Last week LK Advani did what is considered extremely unusual for an Indian politician: he said ‘sorry’. Predictably, in a political environment not used to such courtesies, the BJP leader’s apology letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi for having dragged her name into the black money tangle has proved controversial. The BJP has tied itself in semantics, claiming that a ‘regret’ is not an apology. The Congress has been celebratory, viewing Advani’s remarks as a victory for its leadership. No one knows what prompted Advani to suddenly express regret, but whatever the motives, it did at least suggest a welcome return to decency in public life: after all, if you make a personal accusation without enough evidence then propriety demands that you issue a retraction.
Ironically, Advani himself has been at the receiving end of a lack of grace on the part of his political opponents. A couple of years ago, on the occasion of the release of his autobiography, not a single member of the UPA attended the function, barring Sharad Pawar. The ‘unofficial’ boycott only confirmed how Indian politics had descended into a culture of political ‘untouchability’. Sonia Gandhi too, has had to endure similar insults, especially when she first entered politics. The kind of public abuse she was subjected to would have worn down a less-determined personality, and reflected poorly on those who branded her a ‘videshi’ bahu while claiming to uphold ‘Indian’ culture.
It wasn’t always like this. The first cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru included some noted adversaries of the Congress like BR Ambedkar and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. The Mahatma never tired of reminding India’s first prime minister, “Freedom has come to India, not to the Congress party!” A sage advice that Nehru remembered right through his prime ministership. In 1959, when Rajaji, by then the fiercest critic of Nehru’s politics visited Delhi, Nehru made it a point to call on him at Rajaji’s daughter’s residence and pay his respects.
Where did it all change? Most political observers believe that the period leading up to the Emergency was the breaking point. Indira Gandhi’s attempt to ‘personalise’ politics meant that she began to see political rivals as ‘enemies’. Jayaprakash Narayan, with whom the Nehrus had shared an enduring bond (Indira’s mother Kamala had been a great friend of JP’s wife Prabhawati), became enemy number one. By imprisoning him and other Opposition leaders during the Emergency, Mrs Gandhi created the basis for a politics that was no longer fought according to the rules of the democratic game.
Unfortunately, no PM has since been able to arrest the slide. In the Rajiv years, a brute majority on one hand and a united Opposition on the other created a volatile situation, culminating in en masse resignations over the Bofors issue just weeks before the 1989 general elections. In the Rao years, the misuse of investigative agencies to slam charges against political opponents became a survival tactic. AB Vajpayee was cut in the Nehruvian cloth, but he did little to stop the campaign of calumny against Sonia when she took over as Congress leader.
What is true of national politics has been magnified in the context of regional politics, where the adversarial nature of relationships has touched an all-time low. A Mayawati and a Mulayam Singh won’t share a cup of tea, Mamataa Banerjee won’t attend a meeting presided over by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Narendra Modi is persona non grata for the state Congress, M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa are only looking to put each other in jail.
Sadly, a viciously polarised political climate makes it difficult to evolve a consensus on key issues of state/national interest. When Tamil Nadu fishermen are attacked by the Sri Lankan navy, it should hardly be seen as an issue concerning an individual party, but one that involves the state. Yet, little attempt has been made to present a united front by the two Dravida parties. When the Bengal government was looking to keep the Tata Nano in the state, it was not the occasion to score political points but to see the investment as being in the interest of the state. Yet, sadly that didn’t happen. Even a celebratory occasion like 50 years of Gujarat and Maharashtra has been marred by political one-upmanship. The result: a regrettable departure from the norms and basic courtesies of public life.
Perhaps, the assemblies are taking their cue from Parliament. Over the last few months, the fallout of the 2G scam has seen a near breakdown in the Opposition-government relationship. The Opposition may well believe that a boycott of the winter session of Parliament was necessary to force an obdurate government into accepting its demand for a joint parliamentary committee, but it’s also set a dangerous precedent: if a ruling party decision isn’t acceptable to the Opposition then a prolonged parliamentary standoff will be used as a weapon to ensure the government falls in line. Which is why it’s important that Parliament now gets back to legislative business and looks beyond the acrimony. It’s vital for the political leadership across party lines to evolve a bipartisan consensus on core issues without allowing personal agendas to take over. The line between a noisy democracy and a dysfunctional one is often very thin. Post-script: Now that Advani has set the trend, can we expect more such apologies in the future? Not just to each other, but maybe even apologies to the long-suffering Indian citizenry, which has endured corruption, mass violence and much more?
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network n email@example.com The views expressed by the author are personal