“Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule—and both commonly succeed, and are right.” H L Mencken (1880-1956)
In a vibrant democracy, a ruling party is one which knows how to rule. And an effective Opposition is one, which knows how to rue. The events of the last few months have proved that neither has got its act together. In numerical terms, it has been a battle between unequals. The 310-member NDA is pitted against the 55-member UPA in the Lok Sabha. At the end of a four-week cacophonic competition, both declared victory by not letting the House transact business on their terms. The Indian Parliament has ceased to be a forum for conducting any meaningful legislative business. The abominable antics of the last session reinforced the public perception that India would have to live with the stark reality that a prominent pillar of democracy was crumbling under the unwieldy weight of whimsies of the very people who are expected to ensure that it functions. But what is perplexing is the demoralised state of the ruling party, led by one of the most popular and powerful PMs the country has ever had. It is perhaps for the first time since Independence that over a dozen ministers of the ruling party hit the streets, protesting against the undemocratic attitude of the 44-member Congress in the Lower House. And this is the ruling party, which has not even undertaken a 500-metre Save Democracy Marathon from Parliament to Vijay Chowk. This pathos-painted procession was led by none other than LK Advani, a veteran of many skirmishes against dictatorial tendencies exhibited by many administrations, and Home Minister Rajnath Singh along with colleagues such as Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari. The BJP leadership also decided to dispatch one Union minister each along with four MPs to all the 44 constituencies, which has sent Congress candidates to the Lok Sabha. The mandate of this tactical team was to expose the enemy’s negative approach towards development. It is another matter that the majority of the Congress MPs are from states where the BJP counts for little. But when the party in power chooses to become the Opposition, it raises serious questions over the growing irrelevance of our democratic institutions.
PM Narendra Modi has set the tone for all future confrontations with the Congress. He told the BJP Parliamentary Party, “The Congress wants to save the family while the BJP wants to save the country.” Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi was quick to retort: “I am here to defend the freedom of the people of the country... I am here to defend the country from Narendra Modi.” It is evident that once again that the battle lines are being drawn, keeping the Gandhi Parivar in mind. Modi’s call was almost a rebuttal of what the Congress had declared in 1971. When PM Indira Gandhi became the target of a united Opposition, her party coined a battering ram of a slogan, “Woh kehte hain Indira hatao aur hum kehte hain Garibi Hatao (they say Remove Indira, while we say Remove Poverty).”
Marches and demonstrations are an integral part of expressing dissent in a democracy. But it is mostly the Opposition that resorts to these tactics. During the past 68 years, it is mainly the non-Congress parties, which have adopted such methods whenever they failed to corner the ruling Congress on the floor of the House. The Congress returned the favour when the NDA was in power from 1998 to 2004. But when it was ruling the country, never have Congress ministers and leaders ever taken out a protest march against the Opposition.
What was unique about the NDA march was its decision to paint the Congress as the most demonic danger to democratic institutions such as the Parliament. Only 15 months ago, the country had rejected the Congress by denying it even the status of a legitimate opposition party in the House. It was blitzkrieged in the majority of mainline states like UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana and Gujarat. The electorate did not take either of its leaders Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi seriously. Former PM Manmohan Singh could not even gather more than 1,000 people for any of his rallies. More than a year later, not only have the mother and son team picked up the courage to roaringly rush into the well of the House but also to dictate the proceedings of Parliament by forging a synthetic unity among non-BJP opposition parties. For the Gandhis, their personal supremacy is far more important than anything else.
The NDA leadership, it seems, has failed to gauge the damaging capacity of this formidable phalanx. With a credible record of performance on many fronts, the PM and his squad could have gone for their jugular and silenced critics by presenting solid evidence of his government’s performance. Modi’s second Independence Day speech listed several of the government’s significant achievements. Understandably, it is difficult to deal with a party like the Congress, which is solely determined to stall any legislation brought by the BJP. Nevertheless, the NDA’s floor managers, BJP’s spinmeisters and master strategists could not devise any media strategy or political grand plan to divide the Opposition and force the Congress to the negotiating table. It did make some concessions at the fag-end of the session, but the Congress, which scented victory, foiled every attempt to allow Parliament to function. As British PM Clement Attlee, who was in power when India gained Independence, remarked, “Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.” The challenge before Modi is to ensure that both sides adhere to these twin tenets of democracy. The Congress is fighting to survive. The Modi-led government must thrive on the delivery of promises it made during the 2014 elections. Protest marches cannot be a substitute for good governance. Modi’s success lies in not allowing the current political power game to once again become a ‘NaMo vs the Gandhis’ issue. After all, that is how he swept India off its feet in 2014.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla