The flexibility of sacrificing a pawn in the short run in order to win the game in the longue duree is good thinking in chess and in parliamentary politics. In electoral politics, resignations, though risky, can end up being a smart move, a wily tactic as a planned retreat and win the war. Resignations rarely signal a deeper democratic morality, of admitting responsibility for bad faith and being accountable for wrongdoing.
As a tactic, an exit can mean a victory; hanging on to power can mean defeat. In Arunachal Pradesh, Nabam Tuki resigned as chief minister and secured the legitimacy of the Congress, under Pema Khandu, as the government in power. In doing so, the Congress has occupied the moral high ground and defeated the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s plans of taking over the government. The swiftness of David Cameron’s resignation after losing the non-binding referendum on leaving the European Union was admission that he had read the tea leaves wrong. His exit messaged the voter that he was not the man who could lead the country or his party through the transitions and changes that would follow. The will of the people was seen to be heeded and the Conservative Party revealed a ruthless preference for the politically fittest, Theresa May, over other more flamboyant, contenders.
The principle that nobody is indispensable was confirmed in both instances. Politically, it would have been crippling and expensive if the Congress or the Conservative Party had politely allowed the inevitable to unfold in slow motion. These are reassuring signals that democratic politics, inside the rarified ecosystems of political parties, albeit occasionally in the Congress party, is alive, ruthless, efficient and active.
Being forced out of office – as Jayalalitha was temporarily, after the lower courts found her guilty of corruption, or when A Raja exited as Telecommunications Minister from the first United Progressive Alliance government – are politically embarrassing. Resigning voluntarily because a leader or minister believes himself or herself to be accountable when things go wrong is an entirely different matter. That requires believing that a minister is accountable; it is an ethical choice made on the basis of a troubled conscience. Sometimes, it has been difficult to pin point why a minister has resigned; did Mamata Banerjee resign in 1993, 2000 and 2001 as a matter of principle, because she was plagued by a troubled conscience? Or, did she quit to give herself room for political manoeuvre? There are rare instances of accountability as in September 1956, when Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned after a railway accident.
It requires an admission of bad intentions, of misuse or abuse of power, office or even leadership roles. Exiting because of a political miscalculation is significantly different; its purpose is tactical, even if that is risky, and it is certainly an aggressive and dramatic gesture made to retain control in situations that seem likely to spiral into chaos.
As a weapon of choice, resignations can appear to be politically absurd, as when Arvind Kejriwal quit after 49 days in his first term as chief minister of Delhi. That he swept back to power implies that the theatrics appealed to the voter, legitimising his claims of launching a new kind of 21st century politics in India. Clever use of exits to outflank the opposition by letting go, forcing a mid-term poll or jettisoning an individual makes practical political sense.
However, there are occasions, as when principles or foundations of democratic politics are undermined, when wrong doing needs to be accounted for, that the political class faces a tough test. Most flunk it. Misleading the public through brazen misuse of power as has the Modi government and the BJP did in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh by first manipulating legislators from its political rival and trying to reduce a majority government into a minority one and then using the controversial Article 356 of the Constitution: “failure of constitutional machinery in State”: as a weapon of destruction. Ironically, it is the BJP in 2003 that steered the changes to this most contentious provision, citing the unconstitutional dismissal of the S R Bommai government of Karnataka.
Because the BJP worked to put strong curbs on the misuse of Article 356, its own wrong doing in using the emergency provision under Article 356 in Arunachal Pradesh that the Supreme Court described as a “thrashing given to the Constitution and a spanking to governance,” is probably one instance when it is morally necessary to pay a penalty for ravaging the institutions of democracy.
The Modi government’s record in “trashing the Constitution and vandalising the principles of governance” by recommending President’s Rule in the two states cannot go unaccounted. The stigma of impropriety has diminished the office of the President of India as well as Governors. Since the Arunachal Pradesh intervention followed soon after the Uttarakhand misadventure, these together add up to deliberate and calculated misdemeanours by the Narendra Modi government and the BJP against legitimately elected governments.
If Cameron voluntarily resigned because he failed to gauge the mood of the nation, there is a lesson in it for the Modi government for trying to tamper with the people’s choice. Those who proposed the move and those who executed it need to pay up. As much as Rajnath Singh and D V Sadananda Gowda, the legal eagles of the BJP are responsible for the violations that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional. Even Modi is tarnished by these misdeeds.
Instead of monotonous moralising on Sunday mornings because the government owns national television and radio networks, Modi may consider that his own actions speak louder than his words. Having encouraged backdoor manoeuvres to unseat an elected government by his henchman and BJP party boss, Amit Shah that singularly and spectacularly failed, Modi should calculate what it has cost him, politically and personally.
The BJP leadership failed in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh to buy up support for its grab power quick plans. It was stymied by the Supreme Court and legislators. What this means is that the BJP revealed its greed, demonstrated its disdain for the law, spent a lot of money but failed to nail it. It bungled. If the BJP lived by the policies it advocates – ease of exit and entry – then Amit Shah as the mastermind should have by now found himself outside the door. Since he, his party and his leader are more inspired by the politics of cult, which is fundamentally autocratic, than its past healthy convention of regular changes in leadership through a competitive democratic process, nobody in the BJP expects them to pay up for making a mess. When the BJP abandoned its own rules on inner party democracy it gave up on its freedom to fire the boss.
For the Indian political class, the culture inside the big, national parties is reverence to the leader who can attract more voters, even if the number of votes do not add up to winning in elections. This is how it works in the Congress, which is too scared of allowing power and control to pass to anyone outside the dynasty because even now Sonia Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi and the addition of Priyanka Gandhi is a more winnable proposition. It is an entirely different matter that the combined efforts of the Gandhis have not made Congress into an election winning machine. If the Congress were to follow the “hire slow,” which it does by promoting only the middle aged as office bearers and “fire fast” norms of Silicon Valley’s successful enterprises, it may win more times than it loses in the elections.
The regional parties, almost all of which are vehicles for some form of identity politics, be it caste or language or ethnicity, are no better. The founders have established dynasties to ensure succession in most places, and where continuity through the bloodline is not possible it is anybody’s guess as to what will happen to the voters who loyally supported the party. In most cases, the lowest and highest appointments within these parties, is made on the basis of DNA or other connections, not efficiency or credibility.
Confusing democracy with destiny and dynasty, which is what happens in every instance in India’s jumble of multiparty politics, indicates a cynical disregard for the voter’s need for responsible government. Instead of an opaque practice of dynastic succession a la the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Lok Dal where DNA counts for more and competence is assumed for anointed appointments, will the choice of leaders be made in a democratic and transparent contest? Can the DMK survive without a Karunanidhi? Can the AIADMK exist without Jayalalitha? There was a chance in 2014, when it could have tried, after Jayalalitha was found guilty in the disproportionate wealth case. But that opportunity ended after a trail court cleared her name and she came racing back top Chennai and power in 2015. Her victory in the 2016 elections confirms her legitimacy.
In a democracy with a multi-party political ecosystem, survival must be of the fittest. Failure ought to mean exit. Resignations should happen, forced or voluntary, if the leader botches it so that others can get a chance at clearing it up. What matters is not the person, but the principles of democracy and good faith within the government and inside the party. Conducting politics by any measure other than hire slow and fire fast is inefficient, expensive and entirely expendable.