In 2014, a political party that fought against an oppressive regime to usher in a vibrant democracy in a diverse nation faces a challenging election. This is a political party that is associated with a modern-day secular saint whose moral courage fuelled the liberation struggle. This is also a party riddled with corruption, nepotism and hypocrisy. I’m talking about the Indian National Congress.
I’m talking about Gandhi. I’m talking about India. But I could easily be talking about the African National Congress, of Mandela, of South Africa. On 7 May, both Congress parties will be facing general elections. For South Africa, this will be a one-day affair, whilst the Indian election unfolds over nine phases that began on 7 April and will end on the 12 May.
The ANC will never experience the highs that the INC has fallen from, even if Jesus Christ (an oppositionist, to be frank, but the ANC likes to claim him as one of their own) came back. The INC formed the first post-independence with a 96% mandate in the Indian parliament of 1952. We know the familiar post-liberation script. Vision gave way to patronage politics. The party lost its way under the leadership of struggle royalty Indira Gandhi (daughter of first democratic Prime Minister Nehru), who used patronage, then the state’s machinery, to centralise power and sideline independent voices within the party and society at large. The economy meandered along at what was known, derisively, as the Hindu rate of growth, which was inadequate to the developmental challenges at hand. Twenty-five years later, the party tasted defeat at the hands of a coalition of opposition parties.
Late last year, I found myself shuttling between the domestic and the international section of Mumbai International Airport. Having missed the official airline bus, I ended up in a rickety taxi taking the short, unofficial route between the terminals, across a slum, one of many, that have sprouted on the airport’s land. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo describes just such a beleaguered community on the vast grounds of this airport. This strip of land hosts India’s outsiders, those left behind by democracy, the IT boom and Bollywood. Every opportunity that they hope to access has to be bought in cold cash – be it a place for a child to attend a local government school, a public hospital bed, a seat in local government, a small business subsidy or a fair police investigation. Does the legend of the Congress Party still hold any appeal to these poor people, who must have lost all illusions, I wonder?
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which espouses Hindu nationalism, has emerged as the main opposition party. Its leader, Narendra Modi, darling of India’s economic elite, promises to boost the economy, which has slowed down from the heights of its growth surge. His economic management credentials aside, he labours under a cloud as a leader who has condoned, if not sponsored, violence against the Muslim minority in his home state.
Over the years, as opposition voices became more prominent, Congress cranked up patronage and repression, but this has not been enough to stem the rise of new political parties and social movements. Today, on landing on its website, you are greeted by a video clip featuring Sonia Gandhi, mother to Congress’ election leader. The legend has faded and it all comes across as just another party competing for power. The struggle royalty still runs the show, but it is viewed with scepticism, and ambitious entrants into public life take their energies elsewhere.
After 20 years of democracy, the ANC’s centre struggles to hold the disparate threads that make up the party together. With every election, breakaway formations emerge with appeals of economic ‘freedom’, clean and competent governance and service delivery. Like its Indian counterpart, the next thirty years are likely to be a grim battle to preserve itself from fragmentation and ward off new movements. With increasing electoral competition, but with no compelling nation-wide alternative, India has been governed by coalition governments since 1989.
India, despite the strength of its democracy, also provides some cautionary tales. Economist and journalist Pallavi Roy has expounded on some trends on the underside of this democracy that resonate in South Africa already. In the rural areas of India, and in the urban slums, the most excluded have abandoned political contestation for violence as a vehicle to express their frustrations. Often, they are met with even more violence from the government. Another damaging trend has been the failure to meet the masses’ economic aspirations being compensated for by crude identity politics. The Congress party’s attempts to appeal to Hindu nationalism opened up the space for fundamentalist Hindu narratives that cast minorities, in this case religious, as the enemy.
In the murky politics of preservation, or the management of decline, the ANC now tells us that Apartheid, even political Apartheid, is not dead and buried. It warns that the DA will bring back this odious system if it gained power. To watch the party of liberation casting aspersions on the strength and endurance of the constitutional order it, and some members of the DA, brought about is a sorry spectacle. That is its cross to bear. But the prospects for a nation-wide, non-racial, non-tribal and rational alternative to develop are dicey. For now, political entrepreneurs will have to hone their deal-making and coalition-building skills. Five more years before we hit the 25-year mark, and then it’s on. DM
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine