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Remember, don't forget

Remember, don't forget

Author: Shekhar Gupta
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: June 6, 2009
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/remember-dont-forget/472387/0

Introduction: Congress's tough lesson of 1984: trust instincts, don't flinch from change. Or euphoria of 206 could vanish twice as fast that of 412

This is the week of big anniversaries, two decades of Tiananmen, 25 years of Operation Bluestar. But staying closer home, it is chastening now to remember what a tough year 1984 had been for India, arguably the most challenging in our history since we became a republic. Operation Bluestar resulted, besides other trauma, in large-scale desertions and mutinies in the army's Sikh units, Indira Gandhi's assassination and then the retaliatory mob massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. And, as if that was not bad enough, almost exactly when we were picking up the pieces, the Bhopal gas tragedy happened. All this, when India had almost no government at the Centre. A very tentative Rajiv Gandhi had filled in the breach and India had gone into election mode immediately. And yet, that year ended on a note of resurgence and optimism of a kind rarely seen in our history. Rajiv won a mandate that made the adjective "historic" an understatement. In fact, he put it more aptly when, in his first interview, he acknowledged that people's expectations were "scary".

Remember, he had got 412 seats in the same Lok Sabha then. Now, his party has secured 206, exactly half as many, and the wave of optimism it has unleashed, in so many ways, is comparable to those heady days of a quarter century ago. OK, we must admit that our politics has evolved in so complicated a manner in these 25 years that 206 is probably the new 412. But the natural corollary, then, is that, just like the mandate of 1984, this one has also generated popular expectations that a realistic and intelligent politician would describe as "scary". And the problem with such mandates is that they leave the voters more impatient, less forgiving. Feel-good takes no time to turn into disillusionment, and the voter often comes back at you with the fury of a jilted lover. That is why, as Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi move into this fresh term, it would be useful to analyse how the mandate of 1984 was lost, if the same mistakes are not to be made again, because if 206 is the new 412, it should also follow that the voter now will be only half as unforgiving as in 1984, a full generation ago.

And yet, the destruction of that mandate, the loss of the feel-good mood, was rapid in the 1984-89 Parliament. It was also so severe that it has now taken the Congress 25 years to be able to form a government that looks like its own, and that can even fire the imagination of an aspirational India, a fact that even Arun Jaitley acknowledged in his opening speech as the leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha. What can Sonia, Manmohan Singh, and their Congress partymen learn from the verdict of 1984 so that they do not make the same mistakes again?

It is sometimes said that Rajiv Gandhi made too many mistakes because he was inexperienced, too young for the job, that the burden of prime ministership fell on his shoulders five years too soon because of his mother's assassination. There may be some truth in that. But, for the dramatic loss of popularity that took place 1986 onwards, more factors had to be involved. And some of these were rooted in the essential nature of the Congress and its senior leadership's basic instincts.

If you go back to that phase, some initial mistakes were indeed made because of inexperience, the very faulty handling of the Punjab peace process (after a spectacular beginning with the Rajiv-Longowal peace accord) by a (then) largely inexperienced team of political managers, led by Arun Nehru and Arjun Singh. But what is inexperience is also sometimes freshness, boldness, or the ability to break from the past, to make a new beginning. Rajiv's most brilliant achievements also came in this "inexperienced", "innocent" phase, when he relied on his own instinct for change that gave him the mandate: the peace accords with MNF rebel Laldenga in Mizoram and AASU-AAGSP in Assam. Both led to elections that brought the agitators and insurgents in power, of course in cabinets sworn to defend India's Constitution, and defeats for his Congress party. But for a national leader with vision, and the blessing of a great mandate, these were historic achievements. I happened to cover both elections, and heard slogans like, "Congress party murdabad, Rajiv Gandhi zindabad." A more "experienced", less "innocent" politician would not have seen the enormously greater value of India's victory in his party's small defeats as he did.

So where did he go wrong? He began blundering the moment he started submitting to his party's basic instincts. The first false step was the Shah Bano case where, under pressure from cynical old-timers you could only describe as the "Congress clergy", he amended the law to overturn a reformist Supreme Court judgment on a divorced Muslim woman's rights. Preferring the maulanas and old vote-bank politicians over a young, promising, modern Muslim leader like Arif Mohammed Khan was not a result of his inexperience or innocence, but of his inability to rise above the oldspeak. This had many other consequences. Arif became the first rebel and attracted others in the course of time, including such loyalists as Arun Nehru and V.P. Singh.

The cynical compromise on the Shah Bano case was made to please the "Muslim voter" and, soon enough, it became evident that it had alienated a lot of the Hindu voters. So he succumbed to distorted politics again by allowing the unlocking and then shilanyas at the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site, even launching his disastrous 1989 campaign from there, with the promise of Ram Rajya. This was not Rajiv, the modernising new leader who had fired our collective imagination acting on his own instinct. This was Rajiv, now a prisoner of his old party. You could use the same logic to analyse how he let the Bofors issue get out of control or, at least for a year, seemed not fully in control over his military establishment (an aggressive chief, Sundarji, nearly took us to war with Pakistan and China, with exercises Brasstacks and Chequerboard), and at war with a president from his own party (Zail Singh). Halfway through his term, in 1987, his government had lost its way and momentum.

This is what the proud winners of this new mandate have to remember. People give such stunning mandates for change, for new ideas, a shift from the past. This is particularly so now, when people vote out of aspiration and ambition rather than grievance and vengeance. That is why the leaders who have won this mandate, Sonia, Manmohan Singh, Rahul, would do well to remember that tough lesson of 1984: trust your instinct and do not flinch from change, and a legacy of success is yours. Slip back into formulas of the past, and the euphoria of 206 could vanish twice as fast as that of 412.

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