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On the way down

Four instances,two questions. <font color="#cc000">•</font>Indira Gandhi is able to block the implementation of the Allahabad High Court....

Written by Arun Shourie |
July 14, 2009 11:00:32 pm

Four instances,two questions.

&#149;Indira Gandhi is able to block the implementation of the Allahabad High Court judgement by changing — with retrospective effect no less — the law under which it held her guilty of corrupt electoral practices;

&#149;Rajiv Gandhi is able to use his control over three-quarters of the House to block all inquiry into Bofors.

Do these instances testify to the strength of Mrs. Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi? Or to the weakness of the political system?

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&#149;Scores and scores of committees and commissions have been set up to reform the civil services; the services have continued exactly as they have been.

&#149;Subsection 3 of Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act lists a number of grave crimes,and provides that if a person is convicted for any of them,he shall be disqualified for six years,and,if he is imprisoned,for a further six years after his release. The next subsection reduces this provision to a nullity. It provides,“Notwithstanding anything [in the earlier subsections a disqualification shall not,in the case of a person who on the date of conviction is a member of Parliament or the legislature of a state,take effect until three months have elapsed from that date or,if within that period an appeal or application for revision is brought in respect of the conviction or sentence,until that appeal or application is disposed by the court.” The result? In August 2008,four persons come straight from Tihar jail to participate in the confidence vote in the Lok Sabha —persons who are serving life sentences,as they have been held guilty of murder!

How does a gaping crater of this magnitude in the law continue? How are civil services and legislators able to ward off reform so successfully?

Birth to senility


A movement,an organisation is originally inspired by an ideal: to undo what is wrong,to establish what is right.

Whether it triumphs or fails in its initial objective,over the years it becomes a political party.

At its inception,the party too is impelled by ideals. The crusade from which it has taken birth is still vivid,the idealists who led the movement,who then founded it and toiled to raise it are a living presence. Propelled by these memories,the party seeks to change the order,it wants to recast the polity of course,but more: it wants to recast society into the ideals to attain which it has been formed.


Over time,it forsakes this idealism,and becomes a mere electoral machine.

Soon,it putrefies into a machine that fails to win even elections.

Members become increasingly anxious: after all,if the party continues its decline,they tell each other,it isn’t just that the ideals which are its very reason for existence will not be attained,that the transformation for which they have been striving will not come about; but also,their personal fortunes will evaporate. They run from leader to leader,urging reform,a return to ideals. Their efforts go nowhere. The party does not reform. It does not die. It just goes on falling to pieces.

Why does this degeneration take place? Why do efforts to arrest its decline come to naught? By what symptoms may we know that a particular organisation is on its way down?

In one of the greatest works of history,Ibn Khaldun chronicled the founding,rise,decline and eventual disintegration of dynasties. In the introduction to that work,The Muqaddimah,he set out the patterns he had deduced: the abandonment of the austerities of the desert for the luxury and ease of settled courts; the waning of the “group spirit”; the culture of cunning and intrigue within palaces that replaces the valour of open battle… We have but to tweak the conclusions a little and we have the reasons on account of which our political parties moulder and waste away. And that should not surprise us. After all,so many of them are collections around dynasties; so many of them are gangs around individuals; so many of them are — at all levels,from their central offices to their local branches —parties of four/five persons for the projection of four/five persons. Not just the conclusions of Ibn Khaldun,the very words ring true as we see the parties deteriorate and eventually crumble.*


Two suggestions about reading this updated version. Do not rush through it. I have kept examples to a minimum: after a paragraph,recall the examples you know from your own personal experience that fit the words. Second,you will miss the point entirely if you think,“Oh,this is about the BJP… Oh,this is about the Congress…” Instead of concluding that I am out to convey some “hidden meanings” and trying to figure these out,think of your own party or organisation,the party or organisation that you know best,from the inside — the Congress,the BJP,the Communist parties,the regional parties: Telugu Desam,the DMK,the BSP,the AGP. It is then that you will get the point of the updating,namely that the symptoms are true of all our political parties today.

Hence,our real problem: there is nowhere to turn for an alternative.

The orientation,and its consequences


Our system,indeed our society is heavily oriented towards the state. He who occupies offices of state at the moment,receives deference,he is surrounded by hangers-on,by pelf; he gets the opportunity,if he is so inclined,to rake in money: in a word,as they say in Punjab,“the usual pump and show.”

Hence,when the party acquires office,its leading figures acquire all this: deference,pelf,the opportunity to rake in money. As they commence to use these,five things happen:


&#149;Even if they are personally honest,the principals in the government are implicated by association: they have the clear duty as well as the clear opportunity to put an end to the doings of their juniors; they do not do so — this is enough to put them in the position in which,when the evidence of wrong-doing erupts,they have only one option: to defend their colleague. And there is a ready rationalisation for doing so: “How can we desert our colleague when he is trouble?” Suddenly “loyalty” acquires a new meaning: it does not mean loyalty to those pristine ideals; it comes to mean sticking by the colleague — the very one who has departed from those ideals.

&#149;That robs,first,the leaders; then the government; and therefore,the party of its claim that it is different,that is inspired by ideals,that it is in politics not for power and pelf but to recast governance and society in those ideals.

