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TIME TO READ THE TEA LEAVES

The opportunity for the Aam Aadmi Party to form a government in Delhi will be seen by many as a just conclusion to a historical debut in Indian politics, achieving a near-majority in a state election in its opening campaign. Whether it is a reward or a poisoned chalice, only time will tell. Although there have been many avatars of ‘people’s parties’ with vernacular names in India’s political history, the AAP has captured the people’s imagination in the process by which it has interacted with its electorate and attempted to involve citizens both in the development of its election manifesto and its decision whether or not to form a minority government. In reality, this could be regarded as a canny approach to mitigate the likely possibility of failure which it can later claim to have announced in advance even before it took office. But the choice of forming a coalition government is a practical experience that has become the rule in India’s political climate. The pragmatism of managing such a coalition requires prioritizing those issues on which it can reasonably expect support, even if it means delaying the more contentious ones that are likely to create conflict. To ignore this is to knowingly invite failure.

What has been refreshing is that this is one of the few occasions when ambiguous election results have not been followed by a scramble for power, usually accompanied by horse-trading and its concomitant corrupt exchanges. The outside support offered by the Congress is curiously prefixed as conditional and issue-based. This appears to be clever semantics since presumably a political party’s support to any parliamentary motion is based on that party’s stated principle on that issue. Clearly, for instance, the Congress could not be expected to support a motion which is perceived to be non-secular. And it would be reasonable to expect that any coalition partner would oppose a move that risks harassment of its political leaders, or worse. But then, the AAP government might calculate that such a move would attract the support of the partner’s opponent, which has elected numbers even larger than that of the AAP.

However appealing it may be, the referendum process as a means of deciding the way forward for a government on difficult issues not only has limitations but is a dangerous method. It risks populism even greater than is being currently practised. For instance, could public opinion be expected to support a painful necessity such as a reduction in subsidy dictated by an impoverished treasury, or the removal of illegal encroachments which threaten safety or the environment? It also risks unbalancing the division of power the Constitution sought between the executive and the judiciary. Increasingly, difficult or unpopular decisions which a government is empowered to take are being pushed to the courts. To take a recent example, the public applauded the Supreme Court’s directive to restrict the use of flashing beacons on cars to constitutionally appointed officials. There was also a public outcry when the Supreme Court struck down a seemingly popular decision to alleviate the law on the homosexual community. The government could have taken pre-emptive action to enact appropriate legislations in both cases. It chose not to. Whatever the emotions on the issues, the general public cannot be expected to be sufficiently knowledgeable to challenge their merits relating to constitutional propriety. In simple terms, the laws of our country cannot be decided on the streets.

A strong leadership often requires the ability to take tough and possibly unpopular decisions that are believed to be in the long-term interests of a nation. Indira Gandhi took one such decision which ultimately led to her assassination. Margaret Thatcher did so repeatedly to radically change the course of Britain, and, eventually, the unpopularity of her proposed Poll Tax led to her losing her prime ministership. The concept of ‘people’s power’ is appealing but it does not sit well with the economic crisis that this country is facing and the short-term pain that it probably requires for correction.

In all fairness, it can be said that the AAP is on the lower slopes of the learning curve. Apart from its electoral success, it has already had a major influence in the enactment of the lok pal bill which, otherwise, would almost certainly have languished as it has already done for the past 45 years. The party’s anti-corruption drive has, arguably, also created the climate to force the government’s hand to dismiss a minister, reportedly, for obstructive rent-seeking.

The Congress leadership has explicitly recognized the merits of the AAP’s mass contact approach to gauge public opinion.There now seems to be greater dynamism in the United Progressive Alliance government’s run-up to the general elections.

The period between now and the polls will provide an interesting experiment in how or whether a party built on a truer representation can overcome its inexperience and its innocence in translating its wishes into results. It is intrinsically a sound model which needs to be developed. A nation dismayed by the current lack of direction and drift through punishing inflation, stagnation in growth and a corresponding lack of employment opportunities, coupled with palpable corruption, is craving for a leadership to deliver equitable results.

Do the distant drums of Delhi have any resonance in Bengal? Delhi’s electoral scene has always attracted disproportionate media attention compared to the relatively minuscule number of seats it holds in the Lok Sabha. To some extent, this is typical of many capital cities where the city’s name, be it London or Washington, is synonymous with the centre of democratic power. Nevertheless, it would be imprudent to write off the phenomenon that has occurred in Delhi as irrelevant elsewhere.

The symptoms reflect a growing discontentment with the detachment of elected representatives when they become political leaders in contrast to vote supplicants. Any political party which ignores this trend does so at its peril. Be warned.