Nothing but Politics


In five years, the stature of the PM and his government has declined palpably. Simultaneously, Parliament has reduced itself to a non-deliberative, non-serious, populist forum. These trends are ominous and need to be flagged by the citizenry, not just taken for granted

Ashok P Singh Delhi

Five years of Hardnews are rather well placed. The birth in the wee hours of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had India shining. Then, quite unexpectedly, the sun set on the Vajpayee government, leading to the phoenix like rise of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. What do we expect now? From ashes to ashes or is there going to be a twist in the tale?

Conventional political theory says that periodic elections give the voters an opportunity to judge the performance of the government of the day and ring in change if the performance has been unsatisfactory. A contrarian viewpoint is that democratic processes are not so benign - that at election time, opportunistic politicians deceive naïve voters and make them believe the incumbent's performance was misleadingly good. Characteristically myopic, the voters are duped by the immediate present, lose sight of the recent past, and are not able to discern the credibility of the future promises.

The truth, as is usually the case, lies somewhere in between.

This is how most democracies approach elections and India is no exception. At election time, the goodies and the promises rain down. Will the voter bite the bait? Will the UPA succeed where the NDA perished? By one perspective, these are but ephemeral questions. Governments will come and go but what are the enduring legacies? That is the hard question.

We focus on five question marks the present dispensation leaves as a legacy for India's future. What follows is a deliberately one-sided view. It is also a concentrated one. The attempt at inclusive growth and many other commendations of the UPA are not discussed. We focus here on the dark side. The actors of the present dispensation are not just the coalition partners of the UPA. The opposition and all democratic institutions, the media included, are inescapably a part of it. If the axe appears to fall more particularly on the Congress and the UPA that's but the incumbent's hazard. Scratched below the surface, each of our questions bears the pugmarks of the sum total of our polity. Not unfairly, the whole and not just a sum of the part will be visited by the consequences.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the UPA government will be the symbolic and real loss of power, authority and prestige of the Government of India (GoI). Never before has the Centre been perceived to be as ineffectual, weak and irresolute as it is at the present juncture. Institutions are the nerve centres of political systems and the weakening of the GoI is fraught with consequences of the dreadful kind. In a federal system, the states have their own place and an overbearing Centre doubtless needs to be nipped. The present dispensation however has plummeted to abysmal levels. First, it danced to the tunes of the Left and now the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK) threatens to bite it. An opportunistic Mayawati delivered a punch on the nose in between. But the consequences of a feeble and pliable Centre go much beyond politics of the transient kind. The politics over the nuclear deal dealt a blow to the credibility of the GoI in a sphere recognised to be its exclusive domain -- foreign policy. The DMK challenge over Sri Lanka virtually ends the exclusivity of the Centre over this preserve. It is only desirable that popular will influence government policy but narrow short-sighted populism doing so is questionable. The defiant stand of the Armed Forces over discrepancies in the recommendations of the Pay Commission is but a lead taken from successful assaults on the GoI and the repeated shameful capitulation of the latter. A central government, almost by definition, must have stature, credibility and authority. It must inspire not just respect, trust and confidence but also fear. Under the UPA, the GoI has just about lost it all. The Centre cannot be a vacillating tool in the hands of power brokers without impairing its ability to govern and hold the nation together. See how this plays out in the future - no successor government will be spared the consequences of the sullied GoI brand.

A second institution which has taken a beating is the office of the prime minister (PM). Never before has India had a PM so devoid of authority and confidence as the present one. This is not just a matter for the Congress and the UPA. The PM is a national institution; he/she can't be rendered impotent without debilitating the polity as a whole. To begin with there is nothing called a non-political PM. Stripped of political acumen and authority a PM can at best be a pretender or a puppet, the kind Manmohan Singh fits to the tee. The writ of the PM does not run in the Cabinet, in Parliament or in the government. The PM cannot be expected to find solutions to problems either of politics or governance. A less than fully empowered PM is a travesty. Even IK Gujral, by comparison, though on hindsight, appears to have been more in command than Manmohan Singh. Deve Gowda navigated coalition compulsions more deftly, not to speak of Chandrashekhar who never allowed the position of the PM to be compromised just because he had the support of a sum total of 56 MPs. The power and influence of a PM, so assiduously cultivated and maintained by successive incumbents, has been frittered with amazing lack of foresight. The propagation of the idea of a disempowered CEO is ludicrous. See how this plays out in the future. 

A de facto ‘behind the screen power centre' - convenient yes, but can anything be more insidious and fundamentally undemocratic? True Bal Thackarey practiced it but bringing it to the Centre has sanctified an aberration that has no place at all in a democracy. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh(RSS) too drove from the NDA from the back seat but Atal Behari Vajpayee, in true traditions of a PM, drew the limits. A weak Centre and a weaker PM have compounded a dangerous offence. The idea of a de facto power centre will have usage and ramifications beyond the UPA rule. It's been one huge assault on the system for it to be run from the back room. See how this precedent plays out in the future.

As if the damage inflicted by the executive was not enough, we have in place a non serious, non deliberative and thoroughly indisciplined Parliament to contend. Except for the recent confidence motion that saved the UPA government by the skin of its guts, there has been no issue given due deference to by Parliament. Parliamentary proceedings, session after session, have been devoid of meaningful debate and serious deliberation. A peek into the proceedings of either House resembles mayhem more closely than a dictionary can describe the word. The most important decisions are rubber stamped by both the Houses on the last days of each session. Nothing is bipartisan except seriously questionable legislation with retrospective effect: definition of office of profit held by parliamentarians, extension of reservations in educational institutions, modification of age of superannuation of the director of AIIMS and, earlier, the BJP even neutralised a court decision to evict, fine and bring to book government officials in possession of illegal house allotments! A Parliament which plays lip service to its raison'd etre and doesn't bat an eyelid in undoing the rule of law? See how this plays in the future.

Perhaps the most worrisome trend is the growing spectre of the politics of intolerance, disruption and brinkmanship. Public reasoning, a longstanding Indian tradition and a pillar of any democracy, is being systematically annihilated. Everything and anything is used as an issue to agitate, dispute and disrupt. Take a sample: Aamir Khan's movie, Jaya Bachchan's speech, Tata's factory, Inspector MC Sharma's death, Ambani's  retail chain, land use by Amarnath pilgrims, Arundhati Roy's book, MF Husain's paintings, terrorist attacks, and even Harbhajan Singh's dancing! The great Indian argumentative tradition, so passionately articulated by Amartya Sen, is being battered day in and day out by rowdy, parochial and sectarian political entities. See how this rising storm plays out in the future.

A Union government with a shrinking writ; a lame duck PM divested of leadership by his own persona and a power behind the throne; a raucous Parliament and a growing culture of intolerance which is spilling onto the streets - these are ominous question marks against the future of Indian polity. Just as none of these phenomena struck from the blue, none of them are going to recede with a change in colours of the ruling party or coalition. Each one will take its respective and collective toll and influence, maybe even determine the course of Indian politics in the times to follow. The genie, so to say, has been unleashed and that's the hard news.