The new joke in the corridors of power is that if in the last five years the country suffered because it didn’t have a strong government, the next five years could be worrisome because we don’t have a strong Opposition.
The last time we had a majority government was in 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister with a whopping 414 MPs in a 543-member House with the next highest being NT Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam Party with 30 seats. The BJP, in its new avatar, had got just two. Indian politics has changed dramatically in the intervening period, but the lessons of those five years may be useful for both the Narendra Modi government and for the Opposition.
The Rajiv years in power were a period of missed opportunities and catastrophic mistakes. From the failure to stand up to Muslim fundamentalism in the Shah Bano case to the capitulation before Hindu extremists that led to opening the gates of the Babri masjid, the Rajiv Gandhi government provided enough ammunition to the secular-pseudo secular debate with terrifying consequences.
Much of the violence of the 90s — be it the post-Ayodhya riots or the rise of militancy in the Kashmir Valley — had its roots in the political lapses in the 1980s. Even Gandhi’s tragic assassination was a consequence of the misadventure in Sri Lanka.
The reason why Gandhi’s government failed was not just because of the inexperience of its prime minister; it failed because its brute parliamentary majority made it arrogant and almost impervious to public opinion. It eventually descended into chaos once VP Singh turned whistle-blower and became a symbol of the anti-corruption movement in the country.
It would be unfair at this stage to even suggest that the Narendra Modi regime, which is less than a week old and deserves an extended honeymoon, will go the way of the last single-party majority government. So far, the prime minister hasn’t put a foot wrong. His invite to Saarc leaders for his swearing-in was a diplomatic masterstroke that immediately transformed him from the great polariser to the astute statesman.
His Cabinet — while not bursting with talent — shows that this is a prime minister who will not succumb easily to ally pressure. But a domineering presence at the top can breed a sense of absolute power down the ranks. Already the language used by some of Modi’s ministers and the Sangh parivar’s foot soldiers betrays a smugness that comes with the belief of being in office for the next 10 years at least.
This is where the Modi government mustn’t make the mistakes that Gandhi did 30 years ago, or for that matter, the Manmohan Singh regime was guilty of in 2009. Gandhi was a man in a hurry in 1984, attempting to shake up an ossified political class without any checks and balances in place.
Eventually, that same old order hit back and torpedoed his government. In 2009, UPA 2 was convinced that it was in power for at least a decade, a conviction that bred hubris and complacency, from which the Congress never really recovered.
There are equally important lessons for the Opposition to draw upon from the past. During the Rajiv years, there was a near breakdown in relations between the government and the Opposition with an entire Parliament session being boycotted for the first time over the Bofors issue.
This fraught relationship has got progressively worse with the 15th Lok Sabha seeing the maximum adjournments, sparked off primarily by a belligerent BJP. The Congress may be tempted to resort to tit-for-tat politics but the fact is India cannot afford another bout of endless recrimination and non-cooperation that derails the legislative process.
Which is why after a highly surcharged and bitter election campaign, it’s time to lower the temperature and restore a sense of balance to our polity. That Sonia Gandhi — albeit 72 hours late — eventually congratulated the new prime minister and attended his swearing-in is a positive sign. It would have been even better if the other big winners of this election — powerful regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, J Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik — had also been present in the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt, if only to reflect the rainbow colours of Indian democracy.
With the largest Opposition party, the Congress, having just 44 MPs, constitutionally we don’t have a Leader of the Opposition. But the limited numbers should not prevent the emergence of a more vibrant and responsible Opposition. Sadly, in India we don’t have the concept of a Westminster-style ‘Shadow Cabinet’, an idea that can bring in expertise and accountability. Opposition MPs are no longer expected to play the role of a ‘constructive’ Opposition, but are solely judged by their ability to disrupt and confront the treasury benches. This is an unhealthy development, one which holds the frightening prospect of more parliamentary logjams.
Which is why before the first session of the new Parliament begins in early June there should be a round table conference called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If Modi could show the imagination to call Saarc leaders to his swearing-in, he must now call all the major Opposition leaders for an intimate dialogue to 7 RCR.
He may have made a “Congress Mukt” Bharat his clarion call during the campaign, he may have got into slanging matches with a Mamata, may have been critical of a Jayalalithaa or a Patnaik, but now is the time to shun adversarial politics and attempt a political reconciliation that is based on mutual respect.
It won’t be easy given the strong personalities on either side of the political divide. But there is hope: On day one of the new government, we saw the unusual sight of a warm handshake between Nawaz Sharif and Modi. What stops us from seeing a similar engagement between Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi?
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal