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A state of drift

The Congress needs to do something drastic in Rajasthan

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
November 16, 2011 2:38:11 am

Rajasthan’s politics seems to be in a state of irremediable decay. The Bhanwari Devi scandal is clearly about the deeds of one minister. But it has also,again,highlighted a protracted pattern of indecision,indifference and ineptitude of Ashok Gehlot’s government on issues of governance. It is a government that moves only when compelled by an external force,usually Delhi. But the state’s political discourse at the moment displays a bankruptcy that portends ill for the state. It is also a political culture marginalised from national trends.

Rajasthan’s politics was seldom deeply progressive. But it had a culture of gentility that allowed for democratic amplitude. The great Jat leader,Parasram Maderna (father of the disgraced former minister,Mahipal Maderna),once famously refused to engineer the downfall of the minority Shekhawat government on the grounds that Shekhawat was ill and undergoing treatment,and he preferred to fight his battles chivalrously and face to face. The great Jat families,the Mirdhas,Madernas,and even Shish Ram Ola were genuine democratic synthesisers,confident of their own power to rise above a daily pettiness. The influence of those families persists. But the protocols of grace and moderation have gone. What remains is the arrogance of family power without the grace of family values. Even Bhairon Singh Shekhawat,the quintessence of a politician,squandered his legacy,trying to promote less enlightened kinsmen.

The inability of these powerful families to make a transition to a more enlightened politics was reflected in another enduring trait of Rajasthan politics: its profound anti-intellectualism and its resistance to ideology. Politics has been brutal everywhere,particularly in UP and Bihar. But even in those states,two trends were remarkable. First,there was a genuine ideological efflorescence: think of the lasting impact of Lohia in UP or JP in Bihar. Second,even the most venial and corrupt of politics was tied to some large narrative of social reform,self-respect or justice. Think of the BSP. Rajasthan’s politics has remained peculiarly resistant to either broad-based social movements or a self-conscious ideological discourse. All that is left of politics is a peculiarly narrow-minded caste arithmetic,strangely unconcerned with any of the larger and profound changes sweeping the nation. It is a collection of small fiefdoms marginal to the great national debates. But it is also proving very difficult for any leader to acquire state-wide authority.

The laid-back and almost narcissistic character of its politics has had a real price: Rajasthan’s economic performance has been below average,with very little volatility,except for a brief spike upwards around 2005. Its social indicators creep up at a snail’s pace. State finances were rescued in part by oil royalties that are 1.4 per cent of the state GDP. There is virtually no meaningful debate over development pathways for the state. There is directionless change. Vasundhara Raje was a bit of a disruptive force in Rajasthan politics. She had a peculiar high modernist vision of development and was at least unsettling things. But presumptuousness,charges of corruption and the endless pettiness of her own party did her in.

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Ashok Gehlot is palpably sincere,and he has a genuine ability to keep backward castes within the Congress fold. But he has the completeness of a limited politician that makes him incapable of real change. His developmental vision is limited to implementation of a couple of government schemes. In areas like higher education,he has actively frittered away any comparative advantage the state might have had. He has a real distrust of ideas and has encouraged mediocrity. He does not have either of the traits that great developmental chief ministers have had: a willingness to experiment and an ability to take decisions. C.P. Joshi has a quick and street-smart understanding of both administration and politics. But there is a perception in the party that he is too clever by half to draw the support of a wide constituency. Sachin Pilot potentially has ideas,and a different brand of politics. However,his ability to navigate the thicket of group politics at the state level is yet to be tested. But experience has shown that Congress legislators usually fall in line with the party high command’s wishes. Unless Gehlot miraculously re-engineers himself,or the Congress takes the risk of change,the state is facing a leadership abyss. And the Congress may face a potential rout.

This leadership abyss matters for two reasons. In the absence of decisive leadership,state power is now dominated by endless corruption. Corruption can often be associated with dynamism,but in Rajasthan it is now aligned to stagnation. To be fair to Gehlot,he got perhaps the most mediocre cabinet in the history of the state. But the real tragedy is that even if he were to replace all of them,he would struggle to find talent in his party.

The underlying social trends suggest that the state is at a decisive cusp. If one were not to put too fine a point on it,the state’s economic strategy has been its geography: tourism,mining and now oil rents. But parts of the state have a severe agrarian crisis in the making. More importantly,as the Gujjar agitations have time and again reminded us,the state can potentially be a ticking time bomb in terms of its youth politics; Bharatpur was another reminder of violence lurking beneath the surface. Rajasthan has to now put in place a development strategy that can measure up to this demographic challenge. Other states have this problem as well. But the one unintended consequence of the narrowing horizons of Rajasthan politics has been the narrowing of social and ideological space in the state. Few exceptions apart,the state has become more,not less,parochial in its outlook. While Rajasthan politics never mattered nationally,its administrative cadre was unusually influential. It is perhaps a measure of its growing irrelevance that its ability to tap into a wider discourse at the Centre has also diminished. Rajasthan also has an extensive diaspora. But the exit of its forward-looking middle class has left the state even more a prisoner of local obsessions.

The irony,of course,is that Rajasthan,at one level,is a laboratory of civil society. From the MKSS to Seva Mandir to Jaipur Foot,Rajasthan tops any list of civil society experimentation. But there is a sobering lesson here. That civil society experimentation has not been able to arrest a deepening political coarseness or rot in the administration. The Congress needs to do something imaginative to shake the state out of deep administrative stupor and endless political drift.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,express@expressindia.com

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