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The poison-fruit of political partisanship

The recent heckling of Congress chief ministers sharing a stage with the prime minister is unfortunate. However, it is of a piece with a more widespread atmosphere of distrust and suspicion that pervades Indian politics, writes Ramachandra Guha.

columns Updated: Aug 31, 2014 11:06 IST

The recent heckling of Congress chief ministers sharing a stage with the prime minister has occasioned some comment. The heckling is unfortunate. However, it is of a piece with a more widespread atmosphere of distrust and suspicion that pervades Indian politics.

Across the country, leaders and cadres of rival parties dislike and often detest one another. The poisonous partisanship at the national level between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party has its parallels in the States. The hatred between the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu is intense, as is that between the Trinamool and the CPI (M) in West Bengal, or between the SP and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh.

One consequence of this growing partisanship is the malfunctioning of the legislative branch of government. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Indian Parliament was a theatre for intelligent and spirited debate. Now, laws proposed by the ruling party are rarely discussed with any depth in Parliament, the Opposition seeking rather to shout down the proposal or render it infructuous through a walk-out.

"In the noise and disorder generated in Parliament over [allegations of] scandalous misconduct somewhere," writes the sociologist André Béteille, "it becomes difficult to decide on the merits of the individual case. But the long-term effect of continuous discord and disorder within Parliament is an erosion of public trust in the institution itself". As Béteille continues, "the chronic mistrust between government and opposition impairs the foundation of democracy. Mistrust and suspicion on one side is met with concealment and evasion on the other. The very purpose of shaping the opposition into a responsible and legitimate political institution is frustrated".

At the national level, the breakdown of civility in political relations dates from the time of Indira Gandhi. Some of her male rivals could not abide the idea of a woman Prime Minister — consider the misogynist remark attributed to Ram Manohar Lohia, 'goongi gudiya'. She, in turn, once scandalously accused the great patriot Jayaprakash Narayan of acting at the behest of imperialist powers.

Mrs Gandhi's detention of her political opponents during the Emergency was an extreme manifestation of this hostility. The bitterness that the Emergency engendered persisted for years. Once trust had been replaced by suspicion, relations between government and opposition became increasingly adversarial.

In India today, the national interest is routinely subordinated to partisan point-scoring. This makes both rational debate and constructive law-making very difficult. For instance, when it was in power at the Centre between 1998 and 2004, the BJP urged a modernisation of labour laws, and the freeing up of the retail sector to allow in foreign investment. The Congress opposed those policies, but when it came to power in 2004, became favourably inclined to them, only to find the BJP now standing in the way.

As in Indira Gandhi's day, there is probably a personal element to the intense, irrational, and altogether destructive hatred that the Congress and the BJP have for one another. When she first entered politics, Sonia Gandhi was subject to a string of xenophobic innuendos about her foreign origin. This made the new Congress president greatly suspicious about the intentions of her political adversaries.

A now forgotten incident is very revealing here. In 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited the Kashmir Valley, the first prime minister to do so in more than a decade. Insurgency was down; tourism was up. A small window of hope had opened. Vajpayee himself, a liberal among the bigots, did not push his party's hard line on the abolition of Article 370. Instead, in a daring move, he said he was willing to consider any solution to the Kashmir dispute that met the imperatives of human dignity and decency (or, to use his own word, 'insaniyaat').

It may be that the jihadis and the Pakistan government would have not allowed talks to proceed on the basis proposed by Vajpayee. In the event, his generous gesture was undermined within India, and by the leading opposition party, no less. The Congress was then in power in Srinagar, in a coalition led by the Peoples Democratic Party. While the PDP chief minister and his party colleagues attended the prime minister's speech, the Congress ministers in the state government boycotted the function. It is not clear whether they did this on their own or on instructions from 10 Janpath. In any case, it was a shocking dereliction of their Constitutional duties. Mr Vajpayee had come not as a swayamsewak but as the country's elected prime minister. This was the time to stand with him against the jihadis and demonstrate that on this issue of crucial national importance, government and opposition could work together.

Given this background, the Congress is somewhat hypocritical in complaining now of the heckling by BJP cadres of their chief ministers. But the current prime minister is not above reproach either. During the election campaign, Narendra Modi issued a stream of vituperation against his political opponents. No prime ministerial candidate before him had made slander and calumny so much a part of his rhetorical equipment. Naturally, Mr Modi's followers do not consider civility to be a virtue either.

A multi-party democracy can function effectively only on the basis of trust. Parties must be consistent in the policies they support or oppose, whether in power or out of power. They must take the arguments of their rivals at face value, rather than impute them to bad faith or personal advantage. By their contempt for these elementary rules of democratic functioning, the Congress and the BJP are going a great disservice to the voters and citizens of India.

Ramachandra Guha's most recent book is Gandhi Before India

You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_GuhaThe

Views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 30, 2014 23:52 IST