HIMMAT is starting off as a blog by Rajmohan Gandhi who has written on the Indian independence movement and its leaders, South Asian history, India-Pakistan relations, human rights and conflict resolution. His latest book is Modern South India: A History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (New Delhi: Aleph, forthcoming).

Strategic step

In an earlier piece I had endorsed a thought that for 2019 a broad coalition could be both strategy and ideology. Here is an elaboration of that thought.

But first let me recall an instructive lesson from personal history. In the 1977 elections, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the unity of all who suffered in the 19-month emergency that had just ended. (The Mumbai journal I was responsible for, Himmat, had faced pre-censorship, threats, withdrawal of ads, and a fine that we contested in court.)  

I wanted everyone, JP followers, Congressmen opposed to Indira Gandhi, socialists, the Communists, the RSS, and regional parties like the DMK, to come together.

I was not the only one. Much of India (excepting, as we would shortly discover, the southern states) had similar desires, and Indira’s adversaries won a victory that seemed hard to believe at the time, for an intimidated media had conditioned people to expect an Indira triumph. But secret hopes had joined deep longings, and both were realized in February 1977.

In those days there was no cell phone or internet. A Delhi friend related to me (I was in Chennai at the time) how he and others were looking at the ‘Spot News’ display outside a newspaper office on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. Letters manually placed one by one on a board gave the latest news. When, right after the words ‘Indira Gandhi’ had been constructed, ‘D’ rather than ‘W’ emerged, a great shout went up.

Knowing like everyone else that ‘D’ was the start of ‘Defeated’, my friend felt like crying, for a dream that had seemed impossible was being realized. 

Disillusionment, however, was quick to start. Within days it was clear that the ‘big three’, apart from JP, of the 1977 victory, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, and Babu Jagijivan Ram (whose last-minute switch was a dramatic part of the 1977 story), were at daggers drawn. 

Pune’s S. M. Joshi and N. G. Goray, two wonderful lovers of democracy from the socialist stream, and I called on Babuji to request him not to make rank an issue. Whether he would be number two or three was being discussed.

Babuji yielded to our importunity, and that of others, but everyone knows of the Desai-Charan Singh split, of Morarjibhai’s unwillingness thereafter to let Jagjivan Ram be PM, of the fall of the Charan Singh ministry, and of Indira’s triumphant return in January 1980.

At the end of 1989, there seemed another great opportunity in India for democracy to strengthen and for the ordinary Indian to be represented in New Delhi. V. P. Singh had become Prime Minister following a stand against corruption. Two others, Chaudhry Devi Lal and Chandra Shekhar, were influential in the Janata Dal, the new political party of which he had become the leader.

The inability of Singh, Lal and Shekhar to work together produced Singh’s fall in 11 months.  After another 11 months, the ministry that followed, led by Chandra Shekhar, also went. In 1989, I had joined the Janata Dal in high hopes. The failure of the three to stay together deeply saddened me.

By the summer of 1991, not only was the Congress back in power, the BJP had exploited divisions among secular parties and their weaknesses in governance to emerge as the Congress’s biggest challenger. In addition, through anti-mosque and pro-temple campaigns, the BJP had also by this time begun to polarize the Indian population.

Always willing to resume hoping, I responded positively, in more recent years, to the Aam Aadmi Party’s campaign for people’s power. Concerned by sharpening polarization and the declining popularity of secular parties, I was delighted that AAP was taking governance issues rather than communal ones to the Indian street. 

I joined the party, which was kind enough to give me a Lok Sabha ticket (for East Delhi), but all seven AAP candidates lost in Delhi to the 2014 Modi wave. 

AAP’s astounding victory in Delhi’s assembly elections in February 2015, when it won 67 of the state’s 70 seats, was for me an event reminiscent of February 1977. But I was destined to be disillusioned once more. Once again three wonderfully gifted human beings, this time Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, managed not to stay together.

Within days of its historic triumph, AAP split. Yadav and Bhushan were out or pushed out.

Three times between 1975 and 2015, I had left pursuits dear to me, pursuits I enjoyed and found satisfaction from (writing was one; trying to bring people together was the other), in order to strive for larger political changes. Each time there was, initially, a brief fulfilment of hope and then longer-term disappointment. 

Others have had similar experiences, which offer lessons for anyone in politics or the citizenry who values democracy and an inclusive, intimidation-free society.

One lesson, I think, is that intolerance and ill-will are not limited to wild groups different from us. We who want Narendra Modi to listen to the Indian public, are we patiently listening, where we are, to one another? 

Profoundly troubled as we must be by the polarization brazenly promoted by pro-autocracy and pro-zabardasti organizations, do we take care to foster tolerance, forbearance and mutual forgiveness where we are, in our circles, in our pro-democracy, secular political parties and coalitions?

Let’s be a little nicer to one another in our own more enlightened circles, as we think of them, whether in a political party or outside. There are wonderful people wherever we are, people who will go far with encouragement, appreciation and opportunity. People who will fan out and convince fellow-Indians that hating and excluding ‘others’ and finally lynching them is pushing India into a sad place in the world’s eyes.

To find a strategy we don’t have to look far. Encouraging the person next to us may be the first step.

Test for Assam

Transient triumphs