Musical Chairs In India

April 25, 1997|By Ranjan Gupta

NEW DELHI -- India's politics increasingly resembles a game of musical chairs. When the music stopped this time, Inder Gujral, an elderly technocrat with no political following, was sitting in the prime minister's seat.

His elevation, at the head of a patchy, 13-party coalition, demonstrates that two past features of Indian political life -- tall leaders and monolith parties -- are gone. What replaces them? Either a very loose federal structure with the states ruling the roost or a complete revamping of the political structure, leading to a presidential system.

The system is cracking because there are no parties or people who can offer alternatives of ideology, policy or even stability. One tottering government is replaced by another. Exit Deve Gowda, enter Mr. Gujral, while 900 million Indians grow increasingly restive.

Normally an election sorts things out, but the three national parties, the United Front Coalition, Congress and the BJP, don't want to face the electorate. There is nothing to decide -- no matters of policy or ideology, that is, only issues of ego and ambition.

So politics becomes decentralized and power resides in regional parties with strength only in their own states. The regional leaders bully and cajole and, this time, settled on Mr. Gujral. His weakness is his strength: He has no political base or following whatsoever. He was a parliamentary back-bencher most of his career, a man seen more at seminars than political gatherings. He threatens no one, and at 78 years old he has little future. Mr. Gujral is doomed to be an enfeebled prime minister.

Yet, can a decentralized system with conflicting claims really work? Why should a politician of Bihar state in the east think of the interests of Kerala in the south when he has no political stake in Kerala? Nor is there a single political personality who can bridge the gaps and through his stature unite the country to work efficiently.

Despite its size and diversity, Indian history is filled with strong, centralized leaders whose writ has run from top to bottom. This was so with the Hindu kings, the Moghul emperors and the British colonialists. Decentralization on a large scale is unknown to Indians.

As the prime-ministerial system breaks down, a presidential form of government could be the answer to the crisis. An elected president who heads a national government of all parties could be one solution. Currently, presidents are indirectly elected by members of Parliament and the state assemblies. They have always been ceremonial figures, overshadowed by strong prime ministers. But the system may be reversing; already the presidency is taking on a king-making role.

A directly elected president with executive power would require a person of extraordinary standing. He would be virtual ruler of India. It would be easy to become authoritarian. There is no personality on the horizon in whom Indians feel they can repose so much trust. But increasingly it is felt that a presidential form of government must be the answer to the present deadlock. Demoralization already is felt in the military and civil service.

The Communists are now the strongest component of Mr. Gujral's United Front because only they are unified. The prime minister, an old-style Fabian who started his career as a member of the Communist Party, has their backing. He has only acquiescence from the regional bosses within the other parties, whose main aim was to checkmate each other.

Mr. Gujral has been external-affairs minister twice and was ambassador to the Soviet Union. His policies toward Pakistan have been controversial. Some Indians think him conciliatory toward India's Muslim neighbor -- perhaps affected by nostalgia, for he grew up before India's 1947 partition in Punjab, which now is in Pakistan.

Mr. Gujral is familiar with the modern world and can carry on a conversation in English. As foreign minister he tilted India's policies toward Iraq during the Persian Gulf war. More recently, to the chagrin of the United States, he befriended Iran. His foreign-policy pronouncements have an old-style anti-Americanism that harks back to the Cold War years.

To survive, Mr. Gujral will have to ride piggyback on party bosses, particularly the chief minister of Bihar, Laloo Yadav, who helped get him chosen. He also provided Mr. Gujral his seat in the upper house of Parliament. Many suspect that it will be Mr. Yadav who will be pulling the strings from behind Mr. Gujral's back.

But then people like Mr. Gujral, despite their talent, have no choice but to find a political mentor with a power base to get elected in the highly populist politics of India. And party bosses need people with sophistication like Mr. Gujral to articulate their views.

Sometimes these arrangements come to sad ends. The finance minister in the outgoing government, P. Chidambaram, ushered in India's free-enterprise experiment and produced a "dream budget" to further economic liberalization, but his mentor, G.K. Moopanar, the leader of the Tamil Maanila Congress, refused to participate in the new government after he was denied the job of prime minister. Mr. Chidambaram is now out in the cold. It is a delicate balance, and both boss and protege have to follow the rules of the game.

The new prime minister has limited options. He has to keep all his benefactors happy and see that he does not lose his job. India will limp on from day to day under a succession of weak governments.

Ranjan Gupta is an Indian political commentator.

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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