Lack of strong leaders led to parliament paralysis (Comment)

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS
Saturday, December 25, 2010

The relationship between a Congress-led government and the opposition parties in India remains hostage to the belief prevalent among the latter during the first few decades after independence that they were too weak to end the Congress’s virtual monopoly of power, especially at the centre.

The conviction that they will continue to be in political wilderness bred a sense of helplessness as well as irresponsibility. Coupled with the colonial-era tradition of street violence when the British seemed irreplacable, the opposition parties have been unable to accept the principle of negotiations which is at the root of democratic governance.

Not only has this attitude persisted even after they have tasted power both at the centre and in the states in the post-1967 period but it has infected the Congress as well to a considerable extent.

However, the latest parliamentary logjam is probably the worst-ever manifestation of this exercise in negativism. Although the disruption of parliamentary proceedings and rowdyism in state assemblies have become a normal feature of Indian politics, never before has an entire session been stalled by the opposition in support of its demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the various scams.

What began as a tactical move by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties to corner the government over the scandals in which the Congress and its allies have been implicated has since become a prestige issue with both the contending groups. As a result, none of them is willing to blink first.

There is little doubt that the senior leaders in both the camps should have tried to avoid the kind of stalemate where even a mid-term poll, at least three years ahead of schedule, is being contemplated. A possible reason for this lamentable failure to break the impasse can perhaps be attributed to the absence of individuals in the two sides who command wide respect even among their opponents and are endowed with skilful persuasive powers.

To start with the BJP, neither Sushma Swaraj nor Arun Jaitley, the party’s leaders in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, has the imprimatur of unquestioned authority. Both have to function under the shadow of L.K. Advani, the BJP’s numero uno at the present time, but even he has lost his earlier aura. Besides, his Somnath-to-Ayodhya rath yatra of 1990 is a reminder of his preference for the politics of confrontation.

Behind the three is the party president, Nitin Gadkari, who was virtually unknown outside his home state of Maharashtra before his elevation to the present post. The fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) facilitated his rise and also prevented Delhi-based politicians like Sushma Swaraj and Jaitley from heading the party does little credit to any one of them.

As first-timers in a prolonged tussle of this nature with the ruling Congress, it will be unrealistic to expect Sushma Swaraj and Jaitley to have the imagination and confidence to find a way out of the current maze where everyone seems lost. Since their forte is, and has been, rabble-rousing, they can hardly be expected to suddenly display the qualities of mature statesmanship.

Nor can Gadkari and Advani provide perceptive, conciliatory behind-the-scene guidance. The former has to keep looking over his shoulder to gauge the RSS’ mood while Advani, having been ousted from the party president’s position by the RSS for his favourable comments on Mohammed Ali Jinnah, is lacking in self-belief. This timidity was evident when he allowed Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie to formulate the BJP’s policy on the nuclear deal, which ultimately did not benefit the party.

If the BJP suffers from leadership deficiencies, so does the Congress. Its sole interlocutor has been Pranab Mukherjee, known for his wide political and administrative experience along with an encyclopaedic knowledge of government and parliamentary functioning.

But his record as a negotiator is less than bright. His prolonged talks with Prakash Karat and Co on the nuclear deal were fruitless, as the Left’s withdrawal of support from the government in 2008 showed. His interactions with Mamata Banerjee have done little to curb the Trinamool Congress leader’s unpredictable political forays in West Bengal, so much so that it is still uncertain whether the Congress-Trinamool alliance will last till the assembly polls next year.

Mukherjee may have received a comprehensive brief from Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But he cannot be expected to take a major on-the-spur initiative.

Even then, the Congress can be said to have placed at least two new proposals on the table. One is the prime minister’s offer to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) headed by the BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi and the other is Mukherjee’s suggestion of a special parliamentary session to debate the corruption scandals.

Incidentally, both Joshi and Shourie are against a JPC probe because earlier investigations by such committees have not been noticeably successful. Unlike the Congress, however, the BJP and the Left have made no new proposals. Instead, they have obstinately stuck to their demand for a JPC.

Unfortunately, such mulishness cannot but foster disrespect for parliamentary democracy, especially if the BJP keeps its vow of disrupting the budget session as well. However, the possibility of the Left parting company with the saffron brigade is a good sign. The Samajwadi Party, too, is apparently having second thoughts about continuing to block parliament. However, these cracks in the opposition ranks are likely to persuade the Congress to become more stubborn in its rejection of the JPC demand.

Irrespective of how this sorry episode pans out, both the Congress and the BJP have harmed themselves by exposing the absence in their parties of broadminded leaders with a spirit of accommodation, who can rise above partisan considerations to preserve the sanctity of noble institutions like parliament.

(25-12-2010- Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])

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