I began reading newspapers as a four-year-old while the Emergency was running, impelled in that direction by the story of the socialist activist and actor Snehalata Reddy, who I heard had been treated cruelly in jail and denied medication; by the legend that JP Narayan had already become, and by the dank romance that surrounded the persona of George Fernandes. I was told he was underground, and I dreamed of him for many weeks, flitting through the drains and sewers of the city in a grim raincoat – underground in the only way I could then imagine.
These preliminary experiences of hearsay and reading framed a baby political awareness that persisted for the longest time. It gave me an instinctive dislike of Congress (I), as it came to be known, and of Indira Gandhi. Likewise it filled me with affection for Morarji Desai, and Jagjivan Ram, and Madhu Dandavate, the good George Fernandes, Chandrashekhar, Madhu Limaye, and several other crusty fellers who tended towards being social democrats. I also saw LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee as good guys by association; I knew nothing of their politics.
I remember feeling very upset when I came across one photograph from the 1980 elections where CM Stephen and Vajpayee had squared off against each other for one of the Delhi seats. Congress workers had gone around the city doing something smart – they had planted the hand symbol sideways on BJP posters, like a slap on Vajpayee’s face.
The short-lived Janata Party experiment put me very firmly on that losing side.
In December 1982, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rode down Bangalore’s St John’s Church Road in a motorcade to address an election meeting at Cox Town Gymkhana Grounds for the Karnataka Vidhan Sabha elections. Our whole family went to look at the impressively slow motorcade.
She rode past us eventually in a brightly lit car, and as they approached us, she stuck her head out of the car and smiled and waved. She had the biggest nose I had ever seen. My mother poked me in the side, and said what graceless children you are, she went to all that trouble because you were the only kids out on the street. You should have waved back. I muttered darkly to myself about Emergency victims and went home feeling triumphant and revolutionary.
Years later, I read DH Lawrence write about a chance encounter with a snake, which began in admiration but ended with him seeking to strike it. It left him, he wrote, “with something to expiate; a pettiness”. I remembered this not-waving moment instantly, for these words said what I felt a little after the moment.
The Janata experiment
The Janata Party came to power in Karnataka that year, and ruled fairly well till 1988, when Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde’s regime imploded.
In 1989, there was again reason to cheer, because VP Singh became the leader of the Janata Dal’s stab at a coalition government at the Centre. Such moments of good cheer have never been anything other than short-lived, a pattern that played out again in 1994, when the Janata Dal came to power in Karnataka, and again in 1996, when a Janata coalition came to power in Delhi.
I had begun voting in 1991, and gave my vote hardily to the Janata through the 1990s.
The Janata dream, however, ended in 1996, because HD Deve Gowda decided to leverage his elevation as prime minister to settle scores with Hegde. That set off a collapse from which the party never recovered.
The BJP revealed its true colours in 1986, with its use of the Babri Masjid issue. This process culminated in the demolition of the masjid in 1992. The momentum that this gave the party eventually carried it to power in Delhi in 1998. Its stint in power compelled me to do the unthinkable in 2004. I voted for the Congress for the first time.
This was because right-wing discourse has invariably felt like some invisible hand trying to build a prison cell around me. There was never anything that had attracted me to the Congress, but this nothing was infinitely better than a confining right-wing cage.
The other thing behind this shift was the fact that neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi seemed inclined to the arrant authoritarianism that was the key fault with both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
The 2019 mandate
I have been hastening slowly along the imperfect paths that memory allows to arrive at the present moment. The crushing mandate that the BJP seems to have earned on May 23 will result in much bad prose being written.
The size of this mandate may be an optical illusion, caused by two absences. But before we talk of these absences, let us answer some important questions.
Is the Indian voter an idiot? No. Have they embraced Hindutva? Unlikely, going by other recent verdicts. The Indian voter has been spooked by a constructed idea – the lack of an alternative.
One absence is the lack of a coherent front for the federal impulse. There are so many states where the local overrides the supposedly national. If enough of them were to ally for 2024, there is an ideological coherence that will allow them to offer a Front that can form a government. Imagine if these parties come together: the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Trinamool Congress, the Communists who are now no more than local, the Biju Janata Dal, the Janata Dal (Secular) that have much to answer for in terms of short-circuiting that space in Karnataka, Samajwadi Parry, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal.
This is not as impossible as it sounds, for these groupings can possibly agree to rotate leadership while valuing the federal impulse.
Why should they do this? Because they cannot trust either the Congress or BJP.
The other absence is something that Rahul Gandhi must think about. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah work not by governance, but by 3 Ms – Money, Mobilisation and the Manipulation of institutions. To take on something like this, you need a war machine, and that is something the Congress was deprived of way back in 1996.
The road ahead
The title of the Congress’s wrecker-in-chief belongs not to Rahul Gandhi, nor to Sonia Gandhi, but solely to PV Narasimha Rao, the man who held a coalition together adroitly from 1991 to 1996, but let it fall apart when it became clear that he himself would not be able to wield power for much longer.
Rao was probably a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Trojan horse, looking back on his tumultuous term. For he did nothing to stop the demolition of the Babri Masjid when he could have, and because he put the party into the terminal drift that it has never quite recovered from.
To rebuild the Congress as a credible alternative, Rahul Gandhi must give up the ambition of being prime minister, and focus on being party president for a year or two of homecomings and hard bargaining.
If he can unite the Nationalist Congress Party, the YSR Congress, the Trinamool Congress and the remnants of the Trinamool under one banner, the logical prime ministerial candidate for this new Congress will inevitably be Mamata Banerjee. This is a partnership where he must consent to be junior, while doing the grunt work of engaging the right-wing substantively.
The salvation for the federal and centralising impulses lies in the fact that the right-wing is always going to be reliably short of ideas.
When there are credible, working engines for both impulses, the Indian voter will have real choices, and then the right-wing will recede to the fringes of the political spectrum where it belongs, alongside clouds, ancient cloning mechanisms, fuel-less flying machines, and the collectible tears of cavorting peacocks.
This first appeared on Arul Mani’s Facebook page. It has been lightly edited.