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The depths of debate

Published : May 01, 2002 00:00 IST

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The ruling alliance used the Lok Sabha as a platform to mount the less-than-inspiring spectacle of politicians venting partisan passions over the terrible human tragedy in Gujarat.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN V. VENKATESAN PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI in New Delhi

IN the Lok Sabha on April 30, the Treasury benches seemed to have a choice between two strategies when defending the conduct of the Central and State governments in the light of the two-month-long carnage in Gujarat. When not blaming the victims, they could invoke the argument that there was nothing really new about it at all: the brutishness of the present could be explained by the mere fact that such behaviour had often been practised with impunity in the past.

When a motion very similar in spirit, but distinct in language, came up before the Rajya Sabha, the government benches chose a new tack. Confronted with the reality that it would almost certainly be defeated in a vote, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance moved with alacrity to affirm its support for the motion. It soon woke up to the realisation that aversion to a symbolic defeat in the Rajya Sabha had pushed it into a position of virtually admitting to its delinquent ways. In its pursuit of debating points, the government was effectively rubbishing itself in public. And this was after a whole week of Parliament's time had been lost in blocking the Opposition's resolve to have a debate on the Gujarat situation. Again, to the government's greater discredit, it had used the Lok Sabha as a platform to mount the less-than-inspiring spectacle of politicians venting partisan passions over the terrible human tragedy of Gujarat.

All those who witnessed the 17 hours of squabbling and sniping between the Opposition and government benches in the Lok Sabha were left in a state of anguish over the depths to which the level of political debate had fallen. Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, a political veteran never too squeamish about plunging into a bare-knuckle brawl, despaired after hearing a particularly unedifying speech by Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Uma Bharati that parliamentary democracy in India was in its death throes. The rabble-rousing sanyasin had by all accounts been fielded by the government as lead speaker with deliberate intent to set the standard of debate. And those who followed her from the Treasury benches - notably George Fernandes, Harin Pathak and Vaiko - plumbed depths of even greater ignominy.

Fernandes' speech was by unanimous consent one of the most cynical that has been heard in Parliament in a long time. There was nothing new either in the Gujarat violence or in the macabre cases of rape, torture and murder that have been reported, he said, since much worse things had been witnessed in the past, including on the streets of Delhi. His voice rising into a shrill frenzy as he scaled new heights of ethical and verbal incoherence, Fernandes denounced Congress leader Sonia Gandhi for allegedly provoking her party colleagues and chewing gum in the House. In the ensuing melee, personal abuse of a particularly low nature was freely bandied about.

Outrage at the Defence Minister's remarks has been pervasive, and women's groups in particular have called for his dismissal from the government. Even by the standards of the Vajpayee Ministry, they say, Fernandes' position has been hopelessly compromised.

Fernandes proved a serious embarrassment even to Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, who spoke soon after and subtly dissociated himself from his Cabinet colleague's sentiments. He was worried not so much about the record of violence in the 55 years since Independence as in the four years since he assumed office as Home Minister, said Advani.

The government won the vote in the Lok Sabha by a substantial margin. The motion, which expressed concern at the handling of the situation in Gujarat, secured only 182 votes, with 276 members voting against it and eight abstaining. With the exception of the Shiv Sena, virtually every other partner of the BJP in the ruling NDA gave expression to serious reservations about the role of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the continuing violence.

The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which with a bloc of 28 members in the Lok Sabha was the most vital bulwark of support for the NDA (even though it is outside the alliance), insisted all through the Lok Sabha debate that Modi should resign as a gesture of accountability for the violence. Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee went a step further, demanding the imposition of President's Rule in the State. The BJP had shown few qualms about changing Chief Ministers in earlier contexts, she pointed out: Keshubhai Patel had been replaced only a few months ago in Gujarat and similar changes in personnel had been effected in the interests of political expediency in Uttar Pradesh. Why, then, could the BJP not be more attentive to the sentiments of the nation when it came to Gujarat, she asked.

The Trinamul Congress saw little contradiction between affirming this very strong position in the debate and voting against the motion deprecating the conduct of the government. The grounds were spelt out with no great effort at logical consistency by Mamata Banerjee, even as she veered sharply away from the central issue of the debate to a harangue against the government of her home State of West Bengal. Much as her party disapproved of the Central government's conduct, she said, it was not interested in destabilising it.

