Options before the Congress

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IF L.K. Advani’s resignation from all party posts after the Goa conclave announcing Narendra Modi’s appointment as the BJP’s election-in-charge for the 2014 general elections perplexed many, his withdrawal of the resignation the very next day was even more perplexing. The RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and Advani have had a strained relationship ever since the Jinnah controversy when Advani was made to step down as the BJP president. His gradual rehabilitation has not been a smooth one. One will never know what transpired between Bhagwat and Advani, leading to the latter meekly withdrawing his resignation. All one can do is conjecture.

By the time of the Goa conclave, the hype around Modi for PM in the BJP was unstoppable. With Modi skilfully manipulating and exploiting the media to ridicule and aggressively attack the Congress, large sections of the Indian middle class as well as the social media had begun to rally round Modi. Bhagwat, never an admirer of Modi, began to see him as the man of the moment, as did most sections of the Sangh Parivar. Advani, hopeful of stalling Modi’s anointment by skipping the Goa conclave on health grounds, was in for some disappointment. The overwhelming support for Modi at the conclave surprised even the top leadership. For tactical reasons, though not without considerable difficulty, they were able to withhold announcing him as the PM-in-waiting. However, they had no option but to declare him the election-in-charge for 2014. The writing on the wall was clear for all to see.

When a humiliated Advani put in his papers and was summoned by Bhagwat, it is likely that the latter must have pacified him, telling Advani that he was no admirer of Modi either, but was helpless in the face of the groundswell of support for Modi as ‘the man of the moment’ in the party and the Sangh Parivar. No doubt Bhagwat must have assured Advani that even though it was likely that the Congress/UPA were in for a big electoral debacle in 2014, there was no reason to believe that the moribund BJP/NDA would be the main beneficiary of this fallout. The Modi gamble, if it works, might be a game changer and bring the party close to the magical figure of 200 seats, though this does not seem to be a likely possibility. But in any case, Modi could certainly be expected to add at least 25-30 extra seats to the kitty, taking the BJP/NDA decisively ahead of the Congress/UPA. In a hypothetical scenario in which the BJP/NDA has around 160 seats and the Congress/UPA around 140, having a communal Modi as PM wouldn’t work. This would mean that the secular, experienced Advani may finally get to sing his swansong. Being an astute and seasoned politician, Advani wouldn’t quarrel with this fairly plausible scenario. It would be safe to conjecture that he’d decide to quietly withdraw his resignation, keep aloof and allow the BJP to go into the 2014 elections with Team A and Team B, the communal Modi and the secular Advani.

Very soon the media, the Congress and the political establishment in general, walked into this trap. Nitish Kumar fired the first salvo, bemoaning BJP’s sidelining of senior, inclusive leaders like L.K. Advani in preference for the communal Modi and broke off his sixteen year old alliance with the BJP. A debate was sparked off in the media and in political parties around this paradigm, the basis of which was never quite questioned. The rath yatri of yesteryear who, only two decades earlier, had mobilized millions to build a grand Ram temple and had marched to Ayodhya, orchestrating the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, leaving death, destruction and communal riots in its trail, was suddenly metamorphosed into a secular statesman, with many remembering his Pakistan trip and appeal to the Pakistanis to follow the secular ideal of their founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, at the same time propagating the inevitability of democratic, inclusive politics in India.

While Modi’s detractors continue to harp on his role in the 2002 post-Godhra riots which saw the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims in full TV glare and his refusal to apologize or express any remorse even after ten years, his supporters showcase the fact that there have been no communal riots in Gujarat in the last decade. They also emphasize that Modi has become synonymous with development and does not discriminate on grounds of religion or caste, his efficient functioning making him a darling of the corporates. Nevertheless, many continue to believe that Modi’s three successive election victories have largely been on the basis of astute communal polarization and, therefore, willy-nilly, he remains the most potent symbol of communalism/Hindutva for large sections of the country outside Gujarat.

The dilemma of the BJP is that it wants to expand its base and win over large sections of the restless Indian middle class, while at the same time not lose its hardcore Hindutva constituency. This often leads to rather confusing signals by different sections of the party in different regions. Another problem for the BJP and Modi is the steady rise and consolidation of the base of regional parties and regional leaders in the last few decades, a trend confirmed by most of the election surveys that have set up shop and begun early predictions. So if the regional parties are going to be the main beneficiaries of the anti-incumbency afflicting the Congress/UPA, where does this leave the BJP and Modi? It is perhaps due to this that the BJP tactically chooses to play different cards at different times. While one section keeps propelling the Modi juggernaut, the other actively projects Advani as the most experienced, inclusive statesman, best suited to be PM in these difficult times. There are also attempts, as for instance by Shatrughan Sinha, to rebuild bridges with Nitish and woo other regional leaders, so as to be prepared for all eventualities.

