Sanjay Kumar

Indian Decade writer Sanjay Kumar answers readers’ questions about the Indian elections, Rahul Gandhi and the country’s biggest social problem.

Sumit Gupta (LinkedIn):
Were you surprised that Congress did so badly in the assembly elections last week?

For someone who has been at ground zero in Uttar Pradesh, and followed the election campaigns in different states very closely, it was really surprising to see the poor performance of the Congress.

This was an opportunity for the Congress to gain the political initiative lost last year in the midst of corruption scams and popular agitation by the social activist Anna Hazare. The party was widely believed to be in a position to seize control in Punjab, where the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal-led coalition government was weak due to widespread corruption, a lackluster administration, slow economic growth and the internal revolt in the ruling party by the chief minister’s nephew, Manpreet Badal, who formed a separate party, the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP).

For any opposition party, this was an ideal situation to exploit and return to power. But despite such a favorable situation, the Congress didn’t capitalize. Political analysts say that the new party, PPP, cut into the Congress vote. The traditional voters for the Congress, the lower caste Dalits, also seem not to have backed the party this time.

More than the failure in Uttar Pradesh, though, the failure in Punjab has really demoralized the Congress Party. Congress leaders in Delhi are still clueless as to why they lost despite being the frontrunner.

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In Uttrakhand, the Congress managed to form a government, but it was a pyrrhic victory for the party. The party couldn’t defeat the highly unpopular BJP government convincingly; it just managed 32 seats, one seat more than the BJP in that house of 70.

It seems that the electorate has punished the Congress for its alleged bad performance in Delhi over the last couple of years. Analysts say that the last minute change of guard by the BJP and the appointment of Bhuwan Chandra Khanduri, a man with a clean image, helped the ruling party to recover some of the ground it lost and give the Congress a tough fight.

In Goa, a small western state, the result wasn’t a surprise. The Congress government wasn’t popular there. There was also deep infighting within the party.

But Uttar Pradesh was the real surprise. Everyone seemed sure, even seasoned political analysts, that the party was going to improve on its performance significantly. This assessment was based on Rahul Gandhi’s campaign and the response he was getting from the audience. I also attended some of his rallies and interacted with the people in the state; there was plenty of positive feedback about Rahul. For the first time in the last two decades, the Congress flag was visible in all parts of the state.

I feel that people were really angry with the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government and they wanted to punish her corrupt regime. They voted overwhelmingly for the Samajwadi Party (SP) because this was the only party that was organizationally strong enough to exploit anti-government feeling. Voting for the Congress would have meant a fractured verdict and a chance for a Mayawati-led BSP to come back to power. Rahul Gandhi of course increased the visibility of the Congress in the state, but didn’t have strong enough party machinery on the ground to convert the support into votes. Therefore, his charisma wasn’t enough. In UP it wasn’t a vote against the Congress Party, but a vote against the ruling BSP.

Matt Willis (Facebook):
Can Rahul Gandhi still become prime minister?

For this question I want to add my own question: Is he in a hurry to become prime minister?

The impression that I got from watching him at close quarters is that the man is more concerned about the plight of the Congress Party in the country than becoming the prime minister. He also seems more focused on reforming the work culture in the party than occupying the chair in Delhi.

There’s no official word from the Congress Party that Rahul Gandhi is anyway its prime ministerial candidate. This is all media speculation based on the high-profile role Rahul has in the party. The opposition parties invoke the young scion’s name to undermine the authority of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is portrayed as weak and more interested in serving the interests of the Gandhi family than the country.

Rahul might be waiting for a time when Congress is strong enough to form the government on its own, without any outside support.

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The real question might be who is the next most popular leader in the Grand Old Party after Rahul Gandhi? Revival of the party can happen only when someone from the Gandhi family is involved. By questioning the mass appeal of the young scion, the detractors of the party and opposition want to demoralize and demolish the popular icon of India’s ruling party. It serves their interest. After all, the rise of Congress means the marginalization of many existing political players of the country.

It has to be understood that Rahul failed in the states where the Congress has lost its base.

