Sorry state of Indian democracy

FROM the late 1960s until well after Indira Gandhi’s assassination India was in the grip of grave polarization focusing on her personality. Since then polarization has subsided and recurred several times. Its most conspicuous resurgence was in 2004 when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was defeated in the Lok Sabha election and the Congress returned to power as the core of the United Progressive Alliance. What looks like surpassing all the divisions and clashes of the past is the current and constantly escalating confrontation between the ruling Congress party and the principal Opposition party, the BJP, the only two mainstream parties in the country.

Remarkably, until October last, the BJP, having been thrashed in the May 2009 Lok Sabha poll, was in utter disarray. But then it suddenly rallied because of the Congress party’s acute vulnerability due a spate of shameless corruption cases climaxed by the 2G-Spectrum scam. The ruling combination’s stubborn refusal to accept the BJP’s demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate this loot isolated it. For, almost all other Opposition parties, including those that dislike the saffron party, joined it to pillory the Congress.

The entire winter session of Parliament was disrupted because of this stand off.  Since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s belated offer to appear before the Public Accounts Committee has cut no ice, and the Congress remains opposed to the JPC, there is no knowing what will happen to Parliament’s Budget session, a month away. Meanwhile, the Congress’ cup of misery has been filled to the brim by a series of developments, principally the spiral of rising prices, especially of the essential food items that are now beyond the reach of the lower middle-class and are causing hardship even to the middle middle-class.

So far the Congress was at the receiving end, and the BJP could preen itself on having regained the political initiative and revived its fortunes. But, as it has done often in the past, the BJP has embarked on venture that can do no credit to it and is almost certain to damage in national interest, and that too in the sensitive state of Jammu and Kashmir. In a gross and provocative manner it has chosen to repeat a ploy it had last tried out there in 1992. Its youth wing wants to hoist the national flag on Republic Day in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk. Why is it insisting on going ahead with a pointless gesture  after nearly two decades it hasn’t bothered to explain. Nor has it paid any heed to J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah’s reasoned plea to desist so that the slow process of return of tranquility in the state after last year’s fraught situation is not disrupted. It rejected even Mr. Abdullah’s invitation to join the flag hoisting ceremony at the Bakhshi stadium only a stone-throw away from Lal Chowk where the saffron party’s venture might invite trouble.

Under the circumstances the chief minister cannot be blamed for having decided to take all necessary steps to prevent potential troublemakers from reaching their destination. Activists of the BJP’s youth wing on way to Srinagar have been arrested and others trying to reach there from outside the state are being stopped at J&K’s border. This is what led to the arrival at Jammu of Shushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, leaders of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha respectively. They, too, were denied entry. After a lot of high drama and low politics, they were arrested and “forcibly” sent back to Punjab. Even the BJP’s most important ally, Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, was constrained to advise it to drop the foolhardy and dangerous venture even at this late stage, but to no avail.

Instead of heeding sage advice, the evidently irate BJP leaders are threatening even more dire action. In unbecoming language they are blaming both the Central and state governments of having “surrendered to Kashmiri separatists”, and claiming “patriotism” for only themselves. Strangely, they do not seem to realize that the people of India will not be taken in by their theatrics. The saffron party will end up damaging itself.

Kashmir, howeverm is not the only battleground between the BJP and the Congress-led combination. The two sides are engaged in a far more bitter war in the southern state of Karnataka. While in Kashmir the BJP alone is manifestly in the wrong, in the southern state both the combatants are equally to blame. As the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations stated 27 years ago, the most misused and abused office of the Indian Republic is that of the governor. Expected to be non-partisan constitutional heads of the government of the states to which they are appointed, many, if not most, governors have tended to be promoters of the interests of the ruling party or coalition at the Centre. Consequently, the Sarkaria Commission had recommended that an active politician belonging to the ruling establishment at the Centre should not be appointed governor of a state ruled by a different party or combination.

Had the UPA government followed this sound principle, H. R. Bharadwaj, former Union law minister, would never have been sent to the Raj Bhavan in Bangalore. A prisoner of his old, highly partisan past he has been on the warpath with the BJP ministry of Karnataka from the word go. It would be unfair to say that Mr. Bharadwaj has always been in the wrong. He was entirely right, for instance, in demanding action against the fabulously rich Bellary Reddys who virtually control the state government, nominally headed by B. S. Yeddyurappa. But the governor’s unprecedented order giving some unknown lawyers permission to prosecute the serving chief minister was rash and not exactly non-partisan, to say the least.

No wonder Mr. Yeddyurappa is calling the governor “an agent of the Congress” and senior BJP leaders have rushed to Rashtrapati Bhavan to demand Mr. Bharadwaj’s recall. It is doubtful if the Manmohan Singh government would advise the President to accede to this demand. But that does not diminish its validity. On the other hand, neither the Karnataka chief minister nor other protesting BJP leaders are lilywhite innocents. They may scream against corruption in New Delhi but bend over backwards to shield the egregiously corrupt in Bangalore. Mr. Yeddyurappa’s own hands or not exactly clean. He cannot deny that he “de-notified” land that was later acquired by his near relatives. Curiously, his excuse is that other chief ministers, preceding him, had done exactly the same thing. The most startling statement has come from the BJP chief, Nitin Gadkari, who says that the Karnataka chief minister’s action was “immoral” but not “illegal”.
It seems to occur to no one that a democracy in which even the minimum democratic norms are thrown to the winds by one and all is a democracy only in name.