The soul of parliamentary democracy in India was destroyed during the past week.
The story of the trust vote in Parliament will remain asterisked as a terrible moment in the history of Indian parliamentary democracy. Every move in the 10-day long countdown to the vote on July 22 added up to a trail of unprincipled alliances, acts of patronage and alleged payment of bribes – all for the sake of securing a majority for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The Opposition was not to be left behind though as in all such situations it is the party/coalition in power that has more patronage to hand out and more cash to offer.
What happened was not new to Indian democracy. Such sordid drama is regularly performed in state legislatures and has been witnessed in the past in Parliament as well – most notably in 1993 when the Congress(I) government of the time manipulated a similar victory in the Lok Sabha. What was new this time was the openness with which promises were made and the blatant nature of the alliances of convenience. From a political party drawing up corporate agendas as a price for support, to bartering cabinet posts for a vote on the floor of the Lok Sabha, to alleged "behind-the-scenes" transactions of multi-crore bribes – they all herald a qualitative transformation for the worse in India's parliamentary democracy.
The amorality of the Congress' dealings has stripped it of what little respectability it thought it may have had. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come out as hypocritical and unsure of where it stands. The Left has found it has played its cards poorly and faces a severe loss of influence on policy. The Samajwadi Party (SP) has revealed yet again why it represents perhaps the worst in Indian politics. The many small parties with representation in Parliament have only demonstrated that they are up for sale. Politically, the one gainer has been Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). But there is little to be optimistic about the Mayawati phenomenon since the BSP has perhaps even less respect for the norms of parliamentary democracy.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh is a person of exceptional probity, but his hands are no less stained by the happenings of the past 10 days. More than a decade ago, on September 13, 1996, at a Congress parliamentary party meeting, Manmohan Singh famously said, "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion". That was a reference to the string of allegations of corruption made against the family of P V Narasimha Rao during 1991-96. Those words must surely return now to haunt the prime minister, for Caesar's colleagues in the government and party went out of their way to trade favours for political support and Manmohan Singh did little to stop them because winning the trust vote and seeing the Indo-US nuclear deal through was all that mattered.
There are no clean hands left in Parliament. The volte-face of the SP in a few days from staunch opposition to both the Congress and the nuclear accord to support for both was obviously born of opportunism. The open expression of demands by Amar Singh, general secretary of the SP, in areas of interest to industrialist Anil Ambani and on issues that would hurt his brother and rival, Mukesh Ambani, bared in all its ugliness the nexus of corruption between big business, political parties and government. Then there was the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and its leader Shibu Soren who were guilty of accepting cash bribes in 1993 and this time stand guilty of demanding reinduction into the union cabinet in exchange for five "yes" votes.
What happened on the day of the trust vote could never have been imagined. Three BJP MPs waved wads of 1,000 rupee notes, alleging that they had been paid by SP representatives to absent themselves from the voting. If the allegations are true, it could be a defining moment in Indian democracy. If the episode was manufactured by the BJP, it will be no less of a blot on Parliament and parliamentarians.
The Left parties too have a lot to answer for. They joined hands with the BSP at the last moment because they were desperate to vote out the UPA government. Among the reasons the BSP offered for its opposition to the nuclear deal, one was that the accord was unacceptable to India's Muslims. Such a reasoning had been rejected earlier by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Yet driven by realpolitik and stung as it was by the way the UPA had decided to go ahead with the operationalisation of the nuclear deal despite a written agreement with the Left, the CPI(M) thought it best to ally with the BSP to bring down the government. And though the BSP was also engaged in the game of weaning away MPs from the SP, this was not something the Left decried.
Realpolitik was invoked by all the major players as the only way to do business in Parliament. But this realpolitik involving as it did lucre, favours and the formation of marriages of convenience has emptied out the soul of parliamentary democracy. Prime minister Manmohan Singh is fond of quoting Bismarck's dictum that politics is the art of the possible. If the events of the past week are an example of what is now possible, every Indian will hang his/her head in shame.
Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly
Cartoon: Courtesy The Hindu