In Uttar Pradesh, the party was in a slightly better position, but up against two strong regional parties and the BJP, the Congress was fighting an uphill battle. An effort to revive the party and make it relevant in the largest state in the country was made in the latest election. The attempt didn’t yield the desired results, yet the party at least managed to make its presence felt.

Yusuf Ali (Facebook):
Do you think a solution can be found to the problem of Kashmir, and Pakistan relations generally?

India and Pakistan fought three wars over Kashmir. With each war, the situation became ever more complicated. For both India and Pakistan, Kashmir is an issue of prestige. Pakistan claims the land because it is Muslim dominated.

According to the Indian Independence Act 1947, the country was to be divided into two parts – India and Pakistan. The Muslim majority areas were supposed to go with Pakistan. The ruler of Kashmir at that time was a Hindu, Hari Singh. He didn’t want to merge the state either with Pakistan or India. A popular Muslim party in Jammu and Kashmir, the National Conference, led by Sheikh Abdullah, was in favor of merging the princely state with India. That year, when Pakistani tribals intruded into the valley and attacked Kashmir with support from the Pakistan Army, Singh came rushing to New Delhi to be rescued and signed an Instrument of Accession with India. Kashmir became a special category state for India. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution has special provision for the state.

Over the years, the claims of Pakistan on Kashmir on the grounds of religion have weakened. Islamabad’s failure to sustain a democratic polity capable of protecting its own people, and the weakening of the idea of Pakistan, has dented the credibility of the Islamic nation. For the people of Kashmir a seemingly failed state across the border is not the ideal choice.

India’s pluralism and democratic success is also not enough to recapture the popular imagination of the Kashmiri people. Kashmir doesn’t have the kind of provincial autonomy and democratic freedom other Indian states enjoy. In the last 60 years, Indian democracy has failed the valley in trusting the wisdom of the people, giving them freedom to choose their own leaders in a free and democratic manner, respecting human rights and fulfilling the commitment made in Article 370. As a result, India, which was once the darling of Kashmir, is seen with suspicion.

What’s the solution to the Kashmir problem?

Stanley Wolpert, an old hand in South Asia and a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, says that the most realistic solution to the Kashmir conflict is the “acceptance of the current Line of Control that now divides the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir as the northernmost international border of India and Pakistan.”

No other solution would be practical at the moment.

The backchannel diplomacy between India and Pakistan has also been focusing on this solution. But the relationship between India and Pakistan is no longer hostage to the Kashmir problem. India has made a conscious decision to move ahead and engage Pakistan on other issues. Deepening trade, economic and people-to-people contacts offers some hope. With China, India has a robust trade relationship that’s widening every day, despite deep divisions on the border issue and Tibet. India seemingly is adopting a similar strategy with Pakistan.

Dina Chowdhry (LinkedIn):
What do you think is the biggest social problem facing India?

One of the biggest social concerns is the problem of the dowry and the attitude towards women.

Many marriages are arranged by parents, and most of them involve a huge financial transaction. A girl’s parents have to pay a hefty amount in the form of a dowry to marry off their daughter. This phenomenon is prevalent across all castes and communities.

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The result of this custom is that poor parents have to sell off their properties and indulge in corruption to save money so that they can find a suitable groom for their daughters. The desire to choose a match for themselves is also there among women, but it’s not so popular and not appreciated by a majority of parents.

Demand for a dowry leads to all kinds of social ills. It not only demeans women, but also leads to corruption in society and the polity.

A government servant with a limited salary has to earn beyond his official source of income if he has two or three daughters to marry off. The majority of them will indulge in corruption to earn the extra. He has to finance the education of his children and take care of the marriage. One of the major reasons for widespread corruption in government offices and the polity is the social ill of dowry.

The system of having a dowry makes women second class citizens. In this patriarchal system, women are relegated. This unequal treatment of women is reflected in other spheres of society as well. Whether in the family or in society, when women are seen as a burden, this reflects badly on the behavior of men. The rising number of cases of rape and discrimination against women shows there’s a deep seated prejudice in society against women.

So many talented women have been sacrificed at the altar of marriage. In most families, education of young women is paid only lip service, it’s not aimed at making her confident and independent. It’s aimed only at educating them up to the point where they can attract a good groom. This attitude must change.