Winter 2023 Summer 2024: Turn Of The Tide

As India gears up for the 2024 national election, past decisions and local politics play a crucial role in shaping the nation. With ongoing challenges in identity, regional dynamics, and socio-economics, India aims to emerge as a global power, outlining its journey towards 2024 and beyond
By Arun Bhatnagar
  • Local factors shape state elections, campaigns mirror voter mood, with Congress and BJP vying in the Hindi heartland
  • In MP, ‘badlav’ (change) resonated with voters, reflecting alleged ‘very high corruption,’ ‘arrogance’ of party leaders, and ‘anger’ against BJP
  • Young voters are crucial in the electoral struggle; they may doubt an unwieldy party grouping for governance and reform
  • Civil services are now infamous for arrogance, ingratiating with politicians, and a compromised moral compass in recent times

A well-known French historian, Southeast Asia expert and Tibetologist, Amaury de Riencourt (1918-2005), wrote in a notable work, ‘The Soul of India’ (1960): “Many years before Congress started on the road to mass rebellion under Gandhi’s leadership, the Indian Muslims were not a nation in the modern sense of the term. But a quarter of a century later, they were on the way to becoming one. Had Congress leaders been wiser, they need not have become one”.

The Partition of India did not result in progress towards resolution of the Hindu-Muslim question, as it has often been called, and which remains a smouldering issue to this day. At its root was the Two Nation Theory which stood substantially negated with the formation of Bangladesh in 1972, but which also further engendered an almost visceral hatred of India on the part of the Pakistan Army, among others.

Decades earlier, this approach that was destined to bedevil inter-community relations in the subcontinent, had been enunciated by Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, in a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, as follows: ‘We maintain and hold that Muslims and Hindus are two major nations by any definition or test of a nation… we (Muslims) are a nation with our distinctive culture and civilization, language and literature, art and architecture, names and nomenclature, sense of value and proportion, legal laws and moral codes, customs and calendar, history and traditions, aptitudes and ambitions… By all canons of international law, we are a nation’.

As I write, the process of Assembly polls in five Indian States is coming to a close and the results should be known, even as this piece catches the attention of readers.

DECODING THE PULSE OF STATE POLITICS

Each of the States can be said to possess a unique election dynamic, influenced by local factors and micropolitics; nonetheless, the campaigns have tended to point to the general mood of the electorate, with Congress and the BJP squaring it off in the Hindi heartland States of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where the contests became personality-centred. The PM led the charge for the BJP, while Congress and the regional parties also highlighted the State leadership.

The template of ‘caste and welfare’ adopted by both is likely to continue in play for the Lok Sabha elections in the early summer of 2024.

THE SLOGAN ‘MODI KI GUARANTEE HAI’ WAS REASSURING

For more than one of the incumbent Chief Ministers, the Assembly polls are existential battles, accompanied by a role-reversal, in that the Congress has leaned on regional titans and the BJP-once famed for nurturing State leaders – has increasingly preferred a centralized model of leadership – a High Command culture.

State election results do not always get replicated in the general elections, as was evident from the 2018 Assembly poll outcomes in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. The Congress won all three Assembly elections but the BJP regained the ‘lost ground’ and won 62 of the 65 Lok Sabha seats in these States, less than six months later.

The Assembly polls are existential battles, accompanied by a role-reversal, in that the Congress has leaned on regional titans and the BJP-once famed for nurturing State leaders – has increasingly preferred a centralized model of leadership – a High Command culture

That said, a powerful performance in the five States could boost the Opposition’s morale ahead of the battle next year. For either side, a score of 5 – 0 would be politically more significant than of 4 – 1, certainly 3 – 2, in the five States, including Mizoram.

Should the anger or resentment against one or the other ruling dispensation run deep enough, something in the nature of a rout cannot be ruled out in the Assembly elections.

PM Modi launched a new Development Mission aimed at particularly vulnerable tribal groups on the birth anniversary of the legendary Birsa Munda (1875-1900) in Jharkhand on November 15, 2023, days ahead of voting in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and swathes of Chhattisgarh – this was expected to bolster the BJP’s outreach towards the tribal communities that are a key electoral factor.

