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 Consensus is the only Solution

M.L. Sondhi


Whatever may be the result of the forthcoming general elections, the complexity and controversial nature of the “dynastic” succession has started an important political debate in the country which is bound to influence both the rhetoric and reality of post-Indira India.  Every major political party is now called upon to explain its identity and goals as part of an essential role in the diagnosis of the political excesses and mismanagement and the general malaise which is symbolised by the violent legacy of the last days of the Indira era.  It is not the electoral gains or losses that are going to matter so much as the manner in which different political activists explicitly commit themselves to the long overdue changes in the established political order.  The exorcism of the hegemonic ideology which was embodied in the simplistic formula of “Indira is India, India is Indira” was bound to happen unless state power was used to destroy the liberal pluralism through a Sanjay-style political network.  As yet we know little about Rajiv Gandhi, but we definitely know that the needs and aspirations of the Indian people cannot be expressed in a hegemonic political culture even if there are computers which can provide video games and substitute scientific-technological phantasy for the harsh realities of a developing economy.

Exploiting opposition

Mrs. Indira Gandhi certainly played a central role in exploiting the leverage afforded by conflicting interests of the opposition parties.  Tactically her method was to keep a major part of the Opposition off balance by manipulating the symbols of legitimacy such as is evidenced by her equating patriotism with personal loyalty to her own leadership.  The opposition could not develop a coherent counter-strategy primarily because they did not seek a fresh conceptualisation of the Indian political structure in functional terms.  Apart from introducing more political personalities into the process of sharing governmental authority, the JP-led movement did not change the fundamental nature of the elite mass relationship.  JP promised collective salvation without handling the central problem of political disequilibrium created by powerful vested interests which have deliberately destroyed elite responsiveness to masses.  The fall of the Janata Government and the return of Mrs. Gandhi to power on the strength of her commitment to securing the stability of the Indian political society resulted in an arrested development which prevented reciprocal adjustments between the government and the opposition in the final term served by Mrs. Gandhi. The command orientation of Mrs. Gandhi pushed the country’s polity further towards an unstable equilibrium.  The efforts of the Central Government to ostracise the opposition parties and groups on urgent national issues led in every case to unforeseen difficulties.  Policy initiation on Punjab, Assam, Kashmir, Sikkim and Andhra was accompanied by a variety of political arbitrariness which only produced derisive laughter all over the world at the Congress-I’s democratic claims.  By downsizing the Opposition MPs Gandhi in fact downgraded the institutions and symbols of democracy.  By adopting a negative attitude towards the Opposition the Congress-I Government revealed its own ambiguities in the various crisis situations facing the country.  The Manichean perspective of Mrs. Gandhi’s later years did not enhance the image of either the Central Government or the ruling party.  Although particulars vary from case to case, it is a matter of historical record that the Central Government failed to develop a common stance on the burning issue of terrorism. There were promising opportunities of dialogue with the Opposition on understandable security concerns but the political actions of the Centre were aimed more at intimidating the opposition than projecting a common emphasis on the national ethos.

Lowest point

From Nehru’s time there was always a backdrop of national cohesion against which the stability and legitimacy of the actions of the Central Government were projected whenever threats arose whether of external aggression or of internal insurgency.  The deterioration of government-Opposition relations, however, reached alarming proportions in the 1980s.  The early focus of attention on the problem during the period of the Emergency and its challenge to the Indian way of life, and there was reason to be hopeful that all concerned had learnt the lessons of that dismal episode. The immobilism of Mrs. Gandhi’s final term of power expressed itself in a failure to improve both communication and cooperation which would be appropriate to India’s political and cultural pluralism and on key issues the Central Government’s approach was incompatible with the development of any new national consensus.  The Indian polity cannot be sustained by habits of thought which are appropriate to a beleaguered authoritarian government facing permanently, high-risk external and internal threats.  A permanent confrontationist line would make it impossible for our political and social system to adhere to values of democratic living.  What can be done to avoid the sort of development in which the Third Reich found itself as a result of giving free rein to national security ideologies, infinitely extending the role of secrecy in national decision-making and indulging in Jew-baiting at home and using every symbol and myth to exaggerate the external enemy?  The Government and Opposition must learn to approach both domestic and foreign policy issues through regular consultation even when inter-party competition is at its fiercest.  What is required is not a complete harmonisation of the points of view of the Government and Opposition, but the democratic habit of working together without the images of violence and muscle power intruding upon the style and content of political dialogue.  A clear example lies in the high standard of democratic debate in the Constituent Assembly and the first four Lok Sabhas which followed it.  As toleration of the Opposition declined mainly on account of the contingent historical circumstances arising out of the split in the Indian National Congress in the late sixties, political persecution has increasingly led to patterns of conduct which detract from the efficiency of the instruments of the democratic method.

Command will not work

 The future balance and health of the Indian political system will be imperilled if a narrowly based caucus seeks to impose uniformity with a managerial style of command ignoring regional differences.  If the built-in drive for political hegemony is further fostered by the new Congress-I leadership as a continuation of the strategy master-minded by Mrs. Gandhi, then the whiz-kids will only lead the country to a grim future in which the loss in human terms may well be catastrophic.  It is now imperative that saner political elements in all Indian political parties should seize the chance to articulate the demand for a new national political order whose goals and organisation avoid sharp confrontations and strengthen the reserves of stability in Indian politics.  The economic and social prosperity and the politico-military security of India will not be served well if the Indian polity is not geared to deal with the problems of maintaining national unity and cohesion through new conventions and agreements.  The wave of the future will not come through an electoral majority if the macro-level leadership of the country does not use the opportunity for promoting the principles of a new polity which humanise and moderate the struggle for the political power.
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