Prem Shankar Jha

‘Out With the Gandhis’ a Cry of Despair; With No Obvious Replacement, Cure May Be Worse than Disease

The party’s future lies in defending federalism from Modi’s assaults and building regional coalitions around a programme of development and reform.

‘Out With the Gandhis’ a Cry of Despair; With No Obvious Replacement, Cure May Be Worse than Disease
Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Photo: PTI/Atul Yadav

Ramachandra Guha’s description of the Gandhi family’s leadership of the Congress as a ‘gift to Hindutva authoritarianism’ is a cry born out of despair. Tragically, the description is accurate. The last eight years have seen a planned, creeping destruction of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy that the founders of our republic created. The road the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is taking the country down can easily end in civil war and even disintegration of the Indian Union. But to warn the people of this danger and seek their vote to avert it, a political party needs to identify the early signs of danger, and flag them convincingly for the voters to see. But the Congress’s leadership has not raised its voice to warn the people about the peril they are facing.

As a result, today, the Congress is a party without a programme. Its appeal to voters is based solely on the dynastic connection of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru, his closeness to Mahatma Gandhi and his seminal contribution to the making of modern India. Implicit in this is a sense of entitlement and a demand for trust based on lineage alone. As the Congress’s rebound after the Emergency showed, this was a powerful appeal till 40 years ago.

Dynasty is the past

But the generation that responded to it has passed away and for today’s youth, both Nehru and Gandhi are just a part of history. With innumerable existential problems to face, the current generation has neither the time nor the desire to dwell on the past, let alone pay homage to it. So the appeal of dynastic rule has faded, and will keep fading.

In 2014, the youth of northern India voted overwhelmingly for the BJP because they believed Narendra Modi offered them hope of a better, more secure future. He failed to deliver it, but in 2019 they still voted for him because the opposition had offered no alternative vision of the future either. Three years have passed since then and there is still no consolidation within the opposition, still no clear perception of the threat that a continuation of BJP rule poses to India’s future – and still no offer of an alternative, better future. So, it is looking more and more as if the BJP will win the 2024 general elections too.

If that happens, there is an even chance that by 2029 the Indian Union will cease to exist. This is not an alarmist prediction. It arises out of the pattern that the BJP’s actions have been weaving since it came to power, and especially since its second electoral victory in 2019. For virtually from day one, Modi, Amit Shah and their advisers have spared no effort to dismantle the multi-ethnic, federal India that  Mahatma Gandhi gave his life to create, and replace it with an intolerant, lawless, Hindu-dominated unitary nation-state.

Home minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI

Assault on the federal state

Had Modi and Shah been students of Indian history, they would have known that any such effort is doomed to fail. Even the Mauryan empire, which is the model that advocates of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ wish to emulate, was more an empire than a nation-state – a collection of socially and culturally independent principalities held together by the promise of peace and help in hard times, backed by the threat of retribution if they rebelled against central authority. When the central authority became intolerable, the empire came to an end.

The first explicit warning that this could happen again was given by DMK  member of parliament S. Kanimozhi on March 16 when, during the Lok Sabha debate on the railway budget, she asked why the Union government had allotted Rs 59 crore for development to Southern Railways, and Rs 13, 200 crore to Northern Railways. “You keep talking about India being one nation,” she said. “The railways also has to understand that it is one nation”.

The depth of anxiety this has aroused in the South can be judged from the way her statement has gone viral. The railways may have a legitimate explanation for this enormous gap but, in a manner that has become this government’s trademark, no one thought it necessary to prepare southern governments for the shock they were about to receive.

This high-handedness is only the latest of a succession of decisions that reflect the Modi government’s contempt for federalism. One of his first decisions in 2014 was to dissolve the Planning Commission and replace it with the NITI Aayog. The change looked cosmetic but was anything but that. Outwardly, Yojana Bhawan remained entirely unchanged. Not a soul working there lost his or her job. The only change was that the NITI Aayog no longer had the responsibility exercised for 65 years by the Planning Commission – of disbursing the annual plan grants to the states upon a consensually agreed basis.

Till 2014, the devolutions had been based upon the famous Gadgil Formula which was a function of a state’s population, GDP, per capita income and level of industrialisation.

The Planning Commission’s abolition opened the way to making plan grants discretionary. The government sought to give it a veneer of justification through a report published under the auspices of NITI Aayog, ‘Central Transfers To States In India Rewarding Performance While Ensuring Equity’. But this year’s railways budget has shown how easily, and even unintentionally, the discretionary power arrogated to the centre can be abused.

Modi’s second essay in centralising power at the expense of the states was his virtual abolition of the National Development Council – the forum of chief ministers that every prime minister since V.P. Singh had used to coordinate social and economic policies after the era of Congress party dominance came to an end in 1989. In January 2015, Modi observed that with the formation of the NITI Aayog, there was no need for the NDC and that it should be dissolved. Since the state governments demurred, he did the next best thing: in eight years he has not called a single NDC meeting.

The BJP’s electoral success in 2019 seems to have increased the Sangh parivar’s appetite for undermining the federal state. The cavalier disregard with which Modi passed the three farm laws in 2020 by ordinance – and bulldozed their ratification through the Lok Sabha – when agriculture is the single most important subject on the state list of the constitution, reflects his growing impatience with the constraints imposed by Indian federalism.

From Article 370 to The Kashmir Files

By far Modi’s most blatant act of contempt has been the reading down of Article 370 of the constitution, the abolition of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood, and his push for fresh delimitation of constituencies so that more seats can be added to Jammu’s share.

In doing so, Modi has ignored the fact that Article 371 of the constitution gives protections of autonomy similar to those enshrined in Article 370 to seven other small states, six of which are in the northeast.

The decision to tinker with the boundaries of J&K’s Lok Sabha seats shows that the BJP has no intention of respecting the Centre-state consensus not to change the number (or composition) of seats allotted to each state in the Lok Sabha. It also demonstrates how easily this can be done without the consent of the affected state governments.

The threat that a politicised delimitation exercise poses to India’s unity must not be underestimated. The present composition of the Lok Sabha is an essential pillar of Indian democracy and federalism because, in the past 60 years, the population of the northern states has grown far more rapidly than that of the south. If a report by Congress MP Manish Tiwari is correct – that the new Lok Sabha hall in Delhi is being designed to seat 1,000 MPs – then the possibility that Modi intends to swamp the South with additional seats allocated to the North can no longer be ignored.

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