Duplicity in the Durbar

Print edition : December 28, 2012

Politics of convenience has taken centre stage as almost all parties, regional and mainstream, think nothing of changing positions on policy issues in order to safeguard their own interests even if that means going against the public interest.

The bon mot about politics being the art of the possible finds repeated reference in Indian political discourse, often at the highest levels. P.V. Narasimha Rao, as Prime Minister of a minority government in the early 1990s, perhaps practised it to the fullest extent, though others, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was Narasimha Raos Finance Minister, have cited it in different contexts. All these references essentially sought to highlight the point that political practice, where expediency is the watchword, involves pragmatic calculations and projections.

Developments over the past six months, particularly in the run-up to and in the first half of the winter session of Parliament, show that Indian politics has indeed traversed far on the path taken by Narasimha Rao. Today, the meaning of the possible has been stretched to the extent that it can encompass almost anything. Pragmatism and expediency are used to justify any manipulation in the practice of opportunism. If the two big mainstream parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are the lead players in disseminating this climate of political cynicism, the contributions of smaller players in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and powerful regional outfits such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Trinamool Congress have been no less important.

These parties constantly seek to play down exposes of corruption in high places involving top leaders, and pressing economic concerns of the people are of no consequence, not even where they are in government, be it at the Centre or in the States. The actions of these parties and their leaderships make it clear that their primary concern is safeguarding their positions of power irrespective of the damage this causes to democratic and political institutions. Thus, we have the Congress leadership systematically targeting the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), an institution that has facilitated the exposure of a number of wrongdoings in the government and corruption scandals involving leaders of the Congress and its partners in the UPA (story on page 16). The BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar have tried hard to put a lid on allegations of impropriety and corruption against BJP president Nitin Gadkari. This is despite the serious reservations expressed by sections of the BJP hierarchy, including senior leaders, about the blind protection of Gadkari. They contend that this would divest the party of the moral authority to launch an anti-corruption campaign against the UPA government (story on page 26).

This meeting of minds in handling corruption in high places also reflects the brittleness of the policy framework of these parties. Policy formulations even on specific, stated issues, either in favour or in opposition, have no value because they can change and acquire even contradictory tones dramatically. A close analysis of the policy positions of the Congress and the BJP shows that they are practically on the same page on almost every issue and that their ferocious objections and speeches in Parliament are mere pretension.

In the winter session of Parliament, the debate on foreign direct investment (FDI) in the multi-brand retail trade was a good example of this. Leaders of the two parties lampooned each other for pushing for FDI when in power and opposing it when in the opposition. The exposure, in the process, of the finer details in policymaking caused widespread embarrassment in both treasury and opposition benches. The debate underscored what has been steadfastly pointed out by a number of observers over the past decade: that both the Congress and the BJP pursue the same neoliberal policy path that has the inbuilt potential to widen social and economic disparities.

Complicity and collaboration have been in focus on several occasions. The most recent was when Arvind Kejriwal and other anti-corruption activists presented documents alleging that in Gujarat both BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the Congress leadership had facilitated the business of some groups without fulfilling processes of competitive bidding. Instances from Maharashtra and Karnataka and other States also served to underscore the commitment of the two parties to neoliberal policies and institutions.

Even as this policy shadow boxing continued to unravel, the FDI debate also threw up the spectacle of the BSP walking out in protest from the Lok Sabha on the issue and barely two days later voting with the government in the Rajya Sabha citing threats to the national polity from the communal BJP. The BSPs principal opponent in Uttar Pradesh, the S.P., too boycotted the vote to help the government. The saving grace for the S.P. was that it did not walk out one day and vote in favour of the government the next day. But ultimately the dubious stance of these two parties helped the government carry the day on the FDI debate.

According to the Lucknow-based political analyst Sudhir Kumar Panwar, throughout the debate it was evident that most of the parties were merely paying lip service to the issue and to the people who were going to be affected by it. Only the mainstream Left parties approached the debate seriously and earnestly. The Left parties have by and large been exceptions to the trend of spectacular policy flip-flops and they have held cogent positions on many issues. However, the organisational limitations of the Left, highlighted by its virtual political absence in large parts of the country, and its minimal presence in Parliament have meant very few challengers to the downward slope of the polity, he said.