More worrisome for the government, of course, was the TDP's decision to walk out of the House in protest against the Prime Minister's failure to address its main concerns. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had in his intervention in the debate announced a Rs.150-crore rehabilitation package for the victims of the violence. This met one of the demands made by the TDP, though party leader K. Yerran Naidu pronounced himself unsatisfied, since the resignation of the Chief Minister was its highest priority.

The five-member National Conference abstained from the vote. Speaking on behalf of the party, Minister of State for External Affairs Omar Abdullah placed on record his sense of shock over the Gujarat events. The moral advantage that could have been secured by identifying the perpetrators of the Godhra atrocity and prosecuting them in accordance with the law, he said, had been squandered by the wave of reprisals against the innocent. Abdullah, however, was clear that he could not vote for the censure motion, which was too broad in its scope and contrary in its details to the principles of federalism. Conceding that his party's decision had made his position untenable, Abdullah had submitted his resignation from the Council of Ministers just before he intervened in the debate. That no decision had been made for over a week on whether or not to accept the resignation spoke volumes for the state of political clarity within the coalition.

The Janata Dal (United) suffered a serious schism in the course of the vote. Though Union Labour Minister and party leader Sharad Yadav had issued a whip to vote against the motion, three members chose to abstain. This bloc of three is closely associated with former Union Minister Devendra Prasad Yadav, who has been vocal in demanding Modi's ouster. Pointedly asking the government whether any arrests had been effected of individuals who called for a State-wide bandh in the wake of the Godhra atrocity, he alleged that the State administration was guilty of grossly partisan conduct and demanded its dismissal under Article 356 of the Constitution.

A few days after the debate, the TDP distanced itself still further from the NDA by declining to field a candidate for the post of Lok Sabha Speaker. N. Chandrababu Naidu, party leader and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, was careful to emphasise that there had been no substantive change in posture. The TDP had been extending issue-based support to the NDA and would continue to do so, he asserted. He chose not to elaborate on the symbolism of abandoning the post of Lok Sabha Speaker, which had been since 1998 the implicit price of the issue-based support he extended.

Clearly, the TDP's foremost priority today is to maintain a secure and circumspect distance from the BJP. A complete severance is, at the same time, politically infeasible because it would deprive Chandrababu Naidu of the special benefits and preferences of his numerical clout with the Central government. A recent and rather dubious indication of these special preferences was the Central clearance granted for an overseas tour by the entire membership of the Andhra Pradesh legislature, ostensibly to study the process of economic reforms in a cross-section of countries.

The TDP, like the Trinamul Congress, believes that its purposes are best served by functioning as a pressure group within the alliance rather than by deserting it. At the same time, there is an effort to maintain a distance that will make a parting of ways relatively easy when compulsions dictate.

For the BJP, the ambiguous loyalties of some of its traditional allies have been made good to some extent by the recruitment of the Bahujan Samaj Party to its cause. But Rashid Alvi of the BSP, who took the floor in the Lok Sabha debate, was quite categorical in demanding that accountability for the violence in Gujarat had to be fixed. The government, moreover, should take concrete steps to bridge the divide between the communities, he said. All cases of rioting should be registered and handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation for prosecution, he demanded.

Yet, after presenting this rather uncompromising charter of demands, Alvi indicated that his party would oppose the motion of censure, since it supposedly did not want to engage in petty politics over the bodies of the dead and the maimed. The more fundamental reason, of course, is the BSP's newly solemnised cohabitation with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, under which Mayawati has just been sworn in Chief Minister. If this alliance runs into the kind of rough weather that is foretold by the heartburning accompanying the distribution of portfolios, then the BSP's entente with the BJP should be a brief affair.

The decision by Jayalalithaa's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to abstain from voting on the censure motion is viewed as a tacit assurance of future support to the government. Speaking for the party during the debate, P.H. Pandian tied himself in knots by abjectly affirming his complete faith in the government after prefacing these remarks with a strong criticism of the handling of the Gujarat situation: "We have to believe the government because it is the government." Pandian's headlong flight from logic is of course part of the elaborate game of feint and manoeuvre that is now under way between the AIADMK and its bitter rival in Tamil Nadu politics, M. Karunanidhi's Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The latter has a marginal numerical advantage in terms of Lok Sabha membership and is already rather embittered over the BJP's choice of electoral allies for the May 31 byelections in the State. If the AIADMK were to seek entry into the inner circles of the NDA, that would be at the cost of the DMK quitting the alliance.

