We seem to have been here before: Another embattled government, another rath yatra.
Veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani has said that he will go on a rath yatra across the country, in an attempt to tap into public anger against corruption. Newspaper reports suggest that other leaders in his party have been taken aback, since it would once again project Advani at a time when there is no decision on who would be the face of the main opposition party for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The new Advani travel plan will naturally attract comparison with his famous 1989 yatra to build public support for the construction of a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, which saw hugely successful political mobilization but which also led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. That year --- 1989 --- proved to be the culmination of a steady decline in the popularity of the Congress government.
Whether the new rath yatra will begin to roll and what effect it will have is anybody’s guess. But there seems to be an interesting parallel between the two eras: the last years of the Rajiv Gandhi regime and the mid-term problems faced by the current Manmohan Singh government. In both cases, governments that began with good intentions, that had generated hopes of institutional reforms and were led by men considered to be above the dirty morass of Indian politics eventually found itself engulfed by corruption charges and infighting.
There are also many differences between then and now. Rajiv Gandhi was swept to power on the back of a huge mandate while Manmohan Singh has owes his position to the benediction of his party chief, Sonia Gandhi, and heads a coalition government. The opposition to Rajiv Gandhi was led by two powerful political figures, V.P. Singh and L.K. Advani; the public anger against the current government has come out onto the streets because of the partyless movement led by Anna Hazare. What we do not know is this: the fall of the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989 was followed by economic crisis and political chaos, partly because of the decision by V.P. Singh to accept the recommendations of the Mandal Commission and partly because of the communal riots that broke out in the wake of the Advani yatra. Will the transition be less painful in case the United Progressive Alliance does not win the next election?
India is a different country from what it was in 1989, or for than matter in 1975 when the JP movement challenged the Indira Gandhi government on the streets. But the combination of government hubris and popular anger creates a political opening that is waiting to be exploited. No wonder the chariot wheels are being oiled again.