In the 230-member Madhya Pradesh Assembly, 45 seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes, in Rajasthan this number stands at 25 in the 200-member Assembly and in Telangana it is 9 in the 119 member House.

In Madhya Pradesh – a crucial State – ‘badlav’ (change) was a prominent talking point among voters, apparently reflecting ‘very high corruption’ in government offices, ‘arrogance’ of party leaders and ‘anger’ against the ruling BJP for buying MLAs to upset the public mandate for change in 2018. A common refrain was ‘Mama ka control nahin raha’ (the Chief Minister is not in charge) in respect of corruption in the government. The BJP did not declare a chief ministerial candidate, a somewhat rare departure for the Party.

Of a total of 2534 candidates, 472 have criminal cases registered against them and about 291 are understood to be facing serious charges.

The present BJP administration at the Centre can be said to have faced constraints in being able to identify ‘serving bureaucrats’ who could, as a cohesive group, have performed the task of working towards the goal-post of ushering in a New India. 

This is not another face of the Achhe Din promise, which (as Union Minister Nitin Gadkari acknowledged) appears to have become a mill-stone around the NDA’s neck. A moment of reckoning and of having to adequately answer for performance will arrive before the Lok Sabha polls of 2024, regardless of the rhetoric and bombast.

BUREAUCRACY IN FOCUS

Being more heavily dependent on civil servants than his predecessors – like PV Narasimha Rao – and less on political colleagues, the Prime Minister, presumably, rests assured that he has the requisite talent and capability in the top bureaucracy at his command to achieve the delivery of results. Then there are the former members of the IFS, IAS and other Services who are ministers today.

Any collapse of the Grand Old Party will mean that the BJP would become the only National Party to battle the narrow agendas of the regional entities. In that case, the BJP may not be called upon to challenge an alternative vision for the New India that it has projected

Interestingly enough, one of the first actions of the NDA-II in May, 2014 was to promulgate an Ordinance to overcome a legal infirmity that had come to light in making a key administrative appointment that of Principal Secretary, PMO. In earlier days, the BJP had seldom spared an opportunity to attack the Congress for following the Ordinance route, through the ten years of UPA rule (2004-2014).

The National Security Advisers have been handpicked out of retirement, wielding more authority and influence than most Cabinet Ministers. But the scope and nature of accountability has remained hazy and ill-defined. In a properly established system and hierarchy, such accountability should be to Parliament and enforced through the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers. Buoyed by its electoral successes, organizational strength, the labours of the RSS cadres and an unwavering determination to win each and every election, the BJP is already being seen as the winners of 2024, against a National Alliance of non-BJP parties. 

COALITION POLITICS

A section of the UPA leadership feels that if the Left could join hands with the BJP to oust the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989, why couldn’t the Left now team up with the Trinamool Congress to tackle, as they see it, the communal climate prevailing in the country. 

It is the young voters who will matter most of all in the electoral struggle and they may not think that an unwieldly grouping of parties would hold out hope of improved governance and real reform.

The Congress finds itself at a critical juncture, notwithstanding the success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. It is ruling-either directly or through alliances – in several States, while the BJP has a similar number to its name. 

Senior leaders had earlier prescribed a radical surgery for the Congress party structure. The active presence of the Nehru-Gandhi family, including Priyanka Gandhi, has now to concretely help the Party. If the argument that Congress needs the Gandhis to serve as a glue is valid – as is usually believed – then they must bring in young leaders and fresh blood at all levels, without loss of time. 

THE MUSLIM VOTE & THE REGIONAL PARTIES

Secularism has come to be identified as playing the minority card, allowing the BJP to take away the majority votes. The plank of social justice has been reduced to a scramble for quotas; these are games that other caste-based outfits can also play.

The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (in Hyderabad) and, to a lesser extent, the All India Muslim Majlis (founded by the late Dr AJ Faridi of Lucknow in 1968) have only been in marginal contention as options for the Muslim vote. The prospects for the Congress to garner this vote, which they had substantially secured for themselves, post-partition, especially in northern India, diminished after VP Singh became Prime Minister in December, 1989.

The Congress was again afforded a chance to consolidate the minorities’ base (including the Christians) in the tenures of Rajiv Gandhi, P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.

