The Telegraph
Thursday , April 20 , 2017

Living up to the promise

Many of us have experienced the "buyer's remorse", a sense of regret after making a purchase and later feeling guilty for making the wrong choice. Almost half the population of the United Kingdom woke up to that feeling the morning after the Brexit referendum result was announced in June last year. And a few months after the presidential elections, large sections in the United States of America are still struggling with their country's choice of president. In India, many are feeling the same way after the Bharatiya Janata Party made known its surprise choice of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The feeling was reinforced when the chief minister declared his agenda, smacking of bigotry and prejudice, soon after taking over power.

Enough has been said and written on the propriety of choosing an individual, who is known for his inflammatory, polarizing speeches and who has zero experience of governance, as the chief minister. The discomfort stems from the media's growing acceptance of the prime minister's declared objective of equitable development, which now appears to be at variance with the objectives of the newly-appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The remorse is particularly strong among those voters who had broken their past record and voted for the BJP. They have begun to wonder what they have let themselves in for. The feeling will not evaporate quickly.

Being clever or caring does not win elections. In India's first-past-the-post electoral system, the democratic process does not reward losers. Let us concede, therefore, that those with some experience at the hustings know that they cannot afford to allow sentiment to guide their actions. However, as unbending and resolute political leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi, both former prime ministers, found out to their peril later on, trampling over public feelings can have unsettling consequences. Gandhi's declaration of 'Emergency' at the height of her authority initially received public support. But that support quickly waned two years later, ending in a crushing defeat for her party and for her.

The BJP could have walked away with accolades for its recent performance at the assembly polls. Its performance in Manipur, which is as far away as one can get from the 'cow-belt' and its issues - such as the ban on cow-slaughter and the Ram mandir - was a signal achievement for the party and indication of its increasing footprint. The party's fleet-footedness in forming the government in both Manipur and Goa, however questionable the means, demonstrated that when it comes to decision-making, it is swifter than its opponents. But in Uttar Pradesh and in Uttarakhand, there are disquieting signs of 'Congressification'. All three ministers appointed to the top echelons of the Uttar Pradesh government followed the high-command culture of the Congress - whereby the dictate emanates from New Delhi. Perhaps this time it was from Nagpur. In Uttarakhand, four of the ministers are recent entrants from the Congress, many of them tainted by criminality or corruption. It will need steely nerves and firm discipline to maintain the relatively clean reputation that the BJP enjoys.

Whether or not the BJP is able to maintain this image will determine its future cohesion and appeal. The party's strength lies in its internal democracy. Political pedigree is not determined either by birth or kinship. The party has a towering leader at present. He too has reached the peak through a process of internal approval. There is nothing yet to suggest that others will not be able to replace him through the same process. Contrast this with other political parties, which have no transparent system of succession and are dominated by members of the founding family. As in the case of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, even the death of the topmost leader does not free a party from his or her dominance. Moreover, many of these parties have no clear ideology beyond the catchphrases of secularism and poverty alleviation. The influence of these parties remains regional, their parochial and populist appeal being largely dependent on social engineering. Even the once mighty Congress seems to have fallen into this pattern.

This does not bode well for India. Although we have craved for the ascent of a single dominant party after decades of rule by motley coalitions that has fuelled corruption, such dominance requires checks and balances. A parliamentary system that gives space to a vibrant, cohesive Opposition, which can put forward tangible, alternative policies to those of the ruling government, is the best protection. This system is undermined when the only other national party in the country resorts to disruptive practices and the remainder of the Opposition focuses on promoting sectarian or regional interests with little regard for national interests.

The result is that public opinion is being shaped by the hype generated outside Parliament rather than by healthy and informed debate within it. This is illustrated by the recent amendment to the finance bill, which was passed swiftly by the Lok Sabha as an annexure to the budget and with little opposition in the Rajya Sabha as well. The amendment removes the previous cap of 7.5 per cent of recent company profits as permissible donation to a political party. By virtue of the amendment, public declaration of the beneficiary of such political contributions is no longer mandatory. As a result, government contracts can now be granted with an understanding that the recipient company would plough back a substantial part of its gain to the political party delivering the contract. Surprisingly, Opposition parties did not strongly oppose the amendment on grounds of impropriety since many of them, presumably, had also assessed their likely gain whenever they are in power. Despite all this, the public perception is that the BJP-led government is determinedly trying to clean up the electoral process by reducing anonymous cash donations from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000 - a claim as insignificant as the one that insists that demonetization has mopped the black money.

As Donald Trump, the US president, is discovering much to his chagrin, a popular mandate is not a licence to ride roughshod over public sentiment. In less than a hundred days, "buyer's remorse", felt both by the public and within his own party, has been obstructing his policies - be it on immigration or healthcare reform. The reversal of mood is so strong that there are whispers of possible impeachment.

The National Democratic Alliance government won the mandate on the slogan, "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas". But this is not a licence to impose sanctions on food or social mores. As Abraham Lincoln had observed long ago, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." In spite of the projections of another win in two years' time, Narendra Modi ought to remember Indira Gandhi's experience. Even when she was at the pinnacle of power, public remorse was strong enough to deny her a chance to govern.

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