K. Chandrasekhar Rao, Telangana state Chief Minister for the second time, is one of the few actors on the political stage to have remained loyal to Indira Gandhi in her darkest hour. At a time when even Delhi taxi drivers were reluctant to take fares to her Willingdon Crescent bungalow, he yelled for Morarji Desai’s benefit, “Desh ka neta kaun hain? Desh ka neta Indiraji hain (Who is the leader of the nation? Indiraji is the leader)”. The then Youth Congress activist recalled later that although the police took him away, he returned to Parliament House and repeated the chant when Mrs Gandhi arrived.
Now, KCR, as he is universally known, is biding his time to return to the central arena where he served for two years as Manmohan Singh’s minister for labour and employment. This is assuming that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s debacle in five states will usher in a new political era in 2019. But state and Central election results are seldom interchangeable. Rajiv Gandhi’s triumph in Karnataka’s 1984 Lok Sabha elections didn’t stop Ramakrishna Hegde and the Janata Party sweeping the Assembly polls only three months later. But the five sets of results nevertheless hold some lessons — although not uniform ones — for the BJP. The three Hindi-speaking cow belt states that the Congress wrested from the BJP beam different lessons from Telangana, India’s newest state, or Mizoram tucked away in the north-eastern hills.
The first three contribute to the 79.8 per cent of the population that might be expected to still subconsciously resent the Muslim invasions and conquests of centuries ago. This is in addition to modern nationwide grievances like demonetisation washing away 86 per cent of the currency in circulation, a probably well-intentioned but poorly administered Goods and Services Tax, farmers’ indebtedness, and poor support prices for cereals, oilseeds and milk. The problems are compounded by massive unemployment, and welfare schemes that have become tools of political patronage, while low-level corruption is far more irksome for ordinary people than the alleged cupidity of the “glamorous, flashy playboy” that Vijay Mallya is said to be. They are part of the great betrayal. Just as ‘Swachh Bharat’ has not made India any cleaner, ‘Make in India’ has not boosted domestic manufacture.
Telangana state and Mizoram highlighted the competitive nature and limitations of the identity politics that is the BJP’s stock in trade. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti’s sweep of 88 seats did not include the former Speaker and four Cabinet ministers whom voters refused to endorse this time. Either their performance left something to be desired, or their Congress opponents were more persuasive. The BJP and its ally contested all 119 seats and won only one — the solitary winner a man with several charges against him who declared not long ago that he would shoot down illegal Bangladeshis in Assam if they didn’t leave. Even the president and former president of the party’s state unit lost their seats. It isn’t enough to belong to the saffron brigade either.
KCR’s son, K.T. Rama Rao, winner of the Most Inspirational Icon of the Year 2015, hit the nail on the head after the results were announced. “Irrigation has to be a huge priority,” he declared, “because we have given the people of Telangana a categorical commitment that we will ensure one crore acres of land will be irrigated.” Whether he will keep his word is another matter. But Indian voters have learnt to give short shrift to politicians who talk big and deliver little.
The message from Mizoram where also a local party swept the board, capturing 26 out of 40 seats, is no less relevant.
India almost lost Mizoram through economic neglect when the bamboo flowered (as Mizos say) in 1959. The flowering resulted in a huge increase in the number of rats which ate all the bamboos and bamboo seeds, devoured crops, and infested huts and houses. The terrible havoc left very little grain for harvesting. Mizos who didn’t die of starvation survived on roots and leaves from the jungle. Born in that traumatic experience, the Mizo National Front initially sought economic assistance. Faced with neglect and prevarication, it demanded political independence. Thousands of young Mizo guerrilla fighters waged a secessionist war for 20 years until Rajiv Gandhi persuaded them to lay down arms, renounce secession and sign the Mizo Accord in 1986. The MNF won that year’s election and its founder, Laldenga, became chief minister. His lieutenant, Zoramthanga, took over when he died, heading the government from 1998 to 2008 when the Congress ousted him.
Apart from the usual anti-incumbency factor, explanations for the MNF’s return include Central indifference to Mizo problems, mismanagement, and the fear of national parties impinging on regional rights, reinforced three years ago when the Congress regime abolished prohibition which is almost an article of faith with evangelical Mizos. That also militates against the BJP which did win a seat but in a non-tribal area. The 84-year-old Zoramthanga’s comment, “Mizoram is a Christian state and we are a compact society so there is no space for BJP ideology”, warned that Mizoram is zealously determined to guard an identity that is every bit as unique as that of the reclusive Sentinelese islanders. Thenphunga Sailo, a former Indian army brigadier and chief minister from 1978 to 1984, persistently highlighted another aspect of the conflict of identities by exposing military atrocities against civilians. As in Nagaland, separatists are viewed not as traitors but patriots who are possibly misguided.
Whatever the New Year might hold for individual polities and politicians, it may mark the demise of a global dream that will in the long run affect even the most insular Indian whose only chant is “Mera Bharat Mahan”. Born in 1951 as the humdrum European Coal and Steel Community, the 28-nation European Union was the nearest we have seen to the idealistic borderless Elysium of the future. Our own South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, like the far more advanced Association of South-East Asian Nations, totters in the EU’s footsteps. It is the model that inspired a fractured and warring world to grope for harmony. That model is threatened now by the self-view of a disgruntled member whose fantasies of being a global power centre are kept alive by the Commonwealth whose trappings are more visible in London than in any Afro-Asian capital. If Britain can reject the EU, says Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, Scotland can reject Britain. “Brexit strengthens the argument for Scotland to be indepen
dent”. Wales might follow. Even Cornwall’s Mebyon Kernow — Party for Cornwall — demands devolution. Where visionaries looked forward to a unified Europe, 2019 might witness the emergence of many city-states as linguistic, religious and cultural groups seek territorial recognition.
India hasn’t exorcised that threat. Long before he became president, Richard Nixon visited this country and wrote that the wonder was not that India was badly governed but that it was governed at all. The wonder today is not that there are pockets of discontent in India but that it holds together.
Some regions of Maharashtra, Bengal and Assam seek a separate label. Some feel there is no rationale for lumping the three units of Jammu and Kashmir — Jammu, the Valley and Ladakh — under one administration. Some wonder about the cost of maintaining a precarious status quo for the state as a whole. Beyond Jammu and Kashmir looms the larger question that must be asked as 2019 approaches: Whither India?
The BJP’s setback has encouraged hopes of a Congress comeback under Rahul Gandhi. It can also lead to a resurgence of old tussles between a possessive Centre and restive satrapies, multiparty friction, and, worst of all, conflict between the idea of India as “a plural and secular country” held by the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief, Asaduddin Owaisi, and the Hindu rashtra seemingly indicated by Meghalaya High Court Justice S.R. Sen.
Identity is of paramount importance in a nation of minorities like India. It’s only through harmoniously meshing them together that a stronger national identity can evolve. KCR, who famously broadcasts his freedom from dogma with the slogan “I am the best Hindu. I am the best Muslim. And I am also the biggest Communist”, lives up to the boast by maintaining friendly relations with Owaisi.
But there can be no identity without economic empowerment. Nor, despite Donald Trump’s flattery, can India enjoy any global respect without the investments and industry Modi was supposed to promote. If Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh voters failed to rally to the BJP despite a robust, shared identity, it can only be because of dissatisfaction in more vital areas. The gap between bombast and achievements aggravated disillusionment. Prime ministers are respected more when they talk and travel less. Narendra Modi has been warned.