Life in exile can be a sobering, as well as a gastronomic experience. Within weeks of the 2004 general elections, I happened to be in Jeddah and was taken to the palatial home of then exiled Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Over endless cups of kashmiri kahwa, an exotic range of kebabs and generous portions of gajar halwa, the epicurean Sharif was moved to remark: “I am truly amazed by your democracy. I just saw a show on Indian television where all your former Prime Ministers were attending a function and smiling at each other. Look at us: in Pakistan, once you are out of power, you are either thrown into jail, or pushed into exile!” Four years later, the wheel has turned dramatically: while Sharif and his arch enemy Asif Ali Zardari, whom he once imprisoned, exchange bear hugs and power-sharing agreements, in India, our political rivals are struggling to share a table, be it at a seminar or at a book release function.
Not surprisingly, LK Advani’s ‘gesture’ in paying a courtesy call to Sonia Gandhi and the PM to present a copy of his memoirs has been met with cynicism, by both his supporters and his critics. While the BJP cadres appear to find their leader’s move a sign of unnecessary weakness, the Congress has chosen to be contemptuous of what they see as a counterfeit image-building exercise. That Advani’s visit came only a day after the entire UPA government, with the sole exception of the NCP’s Sharad Pawar, chose to boycott the release of the BJP leader’s book, is a reflection of the times we live in: politicians are not rivals any more but enemies, engaged in a state of permanent confrontation. Conciliation is passé, the government and the opposition are expected to be combatants in a political akhara.
Invite Sonia Gandhi to chair a function, and there is a fair chance that the BJP will not be in attendance. Get the BJP leadership to speak at a summit, and the Congress will be missing in action. Is it any wonder that the only forum now for debate is arguably a mock fight in a television studio, with parliament also becoming increasingly irrelevant? Indeed, both at the Centre and the states, basic courtesies are being cast aside. When Mayawati was being sworn in as UP chief minister, Mulayam Singh and his party stayed away. In Maharashtra, the traditional session-eve get-together called by the governor is routinely boycotted by the opposition. In West Bengal, a Mamata Banerjee acts as if Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee does not exist. In Gujarat, the opposition regards Narendra Modi as persona non-grata. In states like Tamil Nadu and Punjab, whoever is in power is busy plotting how to send their principal opponent to jail.
It wasn’t always like this. In fact, the great Indian political tradition was built on a culture of consensus and accommodation. Jawaharlal Nehru’s first cabinet and the original constituent assembly reflected this spirit: ideological opponents like Nehru, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, BR Ambedkar, were all part of the cut-and-thrust of democratic decision-making. As Mahatma Gandhi remarked, “Freedom has come to the Indian nation, not the Congress party”.
The rot set in during Indira Gandhi’s reign: opposition members being thrown into jail during the Emergency was hardly the prescription for a robust democracy. But even in the dark days of the Emergency, there were some channels of communication kept open between political adversaries: Mrs Gandhi, for example, exchanged rather emotional letters with her nemesis Jaiprakash Narayan in the lead up to the Emergency. Bofors widened the rift, with politics becoming increasingly personalised. Rajiv Gandhi became the target of a shrill, and in some ways, single-point agenda. The demolition of the Babri Masjid brought a strident ideological polarisation to the debate: to charges of corruption was now added the calumny of being ‘communal’.
But the real turning point, in a sense, was the rise of Sonia Gandhi as Congress president in 1998. It is interesting that in 1995, barely three years after the Babri demolition, then PM Narasimha Rao was the guest of honour at a function to mark the release of then opposition leader AB Vajpayee’s poems. Rao and Vajpayee were almost political soulmates: leaders from different parties who openly admitted to sharing a deep and abiding respect for each other, both nurtured in a Nehruvian political tradition which placed a premium on friendship beyond ideology.
Sonia Gandhi’s ascent changed all that. For the BJP and the anti-Nehru Lohiaites, she symbolised the curse of dynastic politics. That she was of Italian origin only added a bitter, xenophobic edge to the campaign: in the eyes of her opponents, Sonia Gandhi’s very presence in national politics was loathsome: she was not just a rival, but an ‘anti-national’ of foreign origins. The manner of the public criticism directed at her saw the vocabulary of Indian politics sink to a new low: never before or since has an individual been targeted in such coarse and indecent language. Even after ten years at the helm, her critics have never come to terms with Sonia’s role as the leader of the Congress. Given what she has had to endure, is it any surprise that Mrs Gandhi is unwilling to reach out to the very people who routinely abused her in public?
While Sonia has been victimised, Advani too has been demonised. If foreign origins has been used to attack Mrs Gandhi, Advani has remained a prisoner of his image as the architect of the 1992 Babri masjid demolition. No attempt at refurbishing his image as a more moderate, accommodative politician will satisfy the Advani-baiters for whom the ‘lauh purush’ remains the sinister face of communal politics. Why, for example, did PM Manmohan Singh choose to reach out to Vajpayee as the ‘Bhisma Pitamah’ of Indian politics on the nuclear issue even while studiously ignoring Mr Advani? Is this not a glaring example that the leader of the opposition remains an ‘untouchable’ for the ruling arrangement?
This ‘untouchability’ factor now threatens the very basis for reasoned decision-making in a democracy. The near-collapse of the Indo-US nuclear deal is a classic example of the ominous consequences of a deeply fractured polity. That the left would oppose the deal was not unexpected. That the BJP, which had pioneered a tectonic shift in Indo-US relations, would join the chorus is worrisome. For it is increasingly apparent that the BJP’s opposition is based more on a visceral hatred of the Congress than a realistic assessment of the country’s interests. The BJP may damn the PM as the “weakest-ever” as part of their political campaign, but surely they must learn to do business with the country’s chief executive. Similarly, while the Congress may criticise Advani, surely he deserves more respect as the face of the opposition.
It’s not just the N-deal which has been a victim of the changed political dynamics. Major economic legislation, like the pension bill, is also hostage to the sharp polarisation of minds. Last year, the union budget was passed without a debate. When the NDA was in power, the Congress-led opposition boycotted defence minister George Fernandes, refusing to discuss critical issues related to national security. Is it not depressing that individual political battles are spinning so dangerously out of control?
The time has come to end the atmosphere of enmity. In an election year, heightened political rhetoric is inevitable. But surely some measure of cooperation is possible across the political divide. Here’s a suggestion: invite the Advanis over to dinner, Mr Prime Minister, along with the Karats and the Gandhis. It might only end up as a photo-op, but let’s at least make a beginning. I’d hate to believe that while Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari sign historic declarations, Indian politicians can’t engage in polite conversation on national issues.
The writer is Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN