Back in 1957, when the Congress Party was as hegemonic in Indian politics as the Bharatiya Janata Party is today, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari wrote a remarkable essay on the dangers of excessive dominance by one party to democracy. A veteran of the freedom struggle, once a close associate of Gandhi and Nehru, the holder of high political office at both Centre and state, “Rajaji” was increasingly disenchanted with the direction the country was taking under the government led by his erstwhile comrades. He expressed this disenchantment in a magazine essay published in August 1957 to coincide with Independence Day.
Rajaji’s article began: “The successful working of parliamentary democracy depends on two factors; first on a broad measure of agreement among all classes of citizens about the objectives of government; secondly, on the existence of a two-party system, in which each of the big political groups possesses effective and continuous leadership and is strong enough to take over the responsibilities of government when the majority of the country’s voters wish it.”
For if “one party remains always in power,” wrote Rajaji, “and dissent is dissipated among unorganised individuals and relatively insignificant groups which do not and cannot coalesce, government will inevitably become totalitarian”.
At this stage, the Congress had been in power at the Centre for a decade and had been continuously in office in almost all the states too. Observing the complacency and arrogance with which the Congress conducted itself, Rajaji wrote: “A single-party democracy soon loses its sense of proportion. It sees, but cannot place things in perspective or apprehend all sides of a question. This is the position in India today.”
With one party so dominant, continued Rajaji, “it is inevitable that the party should become more important than Parliament... The leader will take decisions in accordance with majority opinion in the party. This may be deemed to be a partial alleviation of totalitarianism, but even this may not happen if the leader be an overwhelming force by himself, in which case the party may not be able to divide itself even within closed doors. The mechanics of unadulterated dictatorship would then operate unhindered.”
Rajaji’s remarks, aimed at the Congress-ruled India of the past, are strikingly relevant to the BJP-ruled India of the present. To be sure, while in absolute control at the Centre, the BJP is not in power in several important states, which may act as a partial check on its totalitarian ambitions. However, at the national level, the Opposition is weak and fragmented. And even more than Jawaharlal Nehru, Narendra Modi seeks to be “an overwhelming force by himself”, his desire to build a personality cult around himself aided by the sort of propaganda machine not remotely conceivable in the 1950s. With the assistance of his home minister, Modi has also subverted and undermined democratic institutions far more systematically than Nehru ever did.
Several months later, Rajaji published a second article on the state of Indian democracy, which he titled: “Wanted: Independent Thinking”. He argued here that “no ’ism will work satisfactorily unless the citizens in the democracy are willing to undertake the responsibility of thinking and judging for themselves.” However, as things stood, “instead of independent thinking and free judgment, the manners of parrots have been growing among men... They repeat the words uttered by the established guardians without paying thought to the meaning and the implications.”
These strictures apply to a fair degree to India today, made worse, again, by the availability of means of communication and indoctrination unavailable to Nehru and the Congress in the 1950s. Consider the sycophantic praise of the prime minister by his ministers and MPs offered daily in the op-ed pages of once reputable newspapers published in Delhi. Consider the English and, especially, Hindi television channels, whose slavish parroting of the government line, and whose whole-hearted participation in building Modi’s personality cult, cheapen and degrade Indian democracy.
Consider also the regular barrage of carefully-choreographed videos showing the prime minister as a larger-than-life, almost god-like, figure, blessing athletes or inaugurating projects or playing with peacocks. Consider, finally, the cut-paste tweets of the bhakt brigade, likewise part of the malign attempt by the state and the party machinery, to inhibit or discourage citizens from thinking and judging for themselves.
In May 1958, Rajaji had warned: “If subservience and slavish adulation take the place of independent thinking and criticism is never resorted to but with fear and trepidation, the atmosphere quickly breeds the political diseases peculiar to democracy.” Without “the free and critical atmosphere of a well-balanced democracy,” he wrote, India was witnessing “the growth of the weeds of careerism, intrigue and various types of degrees of dishonesty.” Rajaji went on to argue that “an Opposition is the natural preventive for such poisonous weeds. An Opposition is therefore the urgent remedy indicated by the symptoms...”
In this second article, Rajaji briefly spelt out the requirements of an Opposition that might help restore Indian democracy to an even keel. Thus, he wrote: “We need an Opposition that thinks differently and does not just want more of the same, a group of vigorously thinking citizens which aims at the general welfare, and not one that in order to get more votes from the so-called have-nots, offers more to them than the party in power has given, an Opposition that appeals to reason and acts on the firm faith that India can be governed well as a democratic Republic, and that the have-nots will not reject sound reason.”
The next year, at the ripe old age of 80, Rajaji put his precepts into practice by starting a new party called Swatantra whose charter was to free the economy from what its founder called the license-permit-quota raj, to protect individual freedoms, and to forge closer alliances with the democracies of the West. Notably, while opposed to the economic and foreign policies of the Congress government, Rajaji shared Nehru’s commitment to inter-faith harmony and the rights of minorities.
Swatantra mounted a vigorous intellectual and ideological challenge to the Congress. However, neither it nor other Opposition parties were able to make much of a dent in the political supremacy of the Congress. For, as, Rajaji ruefully remarked: “It is the expensiveness of the election campaigns and the monopoly of funds that it commands that chiefly contribute to the Congress Party’s success.” This, again, resonates with the present, when the BJP’s control of the State machinery and the opacity of the electoral bonds scheme (which the Supreme Court has surprisingly not struck down) give the ruling party considerable advantages over its opponents, particularly at the time of general elections.
Some works of scholarship endure and are worth reading decades after they were published. But this is virtually never the case with newspaper or magazine articles, which are usually forgotten very soon after they are published. Rajaji’s essays of 1957 and 1958 are a remarkable exception. For the dangers to Indian democracy, and to India itself, posed by the dominance of a single party are even greater now than they were six decades ago.
While recognising their flaws and insecurities, Rajaji could yet acknowledge that Nehru and his colleagues were “good men”, which is not the sort of description one would use for the men in power today. The BJP of Modi and Shah is ruthless, amoral, and, above all, majoritarian. It is far more hostile to democratic values and democratic practices than the Congress of the Nehru years ever was.
The arrogance of the ruling party and the obsession with building a personality cult around the prime minister are important reasons why, despite two successive majorities, the record of the BJP in office is so dismal on all fronts, leading to a decline in the economy, stresses on the social fabric, and our precipitous fall in the eyes of the neighbourhood and the world. Two terms of BJP (mis)rule at the Centre have cost the country and its citizens dearly. A third term for the BJP might be catastrophic for India.
Our country needed a vital, vigorous Opposition in the late 1950s; and it needs such an Opposition far more in the early 2020s. This, to invoke Rajaji one last time, must be “an Opposition that thinks differently and does not just want more of the same”, an Opposition “that appeals to reason and acts on the firm faith that India can be governed well as a democratic Republic, and that the have-nots will not reject sound reason”.
Ramachandra Guha’s new book, Rebels Against the Raj, is now in stores. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph.