Democracy in the Commonwealth


The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was the only politician to be given a private audience with the Queen. I think there were two reasons for this; it was the first time an Indian PM had turned up at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) for aeons and secondly this was Her Majesty’s last CHOGM. As India is the Commonwealth’s biggest economy and has the largest population by a country mile, she probably wanted to ensure a safe transfer to Prince Charles and to gently persuade PM Modi that his office should attend more frequently.

By the by, I thought CHOGM missed a trick. Prince Charles had made it known he wanted to succeed his mother and this was achieved. The noise this made in the newspapers surprised me. A modern CHOGM would surely have wanted to elect its own Head from within its organisation if it is to mean anything? To most of us it is outdated and out of touch and it is only united every four years by the Commonwealth Games.

Let us return to India and Indian politics. Since the Mountbatten-Nehru discussions in 1947, captured rather brilliantly in the recent film Viceroy’s House which was made to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of independence, India has been dominated by the Nehru- Gandhi families encapsulated in the Congress Party. They are the Kennedys of India: Jawaharlal Nehru won elections in 1952, 1957 and 1962 whilst Indira, his daughter, succeeding him after his death, won in 1967. And after her assassination in October, 1984, she was succeeded by Rajiv, her son. He too was assassinated on 21 May, 1991. Some say Rahul Gandhi MP, Rajiv’s son, is waiting in the wings.

Indira Gandhi broke away from the Congress Party in 1971 and still won a whopping majority (352 seats from 518), but then change started to happen in 1977, when a coalition won against Congress but she bounced back in 1980 and 1984 (she was assassinated in October, 1984). There was then a hung parliament, or Lok Sabha as it is called, in 1989, an anti Congress coalition in 1991, but no breakthrough occurred and Congress was returned ledby Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, but he was assassinated in 21 May, 1991 and they lost to the BJP in 1996 although there was not much in it (161 seats to 140 with regional parties winning 29).

The BJP won again in 1999 but could not hold onto power and Congress with an alliance of smaller parties was returned in 2004 and 2009, but finally the BJP broke through in 2014 under Narendra Modi winning 282 seats with Congress on an all time low of 44 seats. There was much activity already obvious on my visit as political parties ready themselves for the 2019 General Election!

Nehru had much on his plate in 1947: uniting the country, creating new national organisations and seeking its own relationships with the world. He was much taken by the USSR’s Five Year plans and introduced them but they stifled India’s economy. His Third Way of bringing countries together whether of the right or the left was extraordinarily successful. He had a vision ahead of his time.

Two things have changed India. In 1992 the restrictions on overseas investment were lifted which has frankly transformed the Indian economy and the arrival on the scene of BJP, a new political party, to take on Congress. Supporters of the Congress Party fear that the right wing of the BJP, essentially a Hindi nationalist party from the north of the country, wants to embed Hindi which would be fatal. In the end my sense is that Indian politics always put the local over the national, needs. Having just come back from Chennai, in the south east of the country, New Delhi seems a long, long way away despite social networks, a large number of news channels and a plethora of newspapers.

Narendra Modi’s success in 2014 was surprising. We knew little about the man except he had been the Chief Minister of Gujarat, the state immediately above Maharashtra which houses Mumbai. There he had concentrated on infrastructure and as a consequence its economy boomed. He made the state work. There are few Chief Ministers who have achieved as much as he has done. And from his success he was trusted with making India work. He has his hands full. What I most like about him though is that he still rises at 05.30 and does an hour’s yoga before starting work! If he was to win again next year, India will be moving beyond the Congress Party. This will come as quite a shock to traditionalists there.

About author