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HindustanTimes Sat,20 Sep 2014
On one side of the see-saw
Sagarika Ghose
September 10, 2013
First Published: 22:25 IST(10/9/2013)
Last Updated: 13:44 IST(14/2/2014)

The monsoon session of Parliament has drawn to a busy close, with MPs showing uncharacteristic zeal in passing a host of Bills that the UPA rushed through in the last few days of the session.

Yet have the so-called debates on the Bills been examples of democracy in action? Hardly.

Every politician voted for the food security Bill. Every politician voted for the land acquisition Bill. Every politician is apparently pro- farmer and anti-industry when it comes to land purchases. Every politician is in favour of distributing cheap food.

Every politician is in favour of government expenditure on welfare. Every politician is anti- rich and pro-poor. Far from a genuine ideological exchange on the growth-versus-equity debate, a deadening artificial consensus prevails among lawmakers, snuffing out any real contest of ideas.

Perhaps the only point of difference is the 'secular' vs 'communal' divide, but even there total consensus exists on the need to play identity politics. Every party plays identity politics.

The BJP argues for the 'identity' of the majority, the Congress and allies speak up for the 'identity' of minorities. No political party can afford to eschew identity politics altogether and argue, for example, that on the disputed site at Ayodhya, there should be neither mandir nor masjid but maybe a charitable hospital.

Political debates have become like Bollywood formula films. To win elections, every political party feels it must push the same formula. In Bollywood you need hero-heroine-villain. Similarly in politics, you need to sound pro-poor, pro-freebies, anti-talks with Pakistan, pro-identity, anti-rich, and generally sound exactly like everyone else.

All political parties are crowded on one extreme side of the political debate, because no politician today is courageous enough or confident enough to take a genuine risk and set the agenda. Setting the agenda is seen as far too risky. Instead the only way to fight elections is to respond to a mythical age-old formula of what 'the people' supposedly want.

Let's take the Amartya Sen vs Bhagwati debate that has been playing out so vociferously in the media. Does India need greater doses of pro-business, pro-market policies — broadly the Bhagwati line — or does India need more welfare, government spending on health and education, broadly the Sen line?

Is there even a glimmer of this debate in Parliament? Can any politician today dare to openly say they are pro-growth, pro-market, and pro-reform even though many may secretly believe so?

Or is every politician — from the Congress to the BJP — totally subservient to the Sonia Gandhi line of the food Bill, the land Bill, and greater welfare spending? The Sen-Bhagwati debate, the defining debate of our times, is resoundingly absent in Parliament.

There are many in the Congress opposed to subsidies. Are they free to say so in a parliamentary debate? No. There are some in the BJP opposed to overplaying the 'Hindu' card. Are they free to say so in a parliamentary debate? No. Our Parliament has no place for free thinkers.

Narendra Modi is supposedly the most openly business friendly politician at the moment. But even he sounds like Sonia Gandhi when it comes to aam aadmi, food security, land acquisition and welfare expenditure.

Modi's point of difference with the FSB was not that it should be scrapped because it will be a fiscal disaster, (an economically right-wing party should make this argument) but that it does not adequately promote public nutrition.

The BJP's point of attack on the UPA is that they will bring a better food Bill and a better land Bill. There is no fundamental debate or disagreement on whether the two Bills are good for India in the first place or not, no disagreement on the universal conviction that populism is the only way to fight elections.

If Modi is really pro-business, why does he not openly argue that the land Bill will de-industrialise and de-urbanise India? Or reject hand-outs outright and aggressively support market forces in agriculture? But no, even a politician with apparently the momentum of middle-class approval behind him, is hesitant to speak a new language.

Instead he speaks the same pro-aam aadmi language probably because aside from some reforms-minded Vajpayee followers in the BJP, the larger Sangh parivar's economics has always been pretty similar to the CPI(M)'s. Modi attacks the Congress from every platform as incompetent and corrupt, but never actually says how his policies will be any different from the UPA.

Contrast this with the debates in the British House of Commons on the EU budget and intervention in Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron was attacked even by his own party MPs, and lost both votes.

Debates ranged on for hours with members, even within parties, arguing from different ideological viewpoints, differences emerging even within parties and each speaker arguing to change his opponents mind.

But in our Parliament no one is allowed to change their mind. Party lines must be upheld because no one has the courage to defy a party whip, and defiance could result in suspension and even expulsion from the fold.

The unwillingness to give political space to a conscientious objector and the stringent anti-defection law provisions have killed parliamentary debate. The role of the anti-defection law in destroying parliamentary debate has been extensively analysed by Liberty think-tank director Barun Mitra. (http://tinyurl.com/ohzxegv)

Thus, there is near-total, mind-numbing and anti-democratic consensus among politicians, with all netas converged on one side like kids bunched on one extreme end of a see-saw.

When parties do not have the freedom to openly express competing viewpoints on policies, then all you are left with is personalised name-calling. Since no substantive intellectual disagreement is possible, naturally all that the netas are left with is to call each other 'cockroaches' and 'frogs'.

Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN

The views expressed by the author are personal


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