India in Need of Consensus

BY KULDIP NAYAR

INDIAN political scene is deteriorating day by day. Institutions are losing their credibility and political parties are straining the system to the fullest extent for making space.

The effect is visible in Parliament which has been reduced to an arena of overbearing government and impatient opposition. People feel exasperated as well as insecure as non-governance tells upon the law and order situation, economic progress and the social conditions in the country.

Had there been early elections, there would have been a new beginning and a fresh tenure of five years for another Lok Sabha. This would have meant almost beginning from a clean slate. But it looks as if the parties are conscious that the voters are out to have their revenge. Which party or which member will be returned is anybody’s guess. Yet the sitting members know that only a few among them would come back. Therefore, even though the opposition feels irritated and helpless, it does not seem to want to risk the leftover tenure of one year and four months.

That is the reason why the vote of no-confidence motion against the Manmohan Singh government by the West Bengal Chief Minister, Ms Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress did not muster even 50 members for admission. She may be right in her chiding that the opposition parties are only shouting against the government and do not want to bring it down. But the party knew before moving the motion that none was willing to support it. They are too calculative to be provoked.

Getting Numbers in LS

They know they cannot collect 273 members to defeat the government in the 545-member House. They would have unnecessarily given a sense of victory to the Congress party. The issue of FDI (foreign direct investment) in multi-brand retail got lengthened because both the Congress and the BJP, the two main political parties, cannot stand each other. The BJP has gone to the extent of challenging almost every executive order of the government which is also unmindful of other’s sensitivities.

The problem with the Manmohan Singh government is that instead of accommodating a different point of view, it is all the time manoevuring to have a majority in the Lok Sabha. The support of the assorted groups comes at a price. It means the compromises at the expense of national interest. This has been the situation facing the Manmohan Singh government from its inception. Any political party which does not win a majority at the polls would face the same problem. The BJP, while confronted with the same predicament, saw to it that its supporters would stay placated so that it would stay in power.

I have never understood why a ruling party is reluctant to talk to other parties to have a consensus on matters which are important for the country and which cannot be resolved without one another’s help. Whether it is FDI or the installation of nuclear plants, there has to be a general agreement to overcome the sharp divergence of opinion on the two subjects. In a democratic polity, an elected government cannot afford to ignore the popular opinion. At times, the government has rejected the offer to effect a consensus. The BJP has told the government that it was willing to support some of the bills pending in Parliament. But the government has not been enthusiastic (within the Congress itself there is resistance to the bills) about it.

In fact, as I look back, I find that India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, tried for the consensus, although with not much success. For example, when the Babri masjid-Ram janam bhoomi dispute erupted in the fifties, he wrote to the then chief minister Govind Ballabh Pant of Uttar Pradesh not to disturb the status quo. The Muslims were then offering prayers at the masjid even though some fanatic Hindu elements were communalising the atmosphere. Nehru didn’t succeed and the masjid was locked so that it was not available to both the communities.

No Middle Path

After Nehru, a consensus was seldom attempted. Mrs India Gandhi was not the person who would talk about the middle path. For her, it was black or white, nothing grey. The governments which followed her were the coalition of convenience. Most were for making quick money and they had no patience for a compromise like the consensus. Chandra Shekhar is the worst example. In 40 days of his government, ministers made more money than those who had enjoyed the power even for 40 years.

Prime minister V P Singh did not even try for a consensus on the Mandal Commission’s recommendations to give reservations to Other Backward Classes as had been done for the Dalits. Mrs Gandhi could foresee that there would be no compromise on reservations for OBC. She pigeonholed the Mandal Commission’s recommendations. But V P Singh could see the political advantage and implemented them, knowing well that his government would get divided. It was a political battle which he thought he had to fight because his rival, deputy prime minister Devi Lal, had thrown down the gauntlet which he had to pick up.

The present scene is too dismal to be conducive for a consensus, although Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh has gone to the extent of saying that the country’s development is linked with their consensus in the country. The BJP is spoiling for a fight all the time. It is so anti-Congress that it even resorts to such tactics which are against the country’s interest. The party stalled the entire session of Parliament last time to focus attention on corruption. Protest or exposure should not hold the nation to ransom as the BJP did. A debate would have brought all points of view before the nation.

With the eyes fixed on political gains, the parties cannot afford to give up opposition. Yet the fact remains that the country badly needs a meeting point on certain issues which transcend political contours. India may not be in the midst of a war. Still the challenge before the country is equally demanding — how to extract itself from the poverty in which it is hopelessly stuck.