Regional formations of socialist orientation which came to power in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar caused further damage. Had the Congress been alive to the need to encourage and facilitate the growth of a younger and committed leadership and gone ahead with implementable schemes for the socio-economic betterment of the Muslim masses (rather than follow the convenient option of selecting Muslims, with no popular support, to adorn ceremonial positions), the political possibilities for the Party might have emerged quite differently.

Any collapse of the Grand Old Party (GOP) will mean that the BJP would become the only National Party to battle the narrow agendas of the regional entities. In that case, the BJP may not be called upon to challenge an alternative vision for the New India that it has projected – not necessarily a ‘positive’ for the country since ideas and policies, unless contested, are liable to turn static. Rahul Gandhi was right when he demanded at a rally in Imphal that the contents of the Naga Accord be made public and asked as to why the people of Manipur were being kept in the dark on this matter.

Over the years, neither the BJP nor the Congress governments (as also those of regional players like the TMC, JDU and others) seem to have seriously appreciated the need to pursue delivery-improvement measures of an executive nature and enforce stringent measures against corruption and related malpractices.

CIVIL SERVICES PAST & PRESENT 

During the Independence movement, Jawaharlal Nehru had been sure that ‘no new order can be built in India so long as the spirit of the Indian Civil Service pervades our administration and our public services’. In his estimation, the men in the ICS were ‘helpless and incompetent. They had no training to function democratically, they could not gain the goodwill and cooperation of the people ….. they had no conception of big and fast-moving schemes of social progress and could only hamper them by their red tape and lack of imagination…’.

Shortly before he passed away in May, 1964, Nehru was asked at a press conference as to what he considered his biggest failure as Prime Minister. Without hesitation, he replied: ‘I could not change the administration, it is still a colonial administration’ and went on to elaborate that its continuation was one of the main causes of India’s inability to effectively address the problem of poverty.

The active presence of the Nehru-Gandhi family, including Priyanka Gandhi, has now to concretely help the Party. If the argument that Congress needs the Gandhis to serve as a glue is valid – as is usually believed – then they must bring in young leaders and fresh blood at all levels, without loss of time

While, by early 1947, the ‘comparative youth’ of the Indian component of the ICS was being perceived as a consequence of their recruitment having started in earnest only around 1920-21, it was also noticed that many of them were now making ‘leaps to the top’, inviting adverse comment in the Constituent Assembly whose Congress members, being unhappy over the situation, opined: ‘In India today, civilians having only seven, eight or nine years service are acting as Secretaries and Joint Secretaries and receiving higher pay, a pay which, if India were not independent, they would get after serving for 18 or 19 years ….. Under the previous regime, Europeans became Secretaries after 25 years of service and Joint Secretaries after 20 years …. now, on account of the Europeans having gone away, persons who were in the lower range of the ladder, deputy secretaries with 13 or 14 years of service, are becoming Joint Secretaries overnight’.

BUREAUCRATIC CHALLENGES

Congressmen often described the ICS as ‘a remnant of the days of India’s slavery’ and opposed its pampering. Some spoke of its lack of patriotism: how come no reciprocal assurances as to honesty and incorruptibility had come from a Service whose future was safeguarded, despite a record under the British of ‘oppressing and jailing the people’?

Nevertheless, the ICS Indians were asked (principally by the widely-respected and admired Sardar Patel) to stay on, which would be unbelievable were it not true.

In the event, the ICS tradition not only survived, it prospered. In due course, a number of its members chose to be involved in arranging lucrative assignments – often abroad – for sons and sons-in-law who were usually in the IAS; for those relatively less endowed, jobs were secured in corporate houses and private companies. Cases relating to illegal monetary gain also arose, one of the first of this type resulting in the conviction of an ICS Secretary to the Government of India as early as in the 1950s. These were unmistakable signs of nepotism, favouritism and corruption. At the time, anti-corruption drives generally focused on ‘big ticket graft’; growing instances of misconduct had begun to erode governance and destroy trust. All in all, the Indian ICS did not measure up to expectations. Perhaps, Sardar Patel had overestimated their capacity and commitment; more importantly, they comprehensively failed to provide a durable base on which the IAS might have developed on sound and progressive lines. Therefore, a decline of the IAS had already set in, even as the ICS was on its way out. This decline has been precipitous and such that it requires a root and branch overhaul, including at the induction stage. 