&#149;Being in government is far more exciting than staying back in the organisation: for those still committed to the ideals that had originally enthused the movement and organisation,being in government affords an incomparable opportunity to translate those ideals into practice; for those who are impelled now by other goals — money,“power”,pelf — remaining in the backwaters of the organisation is anathema. Hence the “best and brightest” rush into government. Whether the government as a whole does well because of the few who are still dedicated to ideals or not,the party certainly languishes.

&#149;A distance develops — first between adherents who are still inspired by those ideals and those who have forsaken the ideals; then between the leaders — who are in office and are visibly enjoying the perquisites of office — and the followers; the latter now ask,“These fellows came to office because of us; they have their bungalows,they have their cars with laal batties; what have we got?”

&#149;And distance develops even sooner between the principal leaders themselves: portfolios,size of offices,the ear of the ultimate boss,money — everything becomes a trigger. Comrades become colleagues; colleagues become competitors,rivals. But,in a sense,these spoils can all be managed. That one principal gets more of one thing can be made up by the other being enabled to get more of another. But there is one thing which really is a zero-sum magnitude: prominence. As there is only one front page,if one of the principals is splashed across it,by definition the others are excluded. Distance becomes envy; envy becomes jealousy; jealousy becomes venom. You can see the transformation in the very faces of the principals.

Even by themselves,just these features are enough to cause the party to begin losing its vitality as even an electoral machine.

The leader and his circle

But the leader has done more to weaken the machine. The more power is vested in him,the less secure he feels. Hence,exactly as Ibn Khaldun wrote about the choice of wazirs and successors,in choosing his circle,the leader’s concern is to choose the ones who will least threaten him,who will best advance his dynasty,who will best secure and perpetuate his position — that is,he chooses weak men and henchmen,not ones who will best advance the ideals for which the organisation had been founded. The weaker the man,the more compromised he is,the more dependent he is on the leader. The more unscrupulous the henchman,the more ruthless he will be on the leader’s behalf. Weakness,vulnerability,unscrupulousness become qualifications.

The arrangement works when the going is good. No one now is strong enough to harm the leader. But no one is strong enough — in the sense vital in a democracy,that is of having legitimacy,of commanding esteem — to help him when a crisis erupts.

But there is an even more consequential change: ideals,the commitment to higher objectives,for the interests of the group as a whole,these are restraints,they are the banks that enable a river to flow. When these are replaced by the interests of an individual and his little circle,the only glue that binds – followers to the organisation as much as members of this circle to the leader — is the prospect of spoils. Pillage commences. Legitimacy begins to dwindle.

The leader and his henchmen are unable to stem the decline. Enervated by luxury,by pelf,capable now only of giving directions to others,they are no longer able to toil in the field. They give out calls: “All workers shall hold dharnas at district headquarters against price rise…” “The abhiyaan against the corruption of this government shall be taken to every village,to every hamlet¿” A few desultory meetings are organised. People are bussed in. The abhiyaan disappears as a rivulet in the desert. No one even notices that it has been abandoned. At best,the leader sets out to repeat the performance that had once secured attention — the “struggle”,the fast-unto-death-between-meals,the yatra. But you can’t make the soufflé rise twice: the very fact that nothing was done after the first performance,robs the repeat of all credibility. Some ‘emergency’ is invoked to give up the performance midway.

The leader convenes meetings of his ‘core group’,the ‘working committee’,the politburo. Members of these private coteries hold further meetings with their own private core groups.

Everyone but the ‘core group’

The factor most responsible for the rout has been the state to which the leader and his circle have reduced the party as an organisation,but that is the one factor which the leader and his cohorts will not admit into the discourse. Is the party seen as,is it in fact different from the others? Are its candidates any different? Is every unit of the party not riddled with factionalism? That these are the reasons for the setback is manifest to all. But the leader and his circle would have none of them — for that would immediately raise further questions. The party is no longer different from others? Who has allowed the party to sink to this level where it cannot be distinguished from the very parties it has been denouncing? The candidates are no better than those of the rivals? Who has selected the candidates? Factionalism has been allowed to continue? Each state faction has a line to some ringleader in the central cabal? Who has allowed the factionalism to fester and swell?

They blame others — the rival party; the third party that has stolen their vote; the accidental reason on account of which a section whose vote was to have split got consolidated; the youth; the middle class; the poor who voted on money,the rich who did not vote; the holidays on account of which so many went out of town; the disenchantment with the party’s ally in one state,the absence of an ally in the other; the anti-incumbency factor against us in this state,the advantage that the rival party had in the adjacent state of being in office and thereby being able to use the state machinery; the ‘shameless’ use of money and muscle by the rival… In a word,everyone and everything other than themselves.

(To be concluded)

The writer is a BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha

* For a most instructive read,and to see how not just the patterns but the very words hold true for our times,Ibn Khaldun,The Muqaddimah,An Introduction to History,translated by Franz Rosenthal,abridged and edited by N.J. Dawood,Routledge and Kegan Paul,London,1967.

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First published on: 14-07-2009 at 11:00:32 pm
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