4 AUGUST 1979, Page 7

India's hungry fighters

Richard Wigg

New Delhi India's power-hungry and unprincipled Politicians immediately fell to fighting over their portfolios this week even as the country's 76-year-old farmers' leader from the North, Mr Charan Singh, was getting his Patchwork coalition government sworn in. It hardly seemed to matter that they all disagreed about goals too. Political observers who previously liked to joke bitterly that even God, if he wanted, could not solve India's economic problems in the next decades', are now concerned whether the Parliamentary system inherited from the 13ritish is not visibly floundering over the task of providing India with even coherent daily government.

Much has been turned upside down in a few weeks; politicians at the bottom of the Pile have come out suddenly on top again, and the process could easily continue. Inevitably, Mrs Indira Gandhi who, according to the received wisdom in New belhi over the past two years of Janata rule, was defeated because of a 'people's verdict' against her belief that power would always prove superior to principle, has re-emerged to outsmart all her aged male rivals. 'I am glad the Janata Party is gone', she declared immediately after President Sanjiva Reddy called upon Mr Singh, who had deserted his Post as Finance Minister under Mr Desai, to form a new government. Singh himself, the :backwoodsman' leader from Uttar Pradesh had once clashed with her father in the early tifties over peasant co-operatives; he did Waint Pandit Nehru's socialist theories to imposed on the peasants, and he won n_ands down, laying the basis of a powerful tarmers' lobby and his subsequent political career.

1.I Once Mrs Gandhi's purpose was accompsbed, and the phase of her `unconditional suPport' in order to break up the Desai • government swiftly over, she then switched to objecting to those rival Congress Party tleeaders joining Mr Singh's Cabinet who had Shah ) tified ,m Commissions investigation of her Publicly against her during the ergency rule. She was helped by a revolt !ear Y°Ling Congress MPs over their s, ers' eagerness for office. And, after the ambles that her support for Mr Singh and less aide, Nir Raj Narain, (who had none the ss been the very man to unseat her in a northern constituency in the March 1977 general election) had created inside the Janata Party, Mrs Gandhi does not need to worry too much about the special court cases against her. The realignment of political forces has changed so much that the police and officials working on the cases, she can speculate, will understand well enough what would be prudent for their future careers. Anyway, the new Interior Minister is Mr Y.B. Chavan, the 'rival Congress parliamentary leader who served in her Cabinet throughout the Emergency.

The difficulties in sorting out who could serve in the new Cabinet were a signal, if any was needed, that behind all the rhetoric about 'a true farmer's son' and representafive of the three quarters of India's 630 million rural population at last obtaining the premiership, a battle has begun among all the political parties in New Delhi to position themselves as adroitly as possible for the evil day when they have to face the electors again. The politicians perceive well enough that their manoeuvrings of the past three weeks have further alienated all electors outside their own entourage. 'Our people are fast getting disenchanted'. Mr Singh observed, broadcasting after taking office. 'Above all, we have to restore in the minds of the people confidence in the capacity and resilience of our democratic policy to solve our multifarious problems.' Yet all the MPs who trooped in to see President Reddy, after the crisis broke with a `no confidence' motion against the Desai government tabled in Parliament by Mr Chavan on 9 July, urged him not to permit a mid-term poll. A general election is not required until 1982. Many fear the popular verdict, but even more know that they possess nowhere near sufficient funds for an uphill campaign to get themselves re-elected.

Great advantages, financial and administrative, go to a party fighting elections in India from office, and the eagerness of the 'official' Congress Party led by Mr Chavan rivalling Mrs Gandhi's own Congress, to get themselves Cabinet posts is largely to be explained by worries about the inevitability of anticipated elections. They need time in office (although Mr Singh, besides his age, already suffered a severe heart attack last year). since they appreciate that, if anyone is to reap the benefit of the disillusionment with the Janata years, it is more likely to be Mrs Gandhi, still known like no other Indian figure across the country and financially in far better shape herself than their rickety party organisation.

Prime Minister Singh has been told by President Reddy, who had grown of recent months increasingly annoyed with Mr Desai's ineffectual style of governing, that he must prove that he commands a majority in the 538-member Lok Sabha by the third week of this month. But Mr Jagjivan Ram, the 71-year-old leader of the `untouchables' who has now become leader of the Opposition, replacing Mr Desai belatedly as the Janata chief, has already vowed that his party will demonstrate it commands an alternative, and stable, majority in parliament.

Behind these parliamentary games India itself is going through a period of political transition, which is why the present fluid situation could be so important. Though little talked about, the revolt against the Desai government, which swiftly encouraged a hundred Janata MPs to form the New Janata (Secular) Party, had its real origins in that all-pervasive Indian phenomenon, caste. The growing influence of the Hindu upper caste Jana Sangh component of the original Janata permitted by Mr Desai, a highly orthodox Brahmin himself, alarmed both the middle-ranking castes — like the peasant Jat caste, to which Mr Singh belongs — as well as those castes grouped under the label of 'backward classes'. These come just above the 'untouchabtes' and form a block amounting to as much as 40 per cent of the electorate in some northern and southern states.

Organising a political following, initially based on the peasants of whom many come from such caste groupings, has brought success not only to Mr Singh in the north ern states hut to Mr Devraj Urs, the highly influential Congress Chief Minister of Kar nataka, southern India, an opponent of Mrs Gandhi. He is certainly a man in India's new political constellation to watch. But these newly powerful middle-ranking castes and 'backwards' are in bitter competition for economic rewards, such as jobs in the urban areas, with the 'untouchables'. And so Mr Ram, the 'untouchable' who now finds himself leading a rump Janata Party dominated by the upper castes, has every interest in recruiting followers both among the 'untouchable' MPs in the Congress as well as among these electoral groups in the country in order to defeat Mr Singh.