A SULLEN India celebrated its 69th Independence Day under the shadow of mutual acrimony between the government and opposition. Parliament’s Monsoon Session was a washout. 2.6 billion rupees (RM163 million), the cost of running the session, went down the drain.
Noisy opposition demands for the resignation of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and two scandal-hit state chief ministers were countered in equally high decibels. Facts and arguments took a back seat amid aggressive posturing, making the place resemble not a legislature, but a lowly theatre, or worse, a fish market.
The opposition Congress climbed a high pedestal by making the ministers’ resignations a precondition to any debate, which only made the government brazen it out. For three weeks, the “well” in both Houses was the battleground. Stung by old known-but-never-proven allegations against her family being dug up, even Congress chief Sonia Gandhi rushed there to protest. It was uncharacteristic of her, but these are bad times for her party. It kept out of Parliament after the speaker of Lok Sabha, the Lower House, touching the short fuse, expelled 25 Congress lawmakers for a week — only to return, to resume protests.
They got down to business on the last day, but hardly discussed the actual point of the discord — alleged facilitation by Swaraj of Lalit Modi, a former cricket world honcho, wanted by law for bribery and misappropriation of funds, and in self-exile in the United Kingdom for the last five years. Nobody asked why Swaraj used informal channels, and not the foreign office and High Commission in London, to help Lalit “on humanitarian grounds”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who speaks evocatively at conferences at home and abroad, and in his heart-to-heart talk (Mann Ki Baat) on the radio, chose, as a matter of tactic, not to be present in Parliament. This was unlike all previous prime ministers, who would face Parliament, bring down the temperature and facilitate the discourse.
However, in his Independence Day address from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort, Modi blandly claimed that there was “not a single charge of corruption” against his government.
The genesis of Parliament’s chronic state of dysfunction in the last two decades lies in the way Indian politicians work. The opposition opposes everything — even what it had proposed as a bill in Parliament when it was in power. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg story.
For a decade (2004 to last year), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then in the opposition, resorted to sound and fury. Congress is now paying back in the same coin and justifying it, to the detriment of the public. The two hate each other more than they care for the country’s economic rise or the future of its youth — both of which they swear by, but will not cooperate to work for.
Among other items, the critical Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill, to which both can legitimately lay claim, could not be discussed, let alone passed. GST, by establishing a common market across the country, would bump up gross domestic product growth by one to two per cent annually and provide sorely needed employment opportunities.
Perceptions matter. The Modi government, unlike predecessor Manmohan Singh’s, factored this successfully. It got corporate India and the media under its sway to attack Congress for “blocking reforms”. After the botch-up in Parliament, however, it is facing a backlash. BJP is being asked to apologise for past disruptions, and Modi is being asked to behave like a leader, in and outside Parliament.
The session’s end took a bizarre turn. The ruling National Democratic Alliance’s lawmakers staged a demonstration, complete with placards, urging that democracy be “saved”. With the opposition adopting the same method, there were two parallel demonstrations — cooperation in confrontation, how lovely!
Reminded that they are elected to Parliament and not the “well” of its Houses, the lawmakers get self-righteous. No Indian government in the last 25 years has had a majority in both Houses. Yet, India has witnessed laws being passed, even if belatedly, to alter the economic and political landscape. This resulted from the art of engagement, give and take, and appreciating the differing priorities of different parties in the opposition. There is a lesson in this for the present government.
The government accuses Congress of “family rule”. The fulminations of Rahul Gandhi, meant to match his mother’s, tend to justify voters’ verdict last year. But Modi and his men (and women), forever self-righteous and intolerant, leave voters the choice between the devil and deep sea.
As the dividing line between power-wielding and leadership gets blurred in a personalised political system, parliamentary accountability is getting submerged in the sea of acrimony. Political leadership across party lines has failed to build trust and engage, to be accountable to the people who elected it. As agents of change, leaders are required to be emotionally intelligent to understand the subtleties and nuances of the nation’s feelings. That, alas, is not happening.
And, that explains why India, even as it surges on many fronts, is sullen. Used to looking up to an icon, it is struggling to find one. After a long wait, Modi raised hopes last year. But, he has come several notches down at home. No matter what he told the 50,000 enthusiastic diaspora in Dubai this week, he will have to work diligently and statesman-like if he means to keep the promises he made, if not fully, substantially.
He has time, but India cannot wait.
The writer is NST’s New Delhi