What are the options for the Congress in such a scenario? Perhaps one main problem with the Congress is that it has become a bit too used to being in power at the Centre and wants to keep it that way, despite losing its base in one state election after another. So, if after the 2014 elections, a picture emerges in which the Congress/UPA has around 140 seats and the BJP/NDA around 160, yet unable to cobble up a coalition thanks to its projection of a communalist autocratic Modi, the natural instinct of the Congress would be to go in for an unholy alliance with all and sundry, using its hackneyed secular/inclusive credentials. That would be the most shortsighted move on the part of the Congress. Not only will the Congress have no moral authority to head a coalition in such an eventuality, it is unlikely to last very long in power and will further erode the little credibility and narrow base it still enjoys. It will also expose the Nehru/Gandhi-mother/son duo as power hungry.

Political commentators who often attack Sonia Gandhi and the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty’s hold over the Congress, perhaps need to ponder whether the Congress would have survived as a national party had Sonia Gandhi not decided to step in and replace Sitaram Kesri when she did. Had she not, it is most likely that the Indian National Congress would have disintegrated into a multiplicity of contending regional outfits which would only have helped the BJP/NDA to consolidate a right wing/soft Hindutva coalition for a longer duration.

Sonia Gandhi, who still wields control over the Congress and sagaciously refused to accept the role of PM in 2004, thereby considerably boosting her moral authority, needs to revive that moment. If the Congress/UPA gets even one seat less than the BJP/NDA, a most likely scenario, she should accept that as a moral defeat and rather than heading a hotchpotch coalition, try to prop up a third, fourth or any federal front, with outside support from the Congress/UPA. This way she might regain some moral authority which she seems to be fast losing and possibly also have a say in the choice of PM and other ministers. If Sonia Gandhi does not mentally prepare herself for this eventuality, it is likely that a messy horse-trading will inevitably start after the 2014 elections throw up a hung Parliament. In this situation, the BJP/NDA may strategically drop Modi and throw Advani’s hat in the ring, projecting him as an experienced, inclusive and democratic statesman. They could also beat the Congress/UPA in the race for supporting a third/federal front from the outside, perhaps even join it. If this were to happen, the Congress would be in for a long haul out of power, while the BJP and the Sangh Parivar would get a favourable climate to build up a base for Modi and bring down the government when it feels that the time is ripe.

On the other hand, if Sonia Gandhi and the Congress can prop up a coalition with outside support, the party can get an opportunity to consolidate its base, show that it is not power hungry, complete whatever is left of the political education of its heir apparent, convincing the Prince of Denmark to shed his vacillation and assume the mantle of PM, thus fulfilling the long cherished dreams of the Congresswallahs.

M. Aslam

Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Allahabad


Difficult days ahead

THE Congress party along with UPA II has announced its decision for the formation of Telangana as the 29th state of the Indian Union. However, the task of cultivating consensus and acceptance among different political parties and leaders is unlikely to be an easy one. There is a long and complex road ahead to move from the political decision regarding the idea of statehood to a legal-constitutional formation of it. The latter involves layers of administrative mechanisms and constitutional provisions to tide over a messy political process that might take up several months before the new state is finally formed. The formation of Telangana state might prove to be a classical case to exemplify this complex exercise of state formation in contemporary India. In the year 2000 when the three new states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand were created, it took more than nine months between the decision to form these states and their actual formation.

The creation of a state is not simply an administrative order based on certain constitutional provisions. It also involves a host of complex economic, political, legal-constitutional, and social-cultural issues pertaining to the size, shape, boundaries and the entire institutional edifice of the new state. The Congress party and the government in power will have to strike a balance between the constitutional provisions and democratic processes, as well as between a given formal-legal format and the political legitimacy required for state formation in the next few months. As the political process unfolds in the days ahead, we will see how the political mandate given to the representatives of people in the Parliament and state legislature of Andhra Pradesh gets compromised in lieu of the potential political gains and losses accruing from the decision over the question of statehood for Telangana. The effects of this decision are likely to be measured in the results of the forthcoming parliamentary and Andhra Pradesh state assembly election in 2014. We will also see how the Indian state performs the balancing act between sovereignty of the state and the rights of its citizens.

It is important to locate the constitutional provisions which empower the Indian Parliament to form a new state. Article 3 of the Indian Constitution clearly stipulates that the ‘Parliament may by law form a new State by separation of territory from any State or by uniting two or more States or parts of States or by uniting any territory to a part of any State.’ Furthermore, the article also gives Parliament the power to ‘increase the area of any State, to diminish the area of any State, to alter the boundaries of any State and to alter the name of any State.’ In order to balance out the disproportionate powers given to the Indian Parliament in this regard, the Constitution stipulates ‘that the Bill for this purpose will be introduced in either House of the Parliament on the recommendations of the President who will also refer the Bill to the legislature of the state for expressing its views thereon within such period as may be specified in the reference or within such further period as the President may allow.’ It is interesting to note here that the central government can take its own time to discuss the resolution which might have been passed by the state legislature/s for the creation of state/s. The most recent example in this regard is the resolution passed by the Uttar Pradesh State Assembly to divide the state into four smaller states. It was sent to the centre on November 23, 2011 by Mayawati, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, but has not been discussed or proposed in the Parliament yet. In a somewhat similar way, the resolution passed by the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council of Uttar Pradesh to carve out a separate state of Uttarakhand was sent in 1991-92 to the Centre which took almost ten years to finally form the state in November 2000. Both of these cases suggest that the ‘presence of politics’ and the political agitation behind the demand of separate state become significant reasons for either accepting or denying it.

