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A protocol of engagement needed

Wednesday 29 March 2006, by KHARE*Harish

The divisiveness currently on display can only be a source of comfort to those who do not wish the Indian state well. Rather than remaining hostage to their respective unsavoury partisans, senior political leaders should explore the potential of cooperation and engagement.

A FEW months before the first general election in 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru and his senior colleagues had before them a note authored by Union Cabinet Minister H.K. Mahtab. Entitled "A Note on Parliamentary Relations with the Opposition," the paper argued that "it may be necessary to keep contact with the main opposition parties which may form alternative governments if the swing in election goes in their favour. This contact is necessary for the sake of continuity of major policies or major programme involving large expenditure." The new democratic institutions needed to be worked out in a spirit of mutual respect. The Mahtab note talked of the need to establish a convention "to invite leaders of parties in the opposition and also prominent members remaining in the opposition at regular intervals."

Decent impulses. Not much, however, came out of the Mahtab proposal partly because the Communist Party of India emerged, surprisingly, as the largest Opposition party in the first Lok Sabha. And the CPI was a few years away from accepting the parliamentary system in letter and spirit. Nonetheless, Nehru and Maulana Azad did the next best thing to hammer out a working protocol with the Opposition. The two conspired - along with Jayaprakash Narayan - to ensure that the Government’s most vitriolic critic, J.B. Kriplani, made it to Parliament. Kripalani, who had walked out of the Congress in 1951 to form the Kisan Majdoor Praja Party had contested and lost the 1952 election from Faizabad. Nehru and Azad accepted a Jayaprakash Narayan proposal that the Congress need not put up a candidate against Kripalani in a by-election in 1953 from Bhagalpur-cum-Purnea Lok Sabha constituency in Bihar.

Accordingly, Nehru wrote to the Congress Chief Minister in Bihar, Sri Krishna Sinha, on May 5, 1953: "Taking a larger view, it seems to me that it would be a good thing for us not to oppose Kripalaniji. This will create a good impression about our broadness of outlook and will really strengthen us. Maulana Azad feels the same way." All this was happening when Kripalani was almost every day trenchantly accusing the Nehru Government of bad political manners, including a charge that his telephone was being tapped. In the event, with Congress help Kripalani got elected to the Lok Sabha where he resumed his daily harangue against Nehru and his colleagues.

Those early days in the life of our republic need to be recalled because the current crop of political leaders seems to be totally oblivious to the need for a protocol of relationship between the Government and the Opposition. Even after two years, the current Lok Sabha has not settled down, as was evident in the `adjourned sine die’ budget session. There is a new, strange itch to take partisanship to the extreme. For the first time, the ruling party has been found to be anxious to disrupt house proceedings. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the principal Opposition party, has stumbled upon an unbecoming tactic of having its say but not letting the Treasury Benches have the chance to reply. Once the Congress parliamentary managers discerned the BJP game plan, they too return the compliment. There is a total deadlock. The parliamentary leaders no longer seem able or willing to control the backbenchers who any day relish shouting and barracking over debate and discussion.

Perhaps the major fault for this state of affairs lies with the BJP. The crux of the problem is that along with the rest of the sangh parivar, the BJP leadership has not been able to come to terms with the Sonia Gandhi phenomenon. During their six years’ rule, the NDA leaders never extended to Ms. Gandhi the courtesy and consideration due to the leader of the largest Opposition party. When they lost the 2004 elections, they felt cheated that Ms. Gandhi had outsmarted them by handing over the crown to Manmohan Singh. Since then, instead of accepting with good grace the role of a responsible Opposition, the BJP has sought to make too much of the `extra-constitutional’ argument. The party continues to be obsessed with the Sonia shadow, be it the Volcker scam, the Quattrocchi affair or the office-of-profit controversy. Partisanship has become personal.

The situation has been aggravated because the internal equations within the BJP have yet to settle down. There is a new party president who is sought to be hemmed in by other prima donnas. But the most acute factor is the absence of the Vajpayee factor. Since the former Prime Minister is no longer able to get involved in the party’s day-to-day affairs, the BJP’s decision-making process is without the benefit of the Vajpayeean restraint and reasonableness. Of late, for instance, BJP spokesmen have been prone to use discourteous language against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a solecism Mr. Vajpayee would not have permitted in his heyday.

On its part, the ruling party too has been guilty of allowing its relationship with the Opposition parties to come to such an unhappy pass. Perhaps the Congress has spent too much time in mending fences with the Left that it hardly is left with any stamina to humour the Opposition. To the credit of the Manmohan Singh regime, it saw to it that the three senior BJP leaders - Mr. Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, and Jaswant Singh - were kept informed of developments in the run-up to the Bush visit and the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal. The same courtesy of consultation was shown to the Left leaders, as well. The Government benefited from these consultations and the country got a better deal.

Onus on ruling party

The onus, as always, is on the ruling party to work out a protocol of political engagement with the Opposition. The Prime Minister must take the initiative to have a cordial relationship with the Opposition. A Prime Minister’s personality does count in such matters. Admittedly, Dr. Singh is not given to easy banter and effortless backslapping. Moreover, he can be understandably reluctant to be seen as having a working relationship with the Opposition leaders, lest it be misunderstood in the AICC establishment. But it should be obvious to him - as also to the AICC hierarchy - that the Government and the Opposition should be talking, engaging, and communicating. To begin with Dr. Singh could have a formal, weekly meeting, perhaps over lunch, with the Leader of the Opposition. It would not be a bad idea if the political secretary to the Congress president could also break bread with them. Had such an interactive mechanism been in place, the office of profit controversy as also the phone-tapping accusations would not have spun out of control. Mr. Advani’s own prestige and influence within the party would not have suffered.

A protocol of engagement, of course, does not mean the Opposition would abandon its institutional obligation of keeping the Government on its toes. It cannot be a conspiracy between the ruling and the Opposition parties, either at the expense of the citizens or the smaller parties. Nor can a protocol mean that the Government will not correct infirmities - communal, criminal or financial. The need for cooperation does not mean an immunity for crooks and felons from prosecution or scrutiny, just because they may be associated with an Opposition leader. But without a protocol, wholesomeness - moral, ethical, and administrative - will elude our collective endeavours. Nor can there be a veto for the Opposition in any policy initiative. Cooperation between Government and Opposition does not mean paralysis in decision-making.

Of late, there has been too much - and too loose - talk of an "emergency-type" situation setting in. Ms. Gandhi is accused of wanting to follow in her mother-in-law’s footsteps. Leaders like Mr. Advani and George Fernandes do know that institutionally the democratic sentiment is far stronger and far more robust today than it was in 1974-75. The danger is that too much invocation of the `emergency’ theme would be used to seek a licence to engage in the culture of unrestrained partisanship, accusations and more accusations of corruption and wrongdoing.

No country can achieve its national potential if its constitutional arrangement remains hostage to a divisive discourse and a disruptive political culture. Internal discord and disputes sap the vitality and decisiveness of the state order. A country aspiring to be a great nuclear global player cannot have warring political factions at each other’s throat. The divisiveness of the kind currently on display can only be a source of comfort to all those who do not wish the Indian state well. Rather than remaining hostage to their respective unsavoury partisans, senior political leaders are obliged to explore the potential of cooperation and engagement. The Prime Minister must take the lead, especially if he wants to attend to unresolved domestic and foreign issues.

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