Clenched fist and toxic tongue


Clenched fist and toxic tongue

YET another session of Parliament ended yesterday. Two lingering images from this “washed-out” session give us an idea of the precariousness that has come to define the institution, as also of the undemocratic impulses draining vitality out of our liberal political culture. First, Sonia Gandhi‘s clenched fist. The photograph of the Congress President leading her troops in a boisterous protest outside the House made it to the front page of almost every newspaper in the country. The very incongruity of it was breath-taking.

Here is a leader who for more than ten years has conducted herself with restraint and dignity. However, this time, she allowed the heat of the moment to get to her. She abandoned the portals of cultivated gravitas. Admittedly, protest and partisanship can be exhilarating, but this was an unhappy and inexcusable lapse. Her show, in fact, overshadowed an equally unredeemable performance by Rahul Gandhi when he appeared in the House, sporting a black armband. His great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, the father of the Indian Parliament, would have been at a loss to comprehend such behaviour.

The second image from the wasted session is that of the vacant chair of Modi. The absentee Prime Minister remained unconcerned and unbothered by the parliamentary impasse. The only time he was heard from in these last three weeks was when he went to Patna to kickstart the BJP‘s Bihar campaign. It was a joyous Modi, an ebullient Modi, wallowing in the rites of partisanship, displaying his rhetorical ware, calling rivals names, kicking up passions and prejudices. These two images take us to the heart of the central democratic conundrum: 

Who gets to rule the country is determined by a free and fair election. In this process, the challenger makes his argument as to why the incumbent government ought to be shown the door and the party in power plies its plus points, the electorate takes a call, the winners and losers shake hands, forget the bitterness of the campaign and exchange places in Parliament, and the business of governance and ruling is resumed on an even keel. The rules of the game are understood, respected and observed both by the winner and the loser. The winner is called upon to summon certain magnanimity, the loser is expected to behave.

The conundrum is what happens when each combatant has a different notion of the rules of the game, of what winning and losing entail. A textbook reasonableness has not been possible in the “new age” that was presumably ushered in after May, 2014. Perhaps, the unreasonableness that has now led to a kind of breakdown in Parliament was built into the 2014 election campaign. Modi had made — and the rest of the BJP leadership countenanced it — the 2014 contest into a personal affair. It was a campaign against the presumed excesses and infirmities of the “maa and beta” and their “sarkaar” and it promised an attractive alternative “Modi sarkaar”.

The country witnessed the most personality-centric national campaign since 1971.That is why perhaps the transition to a post-poll institutional equanimity has eluded Modi and the rest of the new ruling dispensation. The Prime Minister, who is also the Leader of the House as also the leader of the nation, had an obligation to make a graceful transition. That is the victor’s burden. That, unfortunately, has not happened. To make the matter more complicated, there is an electoral calendar -and its battle dates to the states – that keeps the Prime Minister firmly enthralled by the adversary-bashing. He chooses to remain locked in a kind of self-devised matrix of animosities. This reluctance to make the transition smooth is a reflection of the larger contempt for the idea of a democratic opposition. This disdain has been smelt, felt and noted, on both sides of the divide.

The unhappy outcome is that a vast army of partisans keeps generating needless ill will. There is an industry of reporters, editors, columnists, anchors, bloggers, pamphleteers, cyber-warriors, and others with access to social media that keeps stoking the fires of partisanship. The ruling party feels it has a legitimate licence to dismantle politically the Nehru-Gandhi family‘s position in the Congress party. And in this process, no quarter will be given and no quarter asked. A classic example of this personal overload of the political conversation is the External Affairs Minister’s performance in the Lok Sabha which was dripping with shoddiness.

The BJP strategists are entitled to daydream that the Congress party is itching to be liberated from the Gandhis’ yoke. But, if they thought that they would keep dishing it out to the Gandhis and the family would just lump it, they had it coming. In fact, it was almost ordained that the Congress would feel obliged to return fire with fire. The political weather had changed, courtesy a gentleman named Lalit Modi. The Congress has reason to feel that the Lalitgate has robbed the Modi sarkaar of all its moral sheen. Sushma Swaraj conceded a kind of (im)moral equivalence between her relationship with the unlovable Lalit Modi and that of the Gandhis with the shadowy Mr Q. The Congress may also feel a sense of satisfaction that with just 44 members, it has managed to singe the Modi sarkaar. It has exercised, what Vaclav Havel once called “the power of the powerless.” 

The challenge for the Congress was how not to lose the plot. That the Congress is doing to the BJP what the BJP did to the UPA could only be a minor tactic, but not the entire strategy. All said and done, the Congress thinks of itself as a natural party of governance, with an abiding interest in democratic institutions. The Congress history, heritage and legacy should prompt the party to ensure that Parliament does not get reduced to a dysfunctional institution. Nothing better would suit the preference of the authoritarian voices and personalities than a constitutional platform of accountability getting reduced to a hobbled arrangement. The Nagpur crowd has never been a very enthusiastic votary of democratic institutions. 

Partisanship can and does make very consuming demands on political leaders. But it is simply beyond comprehension why the Congress leadership has abandoned the very telling and very potent “suit-boot-ki-sarkaar” plank. Its uncompromising stand against the dilution of the land acquisition law in favour of the industry has already yielded political dividends. Parliament is the forum where the opponents need to make the ruling party explain and defend its deeds and misdeeds. Parliamentary government is an arrangement of trust and cooperation between groups and their leaders.

Unfortunately, the breakdown of interpersonal relations is complete. So far, Modi has given no indication that he is inclined to nurture the habits, customs and etiquette which flesh out the formal functioning of parliamentary institutions. Rather, there is a certain pride in not observing the conventional niceties. Notwithstanding Modi’s cultivated disdain for democratic dialogue and conversation, the onus will remain on the liberals to ensure that democratic institutions are nurtured and sustained.