Three individuals passed away this month. All were politicians, although they belonged to three different parties. And to three different regions of India as well. One was a Hindi speaker, a second a Tamil, the third a Bengali. Two had successful careers outside politics; one as a writer, another as a barrister. One practised nepotism occasionally, a second flagrantly, a third not at all.
The life histories of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, M Karunanidhi and Somnath Chatterjee were very different. So were their ideological allegiances. Yet, when viewed in the context of modern Indian history, there is something striking that unites them. This is they all chose to join parties implacably opposed to the dominant party of the day.
Vajpayee and Karunanidhi were both born in 1924; Chatterjee, born five years later, is recognisably of the same generation. All came to adulthood while the Indian National Congress was the major force in Indian politics. They each saw many of their own classmates and childhood friends join the party of Gandhi and Nehru. Yet they themselves did not. As a very young man, Vajpayee joined the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and then the Jana Sangh; Karunanidhi, also as a young man, joined the Dravida Kazhagam and then the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Chatterjee came to party politics much later, in his forties, and when he did, joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The Congress had been hegemonic in Indian politics ever since Mahatma Gandhi’s launching of the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920. When the British left India in 1947, the Congress moved into the corridors of power at the Centre as well as in the states. Gandhi died in 1948, but his successors ensured that the Union survived and the Congress stayed on top. Under Nehru’s charismatic leadership the party won three successive General Elections, as well as a series of Assembly elections in the states (with the loss of Kerala to the Communists in 1957 being a major exception).
In the late 1960s, the political scientist Rajni Kothari wrote a book which spoke of Indian politics as being characterised by the ‘Congress system’. This was a one-party dominant state, so different from the two-party or multi-party systems common in the older democracies of North America and Western Europe. Yet even as Kothari wrote, the Congress system was beginning to unravel. In 1967 the party lost power in many states; and, 10 years later, it lost power at the Centre itself.
The parties to which the three men who recently died belonged played a major part in this undermining of Congress hegemony. Karunanidhi’s DMK routed the Congress in Tamil Nadu in 1967, paving the way for other explicitly regional formations such as the Telugu Desam and the Biju Janata Dal to come to power in their own states in later years. The Communists won Kerala outright in 1967 and won a share of power in West Bengal the same year; they were for many years to be the major force in both states, and in time, in Tripura too. In 1967, the Jana Sangh won the Delhi Municipal elections and was part of coalition governments in several states. Much later, rebranded as the Bharatiya Janata Party, it came to enjoy power for long stretches in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Himachal Pradesh. And it was in power at the Centre between 1998 and 2004.
These three parties changed not just the electoral map of India, but its ideological terrain too. Karunanidhi’s DMK emphasised linguistic and regional pride very strongly, putting a brake on Greater Hindi Chauvinism. In power it began a series of welfare schemes that have since been emulated in other states. Vajpayee’s Jana Sangh/BJP challenged command economics in favour of private enterprise, a Soviet-oriented foreign policy in favour of a Western-oriented one, and secular, non-denominational nationalism in favour of a nationalism inflected by what they saw as Hindu ideas. Chatterjee’s CPI (M) emphasised land reform, gender equality, and anti-imperialism much more strongly than the Congress of Gandhi and Nehru had.
These (and other) challenges to the Congress undoubtedly contributed to a deepening of Indian democracy. With no single party able to set the agenda in most states as well as countrywide, there was a freer play of ideas and a check on authoritarianism and the arbitrary use of power. As leading members of major anti-Congress formations, the three individuals who recently died played their part in this reshaping of our polity.
That is what brings them together, despite their different biographies and ideological affiliations. In ascending order of significance, Chatterjee, Karunanidhi and Vajpayee all helped move India away from a single-party dominant system to a multi-party one.
These three individuals spent their formative years under the shadow of the ‘Congress system’. As they pass the scene, however, we now have what I have called a ‘BJP system’. The party of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is almost as hegemonic across India as the party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi once was. Then, as now, massive electoral dominance has led to a cult of personality and a certain degree of arrogance.
Individual tributes have been paid to the memory of Vajpayee, Karunanidhi and Chatterjee. This column, by taking them together, seeks to point to a larger lesson their lives point to. For all three stoutly challenged the identification of the country with a single party or individual. Now that they are gone, the Republic of India urgently needs 21st century analogues of these three democrats and patriots.