India had inherited certain administrative complexities and contradictions that were borne out of the inelegant vivisection and independence of the lands of the British Raj, and its subsequent task of integration and assimilation. The foreboding sense of the subcontinental destiny had led then British PM Clement Attlee to warn his incoming Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten: “Keep India united if you can. If not, save something from the wreck. In any case, get Britain out”. Almost prophetically, the tricky task of accession of the 565 princely states bore and institutionalised most of the angst and prevailing issues, from Manipur to Jammu and Kashmir to Balochistan, that later developed into armed insurgencies on both sides of the Line of Control. The quest to quickly manage the local sensitivities had led to certain arrangements, “promises” and constitutional provisions. The unpopular annexation of the seven tribal agencies and six frontier regions had led to the semi-autonomous concept of Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) within the sovereignty of Pakistan.
The Constitution of India too afforded some “temporary provisions” (later becoming permanent features, as confirmed by various rulings) with respect to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. These specificities, perceived affirmations/discriminations and constitutional provisions have muddied the modern narrative with the political classes deliberately eschewing rapprochement, and instead deepening the perceived wounds of the past with fear-mongering and more “promises”.
Participative democracy in heterogeneous lands brought along its own contribution of complications, centrifugal forces and societal ventilations that threatened the stability and unity of India — such as the Dravidian movement, the Northeast’s angst, and the movement against illegal immigration. Regional forces, parties and movements emerged from this cauldron — sometimes politically and often in the form of armed insurgencies.
However, a recurring sense of a “dispassionate Delhi” prevailed in the streets of Imphal, Anantnag, Gadchiroli and Amritsar that ensured that the “promises” that were made to allay the fears and correct the perceptions were either knee-jerk, or insincere, and in either case never intended to be kept. A wholly socio-economic-cultural genesis of unrest in Punjab in the 1970s was mismanaged politically and driven towards secessionist moorings. The socio-economic Naxalite movement of the 1960s and ’70s was the harbinger of the modern-day Maoist movement, with various state governments insisting solely on its “law and order” imperatives. The political classes paid little heed to the simmering discontent and ham-handed insincerity of governments which were either insufficient or insincere.
Unsurprisingly, the only two insurgencies that have effectively ended — Mizoram and Punjab — only happened after a rare display of political creativity, inclusivity, “acceptance” and rehabilitation was undertaken with the Mizo Accord and Punjab Accord (the Rajiv-Longowal deal) of 1985. Even here, some conflicting and contradictory noises have lingered on the contentious riparian issues (Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal) and the fate of Chandigarh, that continues to vitiate the environment.
In recent times, the most casual and short-term handling of social unrest has been in the realm of the ever-ready political “promises” for caste reservations. From the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan, the Jat protests in Haryana to the Maratha agitation in Maharashtra, the vacuous doublespeak of the various political parties have only exacerbated the situation and left it to the courts to intervene and clarify what is possible and what remains impossible — after a liberal dose of political promises.
The real-world complexities of honouring “promises”, like those of building the Ram Mandir or “bringing back black money in 100 days” is a hard reality that is soon forgotten in the hullabaloo of Indian politics. In the federal structure, the fight for special packages for individual states is another domain of much heartburn and regressive bargaining.
States like Andhra Pradesh and Bihar are up in arms for what they see as political sleights and short-changing. Even the otherwise apolitical composition of the Indian armed forces, that had tilted in favour of a particular political direction owing to explicit “promises” of “one rank one pension” in a certain form, were rudely introduced of the unsavoury concept of electoral jumlas. The danger of implied “promises”, as exemplified in the flexible political positions taken on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), is symptomatic of how a basic operational necessity in certain pre-designated “disturbed areas” can acquire partisan, regional and even religious angularities!
The latest fire over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is yet another example of botched politicisation that renders almost all political parties involved with dangerously inflaming the situation for narrow political gains. The intent and spirit of both the accusations and the defence of the NRC initiative has steered the narrative from one of the native-immigrant to that of a Hindu-Muslim dimension. With no clear repatriation plan, all political parties have added fuel to the fire by strengthening their essential positions of polarisation — the practicality, enforceability and morality of the same, remaining as side issues.
Similarly, the question of Article 35A, which affords special rights and privileges to “permanent residents” of J&K, has been passed on to a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court after various political parties have played politics with public sentiment. Ironically, Article 35A has united the triad of residents in the J&K Valley, Jammu and Ladakh regions like no other political initiative or experiment has achieved in recent times.
The curse of insincere and impossible electioneering “promises” has haunted India for long, and instead of penalising the lazy pronouncement of the same, the electorate has got violently polarised and divided.
In the last stretch of the government’s five-year term, the inclination to take prudent and correct decisions will be less than enthusiastic, whereas the tendency to throw in even more populist “promises” will be at an all-time peak. The danger of casual “promises” has implications beyond sovereign borders, as precariously poised with Bangladesh on the NRC issue, or in the case of Nepal with the perceived interference with Madheshis. The American fact-checking platform, Politifact, brutally rates the achievement of political “promises” made in the United States, and recently noted 47.1 per cent as “promises” broken, stalled or compromised by US President Donald Trump and his administration. Thankfully for Indian politicians, Politifact does not work in India, at least till now.