Panwar also believes that there is great public anger at the general conduct and direction of politics, including the policy flip-flops. But he points out that one is yet to see a credible force capable of channelling this anger into a political alternative. Panwars view on this does find reflection at different levels of the polity and in the public space.

Speaking to Frontline on the condition of anonymity, a senior Congress member of the Lok Sabha from a northern State said the situation in large parts of northern India was similar to the one that existed in 1989 when the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government was humbled in the elections by the Jan Morcha formation launched by Vishwanath Pratap Singh. The senior leader said: Corruption in high places, as represented by the Bofors scandal and the HDW submarine scandal, was the biggest issue in that election. Today also people are increasingly talking about corruption in high places. So much so that political corruption is steadily becoming the issue second only to price rise at the grass roots. But the big difference is that there is no V.P. Singh-like leader on the political horizon. He had political vision and organisational experience, two requirements to bring about political change. Today there is a vacuum because leaders of all parties are seen not only as corrupt but as complicit in others corruption.

This senior Congress leader and other political observers are of the view that the perception of all parties being corrupt and the leadership vacuum were the reasons for the Aam Aadmi Party, the new political outfit floated by Arvind Kejriwal, evoking a significant response, particularly among the urban middle classes. The Jan Sansad (Peoples Parliament) organised in Delhi by a group of civil society activists led by Aruna Roy and P.V. Rajagopal during the winter session of Parliament also witnessed impressive public participation and impassioned discussions on issues relating to peoples movements. A number of agitations launched by the Left parties and its trade union, farmer and agricultural labour organisations also marked significant peoples participation.

However, in a situation where there is no effective organisation or leader to channel these movements, they have not gathered greater momentum.

The Ekta Parishad-led mass padayatra on land reforms has shown that governments can be forced to notice and respond to peoples concerns. But that yatra referred to only one specific concern. To bring about big political change, you need a multiplicity of issues and a charismatic leadership that has political sense, both socially and organisationally. The lack of these is the real reason for the survival of the current political class, said the senior Congress MP.

According to Surinder Kishore, a Patna-based political observer, the overall situation in mainstream politics at present is the concretisation of a malevolent process that was advanced actively during the art of the possible regime of Narasimha Rao. Said Kishore: There are several similarities between that regime and the present one. Both are minority governments in a formal sense, but both have survived on the basis of a value-neutral pursuit of power using questionable means. During Narasimha Raos regime, one saw the blatant cash for votes scam, wherein members of the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha [JMM], a regional party, were literally bought with money transferred to their accounts to ensure the survival of the government. Now, we see other carrot-and-stick ploys being used to bring regional parties in line. On the one side, you have the bait of special packages for States in which regional parties have roots. Then there is the ploy that I broadly term as the CBI consent, which involves beating down leaderships of regional parties by periodically showing them the stick of various investigative and punitive agencies.

Kishore believes that this brand of politics will now be practised in an even more decentralised manner. According to him, the direct cash transfer scheme to beneficiaries of welfare projects is a clear indicator of this. Commenting on the scheme, Sudhir Kumar Panwar said: One has heard that certain parties have sought to influence voters by giving them money through illegitimate channels. But here is a scheme which says that money will not only reach you but also reach you through legitimate channels.

The Election Commission has also raised queries about the timing of the announcement of the scheme because it came when the campaign for the Assembly elections in Gujarat were on. Apart from the ethics and propriety of it, several academics and social activists have pointed to the negative impact the programme would have in terms of larger economic parameters (story on page 21).

The leadership of the UPA government and the Congress have turned a deaf ear to these reservations and kept up the chant that the programme is a game changer as far as the 2014 Lok Sabha elections are concerned. Obviously, the UPA is guided by the gains ruling parties in Brazil and other countries made through similar schemes. Congress leaders seem convinced that this scheme will help the party reap political benefits across the country.

But seasoned political observers are of the view that only good governance, and not merely throwing money to the people, can evoke positive political and electoral responses. Good governance requires genuine concern for peoples problems, comprehensive planning to attend to these problems and proper implementation and delivery of schemes. All this is increasingly absent in the contemporary political set-up and that is a primary reason for the rising political vacuum, said one observer. A vacuum that many believe has dangerous fascist portents.

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