It is important to recall here that the centralizing tenets of Indian federalism enshrined in the Article 3 were seriously discussed, or rather interrogated, in the draft Constitution presented before the Constituent Assembly held on 17 November 1948 by constitutional stalwarts like B.R. Ambedkar, K.T. Shah, Naziruddin Ahmad, M.A. Ayyangar and H.V. Kamath, among others. All of them alerted to the vulnerability of the states under the powerful powers of the centre embodied in the Article 3 of the Indian Constitution, and emphasized the desirability of getting the consent of the people of the state or territory concerned in a democratic manner. Ambedkar and others also criticized extensively the tyranny of majoritarianism inherent in this entire exercise.

The Parliament has enacted over 20 acts under this article related to the formation of various states and union territories since 1955. The 7th amendment on 24 December 1955 to Article 3 was brought in to put all states under one class by deleting the earlier arrangement of states categorized into A, B, C and D. This was in tune with the idea of ensuring uniformity of states created to maintain the procedural representation of people within the framework of parliamentary demo-cracy. Barring special provisions under Articles 370-371 given to certain states, all states were considered to be equal in their status as part of the Indian Union. The seventh amendment also made it obligatory for the President to seek the state’s views on its territorial reconfiguration or re-naming. It also enjoins upon the central government to initiate the consultation of the state/s concerned through President’s order within a stipulated time frame. However, whatever may be the views of the state/s in question on opposing or supporting the proposal, the Centre is not bound by them and can proceed to introduce the bill in the Parliament. Based on the recommendations of the State Reorganization Commission in 1956, fourteen states were thus created by the Parliament under the provisions of Article 3 of the Constitution. The Bombay Reorganization Act, 1960 is an apt example to understand the overwhelming powers of the Parliament in forming new states even when the people of Bombay protested and challenged the decision of the Central government in the Supreme Court. The latter allowed the Parliament’s decision to go ahead with the bifurcation of the Bombay state into two separate states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Any changes brought under Article 3 in terms of the formation of new states will result in the amendment of the first schedule of the Indian Constitution listing the total states and union territories of India. The 1993 case of the Supreme Court of India, issued in the context of the admission of Sikkim as the 22nd state of the Union, tried to draw attention to the ‘constitutional limitations on the power of Parliament as to the nature of terms and conditions that it could impose under Article 2 of the Constitution for the admission of new state into the Union of India’ (R.C. Poudyal and Ors. vs Union of India and others, 10.02.1993).

After having announced the decision on Telangana statehood, the central government can direct it to a Group of Ministers (GoM) to resolve various issues related to the sharing of revenue assets, liabilities, devolution of central funds under different schemes of the Indian Union, sharing of water, forests, power, electricity resources, division of administrative machinery, choice of a capital city and demarcation of boundaries and borders. The Cabinet approval based on the recommendations of the GoM might also see political battle lines drawn between the pro and anti-Telangana parliamentarians irrespective of their political affiliations. The most crucial stage will be when, following the Cabinet consent to the proposal for the formation of the state, the President refers the bill to the Andhra Pradesh legislature for its views. Once again, the Centre’s hold over states is obvious in the fact that ‘the requirement is to consult the legislature. Whatever may be their opinion, it’s not binding on the government.’ Even if the state legislature opposes or fails to pass the motion with a simple majority within a stipulated period, the Centre can still go ahead with its plans of forming the new state.

In the months to come we are likely to see sharp divisions between supporters of Telangana and United Andhra in the Andhra Pradesh assembly, particularly when the resolution for accepting the Union government’s proposal is placed before it. With about 175 members from the non-Telangana region in the assembly of 294 members, acrimonious agitation and violent uproar over the Telangana statehood is likely. However, the draft bill, whether approved or not from the state legislature, will be sent back to the central government, and forwarded to the Home Ministry to prepare a detailed note on it. Subsequently, the State Reorganization Bill will be sent to the Union Cabinet for its final approval before being introduced in the Parliament where it needs to be passed by a simple majority in both the houses. Lastly, the President will have to grant assent to the bill for final enactment. Thus, the script of Telangana story will have to pass through various rites of passage starting from the intent and an idea of statehood to its eventual maturation into a state. Let politics not overtake public reason completely.

Asha Sarangi

Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies,

Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi