July 05, 2020
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Redemption In October

A mere three weeks earlier, Vajpayee had won the Bihar vote. Asking him to do it all over again, the President went too far.

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Redemption In October

The last month has been among the most depressing in recent times. After four years of near-paralysis, the Indian state had recovered its capacity to act decisively and chart a course for the nation as a whole, when the central government was pulled down once again, throwing India back into confusion and paralysis. Other than journalists and TV anchormen, it’s hard to think of a single person who benefited. Not industrialists, who once again had to put their investment plans on hold. Not small investors, who lost money yet again when share prices fell following Jayalalitha’s withdrawal of support from the Vajpayee government. Not the lakhs of young men entering a job market where, for four years, there have been no new jobs. For all of them, the fall of the government has meant more marking time, higher costs and greater uncertainty and fear.

Not surprisingly, this has caused a wave of anger against the Congress and the so-called Third Front, who pulled down a government without even making sure that they had something to replace it with first. Their behaviour has been rightly seen to have scaled new heights of irresponsibility. The fact that about 100 million people saw them scale these heights has not helped their cause.

The Election Commission’s decision to put off the poll for a full five months has prolonged the period of uncertainty and therefore the paralysis of the economy and polity. Without underestimating the difficulties of holding a poll in June or July, one cannot help wondering if democracy would not be better served by missing out the two per cent of the people who turned 18 in the past 16 months, than by allowing the State to limp along. But granted all these negatives, is there really nothing on the plus side of the ledger? A close look at the way the crisis unfolded and the way it was handled, shows that there is. In a nutshell, Indian democracy has emerged considerably stronger from this. That strength will become apparent after the next polls.

Jayalalitha has been condemned for triggering off the crisis. But the issue she confronted the government on was of vital importance; no less than the sanctity of the chain of command in the armed forces. Thirty years of peace has bred a complacency that makes it possible for the nation to belittle such arcane concepts. But India cannot hope to remain at peace forever. It is when ordinary soldiers are ordered to stay at their posts and die (as they were and did at Rezang La and other battlefields of the last half-century), that the chain of command suddenly acquires meaning.

The Congress has been severely criticised for taking the lead in bringing down a government without having an alternative to offer either in terms of numbers or of policies. But as Benjamin Disraeli made plain almost a century and a half ago, it is the function of the opposition to oppose. The democratic process is a dialectical one, and curbing it can only weaken it in the long run.

There is, however, one lesson that has to be learned from the crisis—not by the Congress but by the President. When Jayalalitha withdrew her party’s support from the government, it was not for Vajpayee to prove his majority in the House, but the opposition to prove that he no longer had one. Vajpayee had been called by the President to form a government. He had then proven his majority in the house. That majority had been reaffirmed only three weeks earlier in the vote on President’s rule in Bihar. He therefore enjoyed the President’s confidence.

Asking him to prove his majority all over again without a challenge from the opposition on the floor of the House amounted to a withdrawal of confidence from him. In that the President went too far. Had he not done so, the Congress would almost certainly have held discussions with the other opposition parties, and those discussions might have shown it that the so-called Third Front leaders had an agenda that was different from their own. The Congress might then have postponed asking for a vote. The President’s decision denied it this option.

Some of the most important gains for democracy stem from the things that did not happen. 100 million people saw the look of shock and surprise on the faces of the government leaders when they realised that they had lost by a single vote. But Vajpayee accepted the verdict without pointing accusing fingers at the way the process had been made to work against his government. Nor did the bjp fill the air with clamour. There could have been no more positive affirmation of faith in democracy.

In the ten days that followed one heard of attempts at horse-trading, but ultimately—bar one principled defection and one or two less principled ones—every one of the 271 members whose names Vajpayee gave the President stood firm. So did the members of the opposition parties, despite the fact that any half dozen could, by changing sides, have avoided losing their seats and facing a new election. Clearly India has progressed a long way towards stable coalitions.

This conclusion is buttressed by the visible withering away of the ‘third front’. Two of its key constituents of 1996 and 1998, the dmk and the Telugu Desam, have joined hands with the bjp. The move has all the makings of a stable alliance because both parties face the same opponent in their home state—the Congress in Andhra and the Congress with its quarter-century-old ally, the aiadmk, in Tamil Nadu. Of the remaining four constituents, Laloo Yadav’s rlm is likely to form an alliance with the Congress, and the old Janata Dal is likely to simply fade into nothingness.

That leaves only Mulayam Singh Yadav and the communists. Thanks to the inexorable logic of the simple majority voting system, both face a slow death. In sum, October is almost certain to see the return of a stable coalition government with an absolute majority in New Delhi.

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