In recent times, the civil services have increasingly become known for arrogance, a capacity for ingratiating themselves with political masters and a deficient moral compass. NK Mukarji, the last ICS Cabinet Secretary in the Government of India (topper of the final intake to the Service in 1943), who retired in 1980, said: ‘Bureaucratic arrangements must fall in line with the multi-layered character of the polity. The Central, State and Local government bureaucracies must, therefore, be placed squarely under the control of the elected rulers at each level. A suitable way needs to be found to close the IAS shop’.

In due course, a number of ICS members chose to be involved in arranging lucrative assignments – often abroad – for sons and sons-in-law who were usually in the IAS; for those relatively less endowed, jobs were secured in corporate houses and private companies

INDIA’S GLOBAL STANDING

In 2020, the Indian economy experienced its worst contraction since Independence but the number of billionaires increased from 102 to 140; about 7.50 crore people sank into poverty, which accounted for nearly 60 percent of the global increase in poverty, as assessed by Pew Research.

When the country begins to climb, the relations with China could shift towards competition. If – in military and economic terms – the two nations were broadly at par earlier, China is now far ahead.

In India, it is the top one percent or so who have really benefitted from the much-touted liberalization. A good deal of the money made on the stock market, in real estate or in capital gains is because of the easy liquidity provided by the government, including in the UPA regimes. Post-2024, the onus could well be on the decision-makers to tax the super-billionaires more, in order to service the real needs of the economy.

Sooner or later, this ultra-rich category may realize that the battle is coming to an end and that they count for less and less in governing India.

India’s ranking on the Corruption Perception Index-2020 slipped by 6 spots to 86th rank. The Index released annually by Transparency International ranks 180 countries by their perceived levels of public-sector corruption.

The average score in the Asia-Pacific Region (31 countries) was 45. India’s score of 40 was below the global average and the Asia-Pacific average. Pakistan also fared poorly with a score of 31 and a rank of 124.

India was stuck at a low rank of 142 (out of 180) in the ‘Reporters Without Borders’ Annual Report, 2021 which categorized the country ‘as one of the world’s most dangerous nations for journalists trying to do their job properly’. The country’s position has slipped since 2016, when it was placed at 133. As it happens, India has been informed by the new Maldives leadership to remove its soldiers from that country, Qatar has sentenced eight Indian Navy veterans to death, Sri Lanka has allowed a Chinese spy ship to dock in Colombo, despite India’s objections, Bhutan has indicated that they are on the verge of concluding boundary negotiations with China, including on Doklam, and Sino-Pakistan naval exercises have been held in the Arabian Sea.

In 2020, the Indian economy experienced its worst contraction since Independence but the number of billionaires increased from 102 to 140; about 7.50 crore people sank into poverty, which accounted for nearly 60 percent of the global increase in poverty

The Bangladesh general elections scheduled for early January, 2024 are of particular importance from New Delhi’s point of view, with reference to the prospects of Sheikh Hasina.

A détente between the United States and China in the future, following the recent Biden-Zi Jinping dialogue, may carry mixed signals for India, apart from eventually facilitating cessation of hostilities in Russia-Ukraine and in Gaza. 

Meanwhile, through projecting the rotating G20 Presidency as an unparalleled achievement (marked by extraordinary ceremony and spectacle), it is the South Block, New Delhi that may have to remain content with a one-sided, albeit grand vision of India hurtling towards 2024 – and beyond – by way of Greater Prosperity at Home, Peace on the Borders and its Emergence as a World Power.

Arun Bhatnagar

Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS and retired as Secretary, GOI. He attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi in the early sixties. After retiring as Secretary (Personnel & Training) in the Union Government in 2004, he worked with the National Advisory Council (NAC) and, later, as Chairman, Prasar Bharati, New Delhi. He has had postings in the President of India’s Secretariat and in the Indian High Commission,
London. Bhatnagar’s earlier Book, ‘India: Shedding the Past, Embracing the Future, 1906-2017’, was well received as a historical narrative.

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