He came, he spoke and he concurred that a billion-plus people put up with appalling chaos in the name of governance. Certainly, a candid confession, that six decades after the formation of the republic—with his family’s genetics and his party’s geriatrics being in-charge for most of these years—the world’s largest functioning democracy denies millions within voice and choice. His acolytes must have told Rahul Gandhi that it was a clever tactic to take the pitch to an abstract level where one can’t be cornered on specifics. To those outside the coterie who expected him to counter with a competitive model—more so since there is a conqueror-in-waiting who promises solutions —the strategy misses the bus.
To the hundreds of thousands waiting to conquer their circumstance, hope seemed a far-away land and despair endemic and perennial. Rahul proffered a prognosis but no prescription. The prognosis of excessive centralisation, the need for decentralisation and an open source government are good in theory. It begs the question: who stalled decentralisation and the empowerment of Panchayati Raj?
On November 22, 1948, the Constituent Assembly debated an entire day to draft Article 40 (originally 31-A). It resolved: “The State shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.” Four decades later, in 1992, Parliament observed that the institutions failed “to acquire the status and dignity of viable and responsive people’s bodies” and passed the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution to re-emphasise Panchayati Raj. Today, 20 years later, the lament continues.
It is not just about panchayats. What is the justification of the Centre controlling and expanding departments clearly on the state list? Should Delhi really be telling states how to spend the allocations? And these past nine years have seen further centralisation, resulting in the wrenching of power from states. Obviously, the 776 MPs and the 4,000-odd legislators—decision-makers who according to Rahul are selected by 200 people in various parties—are not invested in the theory of decentralisation.
Politics has since the 1950s migrated from voluntary participation to a profession to a business and now it is virtually the CSR arm of businesses owned by politicians. And this business is sustained by the power of discretion. Across parties the defining factor about politics is the impermanence of ideology and the permanence of pelf.
The idea of decentralisation will disrupt this business model of politics and politicians. Which raises the question: Will the Congress itself allow Rahul to decentralise? As his father said in the famous “power-brokers” speech in 1985: “A convenient conscience compels individuals to meander from ideology, to ideology seeking power, influence and riches.” What about intra-party decentralisation—can either the Congress or Rahul himself survive intra-party decentralisation?
It is true that a majority of Indians tend to expect an avatar/messiah to resolve their problems. It is also true that Indians tend to individualise success and institutionalise failure. History is witness that every transformation in India has arrived amid institutional failure engineered by politics and driven by the individual courage of people like C Subramaniam and Verghese Kurien. The point to recognise is that frequently individuals in leadership have failed institutions. Can the Congress honestly deny this? What does one make of Digvijaya Singh’s assertion of the failed model—did the party fail the institution of prime minister or did the prime minister fail the institution?
The repudiation of one-man-as-the-solution is welcome. To succeed, India must put its faith in institutions. Yet, it cannot be denied that leadership is about iconic stature. From Mahatma Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru at first and then from Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress sustained its relevance deploying the power of personality. Congressmen themselves are unable to function within their beehive sans a Gandhi. Post-Narasimha Rao, they needed Sonia Gandhi to resurrect them. In Jaipur recently, they have showered public adulation on her son as he symbolically mounted the white charger to present the promise of personality as an alternative.
Addressing businessmen, Rahul described irrelevant questions as “smoke” but failed to send up even a smoke signal about what he proposes for an economy enduring a government suffering from bipolar disorder for nine years. Asking business to deliver without instruments of growth is akin to expecting bees to collect honey from wilting flowers. There is irony in the use of the metaphor of the beehive to represent the promise of young demography when a large chunk is looking for jobs. To the middle class in the audience and watching on TV, it could also symbolise a harsh truth about a regime that smokes out the bees and collects the honey to sustain a nanny state of entitlement to sustain power.
Tactics, strategy and optics of impact aside, India must welcome the opening up of political discourse. But politics cannot only be about abstract ideas. It must also be about specifics. The discourse that India needs is not only about the nature of leadership but also the kind of state that governs us. It is true that the poor need boats to benefit from the rising tide. But real compassion would be in helping them to make those boats. What Indians across the political and class spectrum need and deserve is empowerment, not crippling entitlement.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change