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India is Being Tested


The remarkable Telangana exception to what (for a section) were hugely disappointing election results brings one more renowned city to an important list. Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, and Patna, all five hosting an INDIA bloc government, are now joined by Hyderabad.

We have heard Ramachandra Guha make this point, but it would have occurred to others too, as it did to me. Yet it is not a trivial piece of data. If (as was always possible) Mumbai had been added to the list, that would have given the INDIA bloc command over almost every metropolis in the land. Delhi of course is obliged to cede much of its power to the union government, but that cannot alter the fact that in the most recent state-level election the people of Delhi voted overwhelmingly for AAP.

Even without Mumbai, the six great cities now being governed by the INDIA bloc, along with the major states they administer, comprise a vast, and vastly influential, launching pad for ideas and policies. Many eyes (including the eye of history) will now naturally focus on Maharashtra and on what its astute veteran leader, Sharad Pawar, chooses to do. The election results have added to his importance.

These results, and especially the fact that Telangana swung decisively in the Congress's favour, have also provoked the conclusion of a supposed North-South divide in the country. Yet Kolkata and Patna are not exactly part of South India. Nor are Delhi and Punjab. Nor is Rajasthan, where Ashok Gehlot came close to achieving a miracle. Not to mention Himachal Pradesh with its Congress government. And not to mention Hyderabad's innumerable Hindustani speakers.

The really significant political divide is between the BJP and its allies on the one hand and the INDIA bloc on the other. And the significant political questions are two. What will the Congress's loss in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh do to the INDIA bloc's future? What will it do to the Congress?

The INDIA bloc was a wonderful idea. When the leaders of the bloc's constituents, aware of their history of fighting one another, came together and expressed a joint resolve to protect the nation's democratic institutions and the rule of law, it appeared to be a landmark event.

Coming fairly soon after the formation of the INDIA bloc, November's elections presented an excellent opportunity to showcase unity. Yet there is no evidence that leaders or representatives of INDIA's constituent parties got together to figure out a common approach to the elections. The Congress's failure in North India therefore means that not just the grand old party but the bloc as a whole has taken a hit.

INDIA bachao - I am speaking of the bloc - is now a pressing task.

What about the Congress? The INDIA bloc's non-Congress constituents, the bloc's sympathisers - irrespective of party - and, above all perhaps, the Congress party's booth-level workers have the right to expect a candid analysis of the party's failure in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, including the failure to gauge the voters' mood. If the analysis is truthful and unsparing, then something worthwhile may replace the disappointment that hit so many on December 3. Meanwhile, a couple of things are worth recognising.

One, the INDIA Alliance and the Bharat Jodo Yatra were both inspired moves in a nation that appeared almost helpless in its confrontation with an anti-democratic tide. Backed by seemingly limitless funds and by TV channels thriving on dislike and even demonisation, this tide has threatened to sweep away what Indians have valued in the nation's politics: dignity, decency, and a respect for constitutional institutions and norms.

When leaders of the INDIA Alliance unexpectedly appeared together, each with solid strength in a fair-sized portion of our land (even a chief-ministership in some cases), hope was suddenly aroused. The unpleasant tide could be stopped, people thought. Even perhaps reversed.

And then when the Bharat Jodo Yatra took place, and there was visual demonstration that a leader can walk amongst the people, and listen to the weakest individual, two other hopes sprang up. One, there can be a new politics where actual needs take precedence over mobilized noise.

Two, and this was of critical importance, it became apparent from the Bharat Jodo Yatra that the politics of uniting India, of Bharat Jodo, was in fact a viable enterprise. Dislike and hate and demonising were not the only paths to political success. Indians wanted to go forward together.

Therefore, the Congress's failure in November's elections cuts deep. The disappointment in sections of the Indian public is natural. Yet Bharat Jodo and the INDIA Alliance, though bruised and battered, are not ideas to be abandoned on the street.

In fact, Bharat Jodo may remain the Big Idea needed by lovers in India of democracy, by lovers of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Impressive as the actual yatra was, the idea was bigger. In our 21st century, who knows, the "Knit India" call may prove to be as important as Quit India was in the 20th. Maybe even more so. The Congress cannot claim a copyright on it, and the INDIA Alliance shouldn't neglect it merely because Rahul Gandhi championed it.

This is not to suggest that a caste census or the demands of India's neglected, unemployed millions are unimportant issues for the Congress or for the INDIA Alliance. In fact, the Knit India or Bharat Jodo call would elevate those issues.