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We need a UPA-NDA bus?

If the BJP's scandalously peevish staying away from VAT was bad, so was the Congress party's disinclination to expand the scope of the launch of the Kashmir bus.

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While it is true that our politics has been testing new lows in absurdity of late, a week like this has rarely been seen. Maybe it has something to do with the two most distant political parties in our country, the BJP and the CPI(M), holding their annual conclaves this week. Or maybe it has something to do with it being the first week of April so the all-fools spirit lingers on. Nobody seems immune from its spell. We have L.K. Advani, arguably one of our shrewdest and most measured politicians ever, calling Manmohan Singh the weakest prime minister in India’s history. Give me a break, Advaniji, you might want to say, have you forgotten about Gujral, Gowda, Chandra Shekhar’s six months, even V.P. Singh, for that matter? But in this season of bitter politics, antagonisms are not to be confused with facts. Even if, as the Congress party told us this week, these are facts you have yourselves stated in the Supreme Court.

Of a piece with Advani’s outburst against the prime minister is the UPA government’s flip-flop on the George Fernandes issue. First, the government presents an affidavit in Supreme Court saying it found nothing wrong with the Kargil purchases or with the “defence minister’s” role in these.

Then, within a couple of hours, Pranab Mukherjee’s ministry issues a statement to claim that this does not amount to giving any clean chit to George Fernandes. It is no surprise that this sounds about as convincing as Advani with his charge of Manmohan Singh being the weakest prime minister. But these are vicious, fractious, polarised times in politics where reason takes the backseat and bitterness is the driving force.

And you certainly do not expect the Left to be left behind in all this, although the absurdity they came up with this week was more comic relief than a real distraction of some sort. How else would you respond to their solemn call to the UPA government to not merely stop buying arms from Israel but to also push for sanctions against Tel Aviv, and in the same vein expressing satisfaction with its overall foreign policy.

It is also not surprising that neither the UPA government, nor the Israelis, seemed to reel in any horror or fright ‘ the only ones who got nervous were the Palestinian delegates at the CPI(M) conclave who want no such hostile action against Israel!

But politicians will be bitter, silly, cynical, loud and irresponsible. What is new? Why must we bother?

We need to bother now because this viciousness has now begun to blight the very nature of India’s mature parliamentary politics. On the first of this month, 20 states and Union territories moved to the system of VAT, but the six BJP states and Uttar Pradesh, also governed by a Congress rival, Mulayam Singh Yadav, stayed out of the most significant tax reform in India’s history. As Navika Kumar’s report in this paper (April 6) showed, this was despite the fact that the BJP’s leading lights had in the past talked glowingly of VAT, that it was their government’s idea, that Jaswant Singh had prepared the ground for the changeover and that, until a few weeks earlier, finance ministers from all of the BJP states had agreed wholeheartedly to move into VAT.

That the decision to pull out in the very end was nothing but bitter politics was admitted by Advani to this writer (‘Walk the Talk’, March 15, when he said that, by and large, his party had been a supporter of VAT but, after Goa, was wondering whether it should do this to ease the Congress party’s job while also alienating its trader vote base. If that admission was a statement of remarkable honesty, the ultimate action of boycott was one of the most cynical steps a major political party has taken in at least my memory. This amounts to subversion of the worst kind, not merely of a modern, reformist idea, but also of a consensus that always existed and was taken for granted.

Also read: Long Live Our Dead Ghosts

If the BJP’s scandalously peevish staying away from VAT was bad, so was the Congress party’s disinclination to expand the scope of the launch of the Kashmir bus. Just like the Kashmir election of two years ago, this was a positive and landmark event that could mark a real turn in the history of our oldest and bloodiest conflict. Why couldn’t the Congress have thought of at least taking a token all-party parliamentary delegation to welcome the passengers from the Pakistani side? Do we have anything better to display to them than the maturity, quality and depth of our democracy?

The same Congress party under Sonia Gandhi had shown remarkable maturity two years ago in letting Mufti run the state with their support. Then it had the good sense of not missing the big picture for the smaller, but juicy, gain of leading a state government. It is not an easy thing to do, to squash the ambitions of your own leaders. But then that kind of statesmanship was possible. Not now. Now the Congress won’t take the BJP’s help in passing the patents or pension bills (while it had no problem in the past helping the BJP pass even more reformist insurance and electricity bills).

It won’t even open a mature dialogue to persuade the BJP to come back into the VAT fold. There are still many sane voices among the senior ranks of the Congress who know this is suicidal, particularly as they lead a coalition with just 145 seats. But today they are either too scared or too confused to challenge this new politics.

The prime minister called leaders of the Left this week to brief them on the forthcoming visits by Wen Jiabao and Pervez Musharraf. Chances are he will also call some kind of an all-party meeting to talk to the others as well. But merely that will not do. In these divided times if you still want to take major decisions ‘ as you must do ‘ you will have to build a consensus. What happens if the engagement with China really looks like living up to its promise? It would involve some give-and-take. Similarly, Musharraf and Manmohan will discuss Kashmir, howsoever each may describe his idea of the core issue.

Once again, some progress may be possible. Public opinion in this country is more willing than ever to look at pragmatic ideas. India is in a phase of self-assuredness rare in the history of a nation as problematic as ours. This is as good a time as any to settle long-term problems, to stabilise and secure the region and the world for our children. But can Manmohan Singh, or any prime minister, weak or strong, do it without building a consensus?

But the consensus is already there, you might say. After all, the BJP was pursuing the same policy. Very true, but that was equally true of VAT as well. You cannot run the game of politics by exclusivist rules and yet claim an old consensus as if it was your right. Imagine a scenario where a settlement with China involves a territorial exchange and the BJP takes to the streets in protest while the Left supports it loudly, from one TV studio to another? Then somebody in the BJP reminds the country of the 1962 Marxist view on the border dispute with China and all hell will break lose.

It may be an extreme scenario, much too simplistic, but some variant of this is bound to unfold. That is not what the good doctor ordered for India or the UPA. That is why it is for people of the experience of Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Advani and Jaswant Singh now to lean on their parties, to roll back this vicious drift, to start talking and to bring some sanity back in our politics.

Also read: National Interest: Lose-lose


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