Since then, the phrase has haunted me. I have often reflected on the phrase, and I reflect now, more than ever, after the election campaign has been launched by the political parties. A special trigger has been the yatra undertaken by Mr L K Advani.
Mr Sunil Khilnani quotes Jawaharlal Nehru who wrote that India was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. Mr Khilnani (who is Director, South Asia Studies, John Hopkins University, Washington) thinks that that metaphor captures like none other Indias past and present reality. And he expresses his fear that the metaphor is itself in danger of being hidden and erased.
Why According to Mr Khilnani, the Indian idea has today its own ground zero at Ayodhya. He points to the rival claims of not only the Muslims and the Hindus, but also to claims made by Jains and Buddhists. The BJP (and its parivar) has put forward a farcical misinterpretation of the history of India: that the layer of Muslim thought and reverie had wiped out the original Hindu foundation of India and, therefore, the excavation of the temple of Ram alone would restore the domination of the Hindu identity and values.
Mr Advanis first yatra marked the beginning of a new and sad chapter in Indian politics. For the first time an Indian political party had openly adopted a divisive and exclusive agenda. The question on everyones mind was Will it succeed The Advani thesis gained more and more support in every successive election held in 1989, 1991 and 1996. By 1996, the BJP was in striking distance of capturing power. In fact, it did, and hanged on to power by a slender thread for 13 days, before other political parties ousted the BJP.
If the BJP, which captured power alone (albeit for 13 days), had succeeded in remaining in power for even a year, it would have altered the course of history. If the other political parties which ousted the BJP and installed the United Front government had allowed that government to continue for a full term of five years, that also would have altered the course of history. Out of its frustrating experience, the BJP learned a valuable lesson that it will not be able to capture power without befriending other ambitious political parties. After their success in ousting the BJP government, the mainstream political parties forgot the important lesson that they have to hang together if they should not be hanged separately.
The result was that the BJP gained further strength in the 1998 election. However, after 13 months in government, when it was forced to face another election in 1999, it discovered, to its utter surprise, that it faced a glass ceiling.
The number would not move beyond 182. That is when the BJP invented the principle of a post-election coalition. It gladly welcomed political parties that had fought against the BJP in the election and accommodated them in the coalition government. I had once described the BJP as the most promiscuous party in India. Recent events have confirmed that opinion. If the DMK left the BJP-led alliance, the BJP lost no time in sewing up an alliance with the AIADMK. If the Lok Dal (in Haryana) turned out to be an albatross, the BJP has no hesitation in opening a dialogue with the Haryana Vikas Party of Mr Bansi Lal. If without the discredited AGP it would be difficult to defeat the Congress, the old ties with the AGP could be restored.
The BJPs gameplan is clear. Play the coalition game with all and sundry as long as necessay, until one day when the BJP can come to power on its own strength.
The Rival Idea
There are other political parties who have a very different Idea of India. That India must be an inclusive nation, that India must celebrate its diversity, that all Indians must be encouraged to develop an Indian identity even when they are proud of their respective languages or religions. Their Idea of India is of a nation where no one value or institution will dominate over others. If their Idea of India should prevail, they should also build an alliance.
Elections 2004 will witness a clash of the two Ideas. Because ambitious political leaders are willing to subordinate their Idea of India to their desire to win political power at any cost, sometimes the contest may not appear to be a clash of two rival Ideas. Besides, the presence of right leaders in wrong political formations or wrong leaders in right political formations will also tend to confuse the electorate. Two political parties sharing the same Idea of India may fight each other in one state and fight together in another state, and thus add to the confusion among the voters. The election battlefield will not be the clear playing ground where two teams, in distinct colours, battle against each other. It will be a maze of contradictions and confusion. Yet the voter must find his or her way through this maze, and vote for a party or candidate of his or her choice.
Which Idea of India will prevail lies, ultimately, in the hands of the voters. Last week I had asked you to vote as homo economicus. This week, I would like to ask you to ponder over one question before you vote and that is What is your Idea of India How many are there in India who believe that the Hindu religion and Hindu institutions must dominate and wipe out every other thought and reverie And how many are there in India who believe that the Idea of India is larger, more elevating and more inspiring than the concept of Hindutva and that India, in the twenty-first century, must inscribe another layer of thought and reverie without erasing what had been written previously
When you vote for a party or a candidate, please remember that you are voting for your Idea of India.
The author is a former finance minister