Survival as politics

Survival as politics

UPA manages numbers and sheds excess weight to remain in power.

UPA manages numbers and sheds excess weight to remain in power. But lack of legitimacy turns small issues into major crises

Elections are in the air. The strenuous denials of Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari while launching the UPA’s propaganda blitz,and the studiously low-key filing of nomination papers to Rajya Sabha by Manmohan Singh from Assam,make the point. We are now into the last days of the current regime. The best,and possibly fairest,image one can have of this government is the one used by Charles Napier (1782-1853) to describe the Indian peasant: “He stands in neck-deep water with his feet firmly shackled to the ground; the tiniest ripple can drown him”. The daily struggle for survival has made UPA 2 resilient. The litany of crises — the Anna Hazare movement,the cascade of corruption scandals,the Delhi gangrape and its hysteric aftermath,and the spat with the Supreme Court regarding documents submitted by the CBI — bear this out. Not to be outdone by the domestic tormentors of the UPA,India’s neighbours have seen their chance and joined in,China with yet another stab at a land grab and Pakistan showing its bureaucratic face to the ordeals of Sarabjit Singh,indifferent to the tribulations of the UPA. In each of these crises,like the peasant,the government has been a survivor,ducking and holding its breath for the immediate crises to blow over. Clearly,this government will serve its term to the end. Two questions that immediately spring to mind are: how does the government do it,and what is the price to pay for survival as the paramount goal of politics?

Regarding the first question,the government manages the numbers through an adroit canniness in drafting support to balance the new “aaya rams and gaya rams” of Indian politics,trading off a Mamata for a Mulayam,or a Jayalalithaa for either of the two. And those crying out loud against the unprincipled politics of the UPA are the first ones to put the logic of survival over principle,and are loath to let the advantage of bailing out a beleaguered government pass to their adversaries in other regions. In this merry-go-round of political promiscuity,everyone keeps a straight face,taking comfort from avoiding the fall of the government,which could usher in the instability of the mid-1960s or mid-1990s. The subtext to all this,of course,is to keep the BJP from gaining any electoral advantage,whose chosen strategy of retaliation has been to disrupt Parliament,drowning out any scope for serious exploration of alternatives in a din of opportunity theatricals and seriously undermining the most important institution for public debate and accountability. If survival is the art of politics,then UPA 2 will be remembered as the leader of the pack,for India’s regional satraps have replicated precisely the same strategies. All of this has been accepted in the name of TINA — that quintessential,all-conquering logic of Indian politics — there is no alternative!

UPA 2 has mastered the art of managing numbers and the nimble-footed shedding of excess weight in order to survive. What it lacks is legitimacy. This produces a deficit of trust and transforms tiny issues to major crises. If they do not add up to the Indian equivalent of the Arab Spring,it is because India’s countervailing forces are much more numerous,and the safety valve of the next election holds back the deluge. The consequence of governmental stability combined with non-functioning governance is a form of contained volatility of the public. Anger builds up,the lid is pushed open for a quick release and the lid falls back — thus demonstrating the power of the conservative dynamism of the Indian system. It is a system caught in a low-level equilibrium trap. And for the country as a whole and,particularly for those without power,money or connections,who are not players but playthings of the players,the price in terms of opportunity costs — of major legislation denied,delayed or improperly passed,and missed opportunities in the international market,is enormous.


In the run-up to the next general election,Indian politics exudes a sense of dangerous and damaging immobilism. Watching UPA 2 and the NDA locked in a daily scuffle,one gets the impression of two gladiators engaged in a defensive battle,where each waits for the other to make a mistake. Neither dares take a public stance on its core ideological arguments,nor risk a position on the main issues facing India’s security,growth,South Asian regional integration,governance,citizenship or for that matter,the definition of the country’s collective identity. Policy paralysis combined with office-seeking is perhaps the price of the Indian way,but that does not impress Standard and Poor’s,which is holding the prospect of downgrading it to the status of junk bonds.

These daily jousts are a convenient ploy for the main political parties to avoid serious debate on alternatives that could generate new ideas,explore deeper layers of Indian politics and contain serious long-term damage to public institutions. Under the shadow of the moribund Parliament are the deprived masses,toiling away with antiquated tools and poor infrastructure,their anger swelling at the publicly funded UPA 2 version of the NDA’s “India Shining”. The opportunity cost of this till the next elections is a cause of grave concern. Might a caretaker government — which could give the government and the opposition an honourable way out of the present impasse of their own making — not be preferable to the wasteful status quo?

The writer,professor of political science on sabbatical from Heidelberg University,Germany,is currently affiliated to Centre for Law and Governance and JNIAS,JNU