When all the arithmetic over the Lok Sabha vote was concluded, the government's rather bizarre stand in the Rajya Sabha debate came to the fore. The path of consensus had explicitly been proposed by Ram Vilas Paswan in the Lok Sabha. After resigning as Union Minister for Coal and Mines a day before the debate, Paswan parted company with the NDA and sought out his traditional allies in what was once the Third Front. In a brief but robust intervention in the debate, he proposed that the House should unanimously adopt the Opposition-sponsored motion, since it spoke of values and objectives that were almost universally shared. He did not cut much ice then, but just two days later the government seemed belatedly to have woken up to the wisdom of his advice.

Since Parliament reassembled after its mid-session recess, Opposition and government ranks were divided by starkly opposed perceptions of Gujarat. The Opposition demanded that both Houses should debate the situation prevailing there on a priority basis before attending to other business. The government, insisting that the matter had been put behind by both Houses, refused to yield ground, resulting in the prolonged disruption of both Houses.

In delivering his Solomonic ruling to break the impasse, Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed made it clear that the concerns expressed by the Opposition were well-founded. The government's stand that the issue had once before been discussed, he said, did not preclude another debate. And he mentioned specifically that under Article 355 of the Constitution, the Central government was obliged to protect every State against "internal disturbances" and ensure that the "Government of the State (was) carried out in accordance with the Constitution". All the reports that had been received of the violence in Gujarat, he said, indicated that it was no longer a "law and order problem, which is only the concern of the State government".

In the constitutional scheme, Article 355 is followed immediately by the provision that empowers the Central government, on determining that the governance of a State cannot be carried out in accordance with the Constitution, to dismiss the State government and impose direct Central rule. Article 355 itself is vague on specific steps to be taken and only confers a broad-ranging power on the Central government of advice, counsel and possibly even fiat. But in her speech in the Lok Sabha, Opposition Leader Sonia Gandhi explicitly invoked this provision of the Constitution to urge upon the government what she thought was the appropriate course of action: "Put the Gujarat government on notice under Article 355 of the Constitution for having failed to control internal disturbance and for having failed to ensure that the government is carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. Bring the guilty to book immediately, quickly. Restore law and order firmly. Ensure that full relief and rehabilitation measures are extended to all the affected families without delay. Remove the Chief Minister who, by deliberate design, is failing to fulfil his constitutional duties."

The whole menu of options for action by the Central government emanated, in short, from Article 355. That the government should have vigorously opposed it in the Lok Sabha only to embrace it in the Rajya Sabha two days later, betrays both its strategic confusion and its infirm convictions. For with the exception of Modi's removal, the motion before the Rajya Sabha seems to urge upon the government little else than the course of action proposed by the Leader of the Opposition. It expresses a deep sense of anguish at the persistent violence in Gujarat and urges "the Central government to intervene effectively under Article 355 of the Constitution to protect the lives and properties of the citizens and to provide effective relief and rehabilitation to the victims of violence".

Vajpayee and Advani, in their own interventions in the Rajya Sabha, argued that the events in Gujarat were a matter of shame and anguish, but that no purpose would be served by effecting a political change. A variety of steps had been taken under Article 355 and would continue to be initiated, they promised. If the Lok Sabha debate was all about the new depths that political discourse could sink to, the Rajya Sabha discussion was about how a vague constitutional provision had been utilised in a partisan cause to buttress the faltering legitimacy of a delinquent government.

What has been evident from the debate on Gujarat is a two-faced government's dual-track approach. While Fernandes, Bharati, Pathak and the Shiv Sena's Anand Geethe were fielded by the NDA to ensure that the links with the politics of communal provocation are not lost, Vajpayee and Advani with their measured and seemingly well-considered interventions sought to keep the restive allies on their side. As Gujarat continues to burn, with the basic norms of the rule of law being observed in the breach, the allies are likely to see through this duplicity and identify their own interests in terms quite distinct of the BJP. Indeed, never before has the BJP, by far the largest party in Parliament and numerically several times stronger than the next largest party within the NDA, looked so isolated within the make-believe alliance that it leads.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 01, 2002.)

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