The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- It is a hard choice between feudalism and sectarianism

When private illusion clashes with social reality, the former should, in the normal course, make way. It does not always happen thus in contemporary India though. Consider, for instance, the case of the dowager queen of Rae Bareilly. She is just that, the dowager queen of Rae Bareilly. She is however under the illusion that the whole of India is her demesne by virtue of dynastic rights. The social reality, which of course includes political reality, is altogether different. Forget about India, she and her party cannot lay claim even over Uttar Pradesh, the erstwhile citadel of the Nehru-Gandhis; the Congress is, in electoral terms, only the fifth party in that state. This reality does not faze Sonia Gandhi because of the curious coalition known as the United Progressive Alliance. The alliance enables the Congress to preside over the government at the Centre. It also enabled Sonia Gandhi to be chairman of the National Advisory Council, so-called, thereby misleading the lady into believing that India exclusively belongs to her.

The private illusion helps to create an ambience of quintessential medieval days when only kings and emperors mattered, nobody else did. Given the make-believe of the Middle Ages, feudal skirmishes enjoy the prerogative of occupying centrestage. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was once inseparable from the Bachchan clan. The time machine is however at work; the two clans have since travelled far from each other, and are now sworn enemies. Sonia Gandhi and her cronies want to see the ruination of the Bachchans.

As a starter, they use the office-of-profit gambit to eject Jaya Bachchan from the Rajya Sabha. Celebrations begin. But, again, it is the feudal milieu, the Bachchans are not going to take the snub lying down. They mount all-out preparations to throw out Sonia Gandhi from the Lok Sabha with the help of the same office-of-profit stigma the Congress has used against Jaya Bachchan. Panic ensues; Congressmen go in a huddle. Basics of the social reality, such as that India is a parliamentary democracy with a written Constitution and enshrined norms and practices, are sought to be brushed aside. A feudal challenge, it is decided, must be countered through feudal means.

Interestingly, an article of the Constitution is proposed to be deployed to frustrate the Bachchan conspiracy. The Constitution, otherwise fullfledgedly democratic, has at least three obnoxious provisions spelling authoritarianism. One is the power of the Union government to declare an Emergency, another is the article which allows the Centre to get rid at will of duly elected governments in the states. Both these provisions were generously availed of by Indira Gandhi to serve her subjective ends. There is, however, a third provision in the Constitution, equally authoritarian, and a hangover from British colonial days. In the pre-independence period, the viceroy and governor-general could issue ordinances at will; the post-independence Constitution too includes an article which reads as follows: 'If at any time, except when both Houses of Parliament are in session, the President is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary for him to take immediate action, he may promulgate such ordinance as the circumstances appear to him to require.'

The acolytes of the Rae Bareilly queen had their blueprint ready. They would have parliament adjourned; once that was done, they would make the president issue an ordinance which would ensure that Sonia Gandhi's Lok Sabha seat did not come under the office-of-profit cloud. So parliament is abruptly told to go home. But here the plotters run into the political reality of democratic institutions. The budget discussions were in full swing; it was sacrilege to adjourn the two houses of parliament at this juncture.

The script went awry. Social reality, till now lying dormant, finally rose and hit back. An intense public reaction set in against the decision to send parliament packing. The Congress had no alternative but to retreat. Partners in the UPA, cut up because their views were not solicited before adjourning parliament, refused to go along with the feudal design of issuing an ordinance to safeguard Sonia Gandhi's interests.

The idea of an ordinance had to be given up. The search is now on for a more conventional democratic alternative to resolve the problem arising out of Jaya Bachchan's ouster. It is not a question of rescuing Sonia Gandhi alone; a whole lot of legislators, both at the Centre and in the states, have been sandbagged by the Bachchan verdict.

The least one would have expected from the Congress is an apology to the nation for the insolence it exhibited in having parliament adjourned sine die to further a dynastic cause. The private illusion however persists. No expression of contrition; instead, the presiding lady of the dynasty enacts the burlesque of resigning from parliament and retreats to Rae Bareilly to perform some histrionics. The mother-in-law did these things much better; Sonia Gandhi, alas, is only a pale prototype.

And yet, the fact remains that the parliamentary process did come to a halt because she ' and her kinsmen ' wanted her private illusion to prevail over India's social reality. In the emerging sequel too, the rest of the nation's problems, it is taken for granted, could wait, a resumed parliament must first labour hard to find an escape hatch for politicians endangered by the office-of-profit imbroglio. None of this, however, should be allowed to draw the curtain over the substance of the grisly affair: frivolous personal feuding between two pretender families brought a stop to the country's democratic functioning.

Mountaineers take to scaling Mount Everest because it is there. Authoritarian-minded politicians will avail of Article 123 till as long as it is tagged to the Constitution. Of greater concern than rescuing from embarrassment parliamentarians enjoying an office of profit is the need for a constitutional amendment which will delete this particular article from the Constitution. The country's rulers have, for over half-a-century, amended the Constitution close to eighty times. A further amendment should not disturb the sensitivity of grammarians. In fact, the ambit of such an amendment, it could well be maintained, should be extended also to scrap those provisions which permit both promulgation of an Emergency and arbitrary removal of democratically elected state governments.

We arrive at that vague valley of choices and decisions. Is feudalism to be given the nod over sectarianism, or should it be the other way round' What makes the choice more difficult is the existence of other social realities: we are not dealing with pure categories. The sectarians are not only communal bigots, they are staunch believers in unreason as well. But, then, the feudal categories too carry a mixed, and often vicious, baggage. To them the cause of the dynasty supersedes all other considerations. They ensure the survival of their demesne, they would not mind entering into significant compromises with the fundamentalist either. Equally, or even more, ominous: as long as their inheritance and the perquisites acc- ompanying it are guaranteed, they might not mind putting the sovereignty of the country on sale to external forces.

It is no easy matter to decide which direction the choice should lie. What is of greater concern is a closed mind on the issue.

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