Earlier this year, I was discussing partisanship in Indian politics with a friend from Bangalore temporarily based in Boston. In no other democracy, I suggested, did the two major parties use such vile language about one another. When the Government of India chose to allow foreign direct investment in the retail sector, the Chief Minister of Gujarat asked the Prime Minister how many Italian businessmen would benefit from this change in policy. The vulgarity was in character. There were weighty arguments to be made against FDI—that it would put small shopkeepers out of work, for example, or that large monopolies could sometimes force farmers to sell at distress prices. But rather than make his case in substantive terms, Mr Narendra Modi chose to invoke the ethnic origins of the leader of the ruling alliance.
Low innuendo is Mr Modi’s stock-in-trade. Congress leaders, for their part, are equally abusive of their opponents, although they prefer convent English to everyday Hindustani. Some serving Union Ministers prefer appearing on television to attending to their files, since being on air allows them to use dispararing language about senior BJP leaders.
I cannot recall a time in living memory when relations between Government and Opposition were so bad. There has been a complete breakdown of trust. A consequence of this mutual suspicion (not to say mutual hatred) is that Parliament scarcely functions. The Government never consults the Opposition before introducing an important bill. In response, the Opposition boycotts the House, or attends only to disrupt proceedings.
When I conveyed my dismay to my friend in Boston, he answered that in this respect the United States was as badly off. The Democrats and the Republicans detested one another. Gone were the days when the two parties would collaborate to prosecute a war or tackle an economic crisis. Now, every Presidential initiative was stalled by a Republican-dominated Congress. The Tea Party wing of the Party demonized the Democratic President, alluding darkly to his alleged non-American origins. The animosity was stoked and intensified by the electronic media. The nastiness of Fox News about Democrats was repaid by the nastiness of MSNBC about Republicans. As one moved from television to the blogs and on to Twitter, the language became more hate-filled still.
I agreed that things were bad in America, but I still thought that they were worse in India. When it came to a major natural disaster—such as that caused by Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy—or a serious terrorist attack—like 9/11—Democracts and Republicans would come together in the interests of the nation. But here, even on crucial issues of national safety and national honour, the Congress and the BJP wouldn’t talk, let alone co-operate.
Consider Kashmir. In 2003, at a time when militancy was at a low ebb, Atal Behari Vajpayee visited the Valley, the first Prime Minister to do so in a decade-and-a-half. This was the time for all parties to show a united front against the jehadis. But the Congress, then part of a coalition Government in the State, asked their Ministers to boycott the Prime Minister’s speech.
Five years later, another Prime Minister, a Congressman this time, started a fresh initiative for peace in Kashmir. Dr Manmohan Singh had begun talks with President Musharraf of Pakistan, seeking a settlement based on the conversion of the Line of Control into an international border. If this settlement went through, there would be no Kashmir ‘dispute’ any more. At this crucial moment, the BJP started an agitation, blocking the highway linking the Valley to the rest of India, thus denying food and medicines to the very people we were trying to persuade of our good intentions.
Indian politics is more divisive than American politics for another reason. In the United States, there are only two parties—Democracts and Republicans. These dominate national as well as state elections. For seats in Congress and the Senate, for elections to the Presidency and various Governorships, the main candidates are from these two parties alone. (The exceptions to this are very few, as in the odd seat from some small state which may be successfully contested by a socialist or a libertarian.)
In India, on the other hand, the BJP and the Congress have to share the political space with many other parties. In several major states neither the Congress nor the BJP are significant at all. In Uttar Pradesh, the main parties are the SP and the BJP; in West Bengal, the CPI(M) and the Trinamul; in Tamil Nadu, the DMK and the AIIDMK. And the mutual hatred between the parties in these states may exceed that between the Congress and the BJP at the national level. In West Bengal, the language used by the CPI(M) and the Trinamool about each other’s leaders can make Mr Narendra Modi and Mr Manish Tewari seem polite in comparison. In UP, almost the first thing the BSP and the SP does when their party comes into power is to put cadres and leaders of the other party in jail. The DMK and the AIDMK go further—they seek to imprison the main leader of the rival party, who has just demitted office as Chief Minister.
These cumulative animosities make for a political atmosphere that, in its sheer viciousness, is perhaps unequalled in the worldwide history of democratic politics. Meanwhile, the growing influence and reach of television, blogs, and Twitter—those forms of communication (or miscommunication) so prone to hasty and carelessly worded judgements—take the discourse to ever lower levels.
The partisanship of Indian politics is a major reason for the malfunctioning of Indian governments. No party trusts any other; no party respects the autonomy and dignity of public institutions. How can one ever promote or execute constructive policies in this climate of hatred and suspicion? It is past time that sensible, sober leaders across parties (a few do remain) seek to restore civility and decency to the democratic process. They should promote regular meetings between the Government and Opposition outside the legislative chambers, in the Centre and in all States too. They should ask for the insulation of civil service and police appointments from parties and politicians. And they should absolutely insist on the eschewing of innuendo and abuse in political debate.
I had drafted this column before the tragic floods in Uttarakhand. Their aftermath, with the boastfulness of Mr Narendra Modi competing with the opportunism of Mr Rahul Gandhi, sadly confirms its thesis. Even at a time of national calamity, the BJP and the Congress shall choose to put their electoral interest above the interests of the suffering Indian.
For the well-mannered, well-intentioned, men and women still in public life, here is a true story to inspire them. In 1977, Atal Behari Vajpayee was appointed External Affairs Minister. When he went to South Block to take charge, he was escorted to his office by a bevy of bureaucrats. Mr Vajpayee looked around, and immediately spotted a blank space on the wall. (He knew the room well, because he had often visited it in his many years as an Opposition MP.) ‘Panditji ki tasveer kahan gayi?’, he asked—where is the portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru that used to hang there? The babus said nothing, their silence betraying their complicity—for it was they who had removed Nehru’s portrait, in the belief that a man who had recently been jailed by Indira Gandhi would detest her father too. ‘Wapas lao’, commanded Mr Vajpayee, ‘satara saal hamare videsh mantri rahe’. And so the portrait of India’s first and longest-serving Foreign Minister was brought back to where it belonged.
THE POISON OF PARTISANSHIP
(first published in The Telegraph, 29th June 2013)