise to power in Madras, the only state in which it operates, came on the crest of anti- Hindi agitation. Intransigence like the DMK's is more manageable, the stronger the consensus at the national level. It is noteworthy that the secessionist slogan which was featured so prominently in the party's credo until the early sixties has been quietly dropped; there is no danger of it being revived now that the DMK has won for itself a share of power within the system.
The moral to be drawn is that timely concessions on the part of the majority can successfully tame minority extremism. This has happened also in the case of the Akalis, the party of the Sikh religious minority. Since the Central Government conceded the Sikhs a separate state within which they could be sure of having a dominant voice, their call for an independent Sikh homeland has been reduced to a harmless eccentricity.
Despite these distinct gains in cohesion, India's political leadership still has to deal with the far more awkward problem of reassuring the Moslem and Christian minorities. The Congress has made impressive gestures to the Moslems; at a considerable risk it pushed through the election of a Moslem as India's President last year, and has since appointed another to head the Supreme Court.
Not surprisingly, the Moslem community sees a danger to itself in the gains made by the militantly Hindu Jana Sangh at the hustings last year. This view overlooks, however, the corrective supplied by keener political competition: Moslem support should now be more eagerly sought because, as the 1967 election demonstrated to the cost of the Congress, it is sufficient to tilt the balance in many constituencies. This was certainly one reason why the Congress lined up in support of a Moslem President. It also explains why the SSP and the Communists pushed hard in Bihar for a better deal for Urdu (the language of most North Indian Moslems), almost to the point of breaking up the state's united-front government. Even the Jana Sangh is trying to accommodate Moslem sentiment.
In the future, all minorities-linguistic or religious-should benefit from this conscious striving for a broader electoral base, but right now the main burden of reassuring Moslems falls on the Congress-run Central Government, which has to deal with problems of separatism in Kashmir, the only state where Moslems constitute a majority. No doubt Kashmir is not merely a Moslem problem: it is an international cause célèbre. But the only way India can hope to integrate Kashmir is by respecting its separate identity. Even this will work only if the Kashmiris can be satisfied that India is a truly secular federation in which their co-religionists elsewhere in the country are not subject to discrimination.
Some in the Congress leadership do see the problem in this light but they are badly in need of support from outside the party to deal with the hawks in their own ranks. This is now forthcoming in some measure from such diverse quarters as the right-wing Swatantra, the DMK and both wings of the Communist Party. A memorandum last summer urging Sheikh Abdullah's release secured the signatures of MPs from almost all parties except the Jana Sangh. The motives of the signatories may have been mixed, but their response does reflect a willingness to look anew at an old problem. This represents an advance, however small, giving promise that India may yet find within herself the resources of statesmanship needed to solve ticklish social problems.
Still more hopeful is the evolution of attitudes toward the Christian Nagas, in whose case regional and religious separatism again coincide. The Naga rebels' ten-year war for independence from India has now been in abeyance for over three years; the long cease-fire period is being utilized to seek a modus vivendi which would guarantee the Nagas full freedom within their area without jeopardizing India's security. The unspoken assumption in these protracted negotiations is that the Congress leadership is prepared to ask for amendments to the Constitution to allow for a looser association with the Union for areas like Nagaland. At present, all constituent states and territories belong to the Union on the same basis, the only exception being the special status accorded to Kashmir. The right to change this status having been vested in the Union, there has been a progressive whittling down of Kashmir's autonomy, which explains the exacerbation of the separatist urge since 1964. If a change were now to be made in the Constitution to accommodate the Nagas, giving the acceding areas a veto over any alterations in their relationships with the Union, it would open up interesting possibilities for Kashmir. Since the Naga issue does not raise nationalist hackles as Kashmir does, a start toward new policies is most likely to be made there.
Both the problem posed by the peripheral territories and the task of reorienting the center's relationship with the core states of the Union call for a flexibility that the founding fathers simply failed to allow for. They did not lack liberal instincts, but were prevented by the heady nationalist enthusiasm of those years, and perhaps more so by their own background, from taking sectionalist urges into account. The dominant group in the Constituent Assembly-elected, it should be noted, on a restricted pre-independence franchise-was a Westernized élite with a strong community of intellectual interests and ideological proclivities. They little realized the impetus that universal suffrage would give to particularist loyalties, at least in the initial phase. Also, at the time they were writing the Constitution, the problem of separatism at the periphery had not yet appeared.
What they left undone can still be accomplished by imaginative leaders willing to take on the challenging task of educating public opinion. They will have to come primarily from the Congress Party because of its preëminence in Indian political life. Mrs. Gandhi may have few qualifications for leadership but she does not lack either the empathy or the vision to fill this particular role. She, for one, seems to realize the obligation placed upon the Central Government in India's present situation to create conditions in which power can be shared among parties on reasonably peaceful terms. She also shows a welcome awareness that diversity, including the extreme of separatism, can neither be wished away nor steamrollered into nonexistence. Unfortunately, however, her position in the party, even after two years as Prime Minister, is not strong enough to permit bold initiatives. More important, the preoccupation of all political parties with survival leaves little scope for taking the long view.
It is indeed a matter of regret that most of the non-Congress parties are getting pushed out of power much too soon; they simply have not had the time to learn the lessons of responsibility. Notwithstanding the incongruity of all-embracing coalitions, they were beginning to recognize that governing inevitably involves hard choices and that there are strict limits to the degree of social change that can be imposed from the top by legislation. Yet the loss of power should have a chastening influence, especially in making them realize how much they need to broaden their base to get within striking distance of the Congress.
The electorate, too, has probably learned a lesson: it can be expected to be more discriminating in its future choices. Mere opposition to the Congress is not enough; it is to be hoped that next time the people will demand to know what the alternative policies are before bestowing their favors. Chastened parties and a choosier electorate could combine to steer India to a calmer and more assured future. While it is difficult to make a prediction with any assurance, we should not underestimate the instinct for survival operating through three thousand years of Indian history. 1 This is in terms of the voting for the 3,400-odd seats in the state Assemblies; the simultaneous voting for the 520 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house in the federal Parliament, disclosed an identical trend. 2 Kashmir, the sixteenth, constitutes a special case, as does the seventeenth, Nagaland, which goes to the polls this year. In both states, important elements of the population refuse to participate. 3 The pro-Peking Communists were more amenable; all-out anti-Congress unity suited their tactical aim of worsting Moscow's friends as well as the Congress.