It was a casual question during a phone call from Paris but, last week, it hit the nail straight on the head. Perhaps, distance has given Pertie a perspective the hurly-burly has denied the rest of us. Or, maybe there are many others who share the same thought but Pertie is the first I’ve heard express it.
“Why can’t we have a national government?” he asked, after I had explained the political crisis staring the country in the face. “After all, on most issues it’s hard to distinguish the BJP from Congress. So why can’t they put their differences aside and get together for the country’s good?”
At the time I was startled and speechless. I muttered incomprehensibly and changed the subject. But his intriguing question provoked deeper thought. Can the hurdles that prevent the coming together of the two largest parties in Indian politics — in fact, the only two truly national parties — be overcome?
Let’s start with the ‘big differences’they usually cite against each other. From the Congress’s standpoint it’s the Ram Mandir issue, the uniform civil code and the abrogation of Article 370. And, beyond that, it’s the commitment to Hindutva. But are these insuperable? If the BJP in ‘98 and 99 could put aside the first three to form the NDA — a commitment Advani has repeated more recently to The Hindu — it can easily do so again. And if Hindutva did not stop the National Conference, the Akalis, the JD(U) and the BJD from allying with the BJP, I find it hard to believe it will forever deter an understanding with the Congress. If the desire to get together is manifest and clear, this last gap can be bridged.
Viewed through BJP’s lenses, it’s the Congress Party’s ‘psuedo-secularism’, its ‘rhetoric about the Muslims’– though very rarely actually in action – that is hard to accept. But how different is this to Nitish Kumar and the JD(U)? If the BJP can learn to live with them, it can also, in time, accept this. In fact, Hindutva and the Congress Party’s Muslim ‘rhetoric’could even cancel each other out.
Now, turn to the points the BJP and Congress agree on, the similarities that could bind them. First, they are both committed to economic reform and liberalization. In fact, they share the credit for India’s economic success. Second, they want a close strategic relationship with America. Actually, the BJP is the architect of the policy culminating in the nuclear deal, except that petty politics has transformed it into its chief opponent! Third, they are equally apprehensive of the rise of regional parties. Indeed, they both regard the Mayawati phenomenon with deep concern.Fourth,both have presided over episodes that should shame them. For the BJP its Gujarat in 2002, for Congress the Sikh killings of 1984.
History has several examples of rival parties uniting for the greater national good. In Britain, this happened when the Labour and the Conservatives formed a national government in the 1940s. In Germany, the SDP and the CDU have united more frequently. In France, the Gaullists and the Socialists have cohabited, with Chirac serving as Mitterrand’s prime minister. Even in Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe have shared power. Why, then, is it impossible in India?
The only issue is what will propel the Congress and the BJP towards each other? It would be more likely in the event of an economic emergency or an external threat. But might not a fractured election result create the grounds for a political crisis that has the same result? And what about the conviction that getting together would be the best thing for India? Are politicians impervious to such sentiments? Will they always, and every time, ignore them? I think not.
If public pressure on the two big parties to swallow their differences and unite grows, its not inconceivable that Sonia Gandhi and LK Advani might reach out to each other. I can’t say when, or if that will happen, but I do sense it’s becoming less unlikely.
I welcome that. Perhaps there are tens of millions — may be hundreds — who feel the same way.