Thursday, August 10, 2006

Desperate to oppose (August 11, 2006)

The problem of a faltering and out-of-form leadership

By Swapan Dasgupta

The rightful and appropriate role of the Opposition in a parliamentary democracy has long agitated the minds of those involved in statecraft. Before it became obligatory for post-colonialism to deny Westminster its role as the “mother” of Parliaments, it was assumed that the role of the Opposition is to oppose. This simple principle, however, was based on a few assumptions. First, that the Opposition was also Her Majesty’s “loyal” opposition and operated along the same gentlemanly codes of parliamentary conduct as the Treasury benches. Second, that the Opposition was also a potential Government-in-waiting and had to view itself as such. In short, its opposition should never be outlandish. Finally, that political life centred on the proceedings in Parliament and that there was little space for extra-parliamentary activism.

Even before these civilised assumptions were rendered redundant by the rough and tumble of ‘emerging’ democracies, there were alternative perceptions of the Opposition’s role. Radical politicians, particularly the early socialists and communists, were always disdainful of parliamentary politics—hence Lenin’s infamous “pig sty” analogy—and the idea of fostering change through legislation. For them, Parliament was at best an expedient platform to both articulate their radicalism and expose the shortcomings of the system. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, radicals and Leftists justified their participation in elections by promising to undermine the system from “within”. Till the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the phrase “parliamentary roader” remained a pejorative term in the lexicon of communist polemics.

Curiously, the communist belief that Parliament is at best a propaganda platform found an unlikely supporter in Enoch Powell, one of the most controversial but distinguished British parliamentarians of the post-War era. Writing in the Guardian in 1988, Powell, then an Ulster Unionist MP for the South Downs in Northern Ireland, lamented the Opposition’s penchant for expediency and opposition-for-opposition’s-sake approach. Opposition, he wrote with characteristic loftiness, “is about principle in a way that government, with its constant practical involvement in management and subterfuge, can never be.”

Powell’s assertion may have a contemporary resonance in the context of a whispered debate in the BJP over its present strategy in Parliament. During the ongoing Monsoon session of Parliament, the BJP has been hyper-active in trying to embarrass the UPA Government, in the belief that a few well-directed head-butts will create a political crisis and, who knows, even bring the fragile coalition crashing down. Driven by a small group which can best be nicknamed the ‘Hezbollah faction’, the party has sought to break out of the confines of the National Democratic Alliance and make common cause with the embryonic Third Font on a number of issues.

There has been frenzied activity to secure a “sense of the House” resolution which is critical of the ongoing legislative process in the United States on Indo-US nuclear cooperation. With the Samajwadi Party playing intermediary, the BJP has demonstrated its over-weaning anxiety to even join hands with the Left on this issue.

Likewise, over former External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh’s involvement in the Iraqi oil-for-food payoffs, the party—with the honourable exception of Arun Jaitley—has nonchalantly abandoned its role of prosecutor and become a part of the dissident Congressman’s defence counsel. Leader of Opposition L.K. Advani, who is very particular about his choice of words, for example, described Natwar as a “scapegoat”, a term that implies innocence. Another BJP stalwart, when confronted on TV with the R.S. Pathak inquiry report suggesting Natwar’s pivotal role, actually asked “Where is the evidence?”—thereby negating everything the party had screamed about when the Paul Volcker report was published.

Since nothing succeeds in politics like success, the BJP’s recourse to cynical expediency will be judged by its success in either destabilising the UPA Government or ensuring irreparable cracks in the Congress’ relationship with the Left, particularly the CPI(M). On both counts, the signs are not very encouraging.

As the chief promoter of India’s nuclear weaponisation programme, the BJP has every reason to examine the fine print of the ongoing legislative process on Capitol Hill. Some of its concerns over the ‘non-binding’ encroachments on sovereign decision-making and the fate of India-specific exemptions from the International Atomic Energy Authority guidelines for ‘non-nuclear’ states are shared in South Block as well. Yet, there is a world of difference between the strategic objectives pursued by the erstwhile NDA Government and the designs of the Left. One is premised on India’s role as an emerging world power and the other on visceral anti-Americanism. The BJP wanted negotiations with the US to be marked by very hard bargaining; the Left was keen to disavow any future strategic partnership between the world’s two largest democracies. The BJP criticism of the nuclear deal was based on prefaced on the party’s robust nationalism; the Left was echoing the misgivings of China and demanding parity for Iran. Some BJP stalwarts even embraced some of the more ridiculous and conspiratorial forms of anti-Americanism.

By allowing its distinctive position to be subsumed by the Left’s archaic international outlook, the BJP is guilty of compromising its distinctive brand identity. Since there is very little chance of the Left coming to terms with the maximalist position on India’s nuclear programme, the BJP—egged on by the Samajwadi Party— has accommodated the Left in the fond hope that this convergence will sign the death warrant for the UPA-Left understanding.

A similar belief in the Government’s sudden death propelled the BJP to be led by the nose by the Samajwadi Party into embracing the discredited Natwar. By abandoning the attack against Natwar in favour of a shrill assault on the Congress, the BJP allowed a beleaguered Government to climb the moral high ground. TV viewers witnessed the strange spectacle of the Congress flaying the misdeeds of one its leading members and the BJP underplaying its significance and, in some cases, endorsing his angry fulminations. Since anti-corruption matters for the BJP’s middle class support base, unlike the caste-based parties which can afford to be brazen, the erosion of its brand image is marked. The repeated images of BJP leaders standing shoulder to shoulder and egging on Samajwadi Party’s Amar Singh and Natwar is unlikely to go down well in the party’s core constituency.

It is cruel but not an exaggeration to suggest that by the end of this parliamentary session the BJP could well be looking more and more like a B-team of the Samajwadi Party—a de-positioning that may cost it dearly in the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh election. In trying to combine blind opposition with a fanciful putsch-ist endgame, the party is guilty of both opportunism and adventurism. By attempting a contrived opposition unity, it has diluted the efficacy of issues it is naturally identified with—the no-nonsense approach to terrorism and internal subversion. Even at a tactical level, the BJP has got it all wrong. Unless the TADA court judgment in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case revives parliamentary interest, the Government seems to have successfully diverted attention from its horrible failure to contain the Islamist jihadis.

Meaningful opposition involves putting the Government on the mat on issues that simultaneously enhances the alternative way. At the same time, it involves combining principles with patience and perseverance. By picking up themes that nurture the vote-banks of the Left and Third Front parties, the BJP has shown desperation and, in effect, abandoned its leadership role in the opposition. The problem of a faltering and out-of-form leadership has again been exposed and it will come as no surprise if the coming months witness another bout of internecine warfare.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, August 11, 2006)

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