This weekend the country’s two principal opposition parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Part of India (Marxist), or CPM, will be undertaking a post-election introspection. It is a very important moment, not just for the two parties, but also for the democratic framework within the country.
While the CPM, racked with internal dissent, has been reduced to a pale shadow of itself in the new Parliament, the BJP, even while it has maintained its numerical strength, is struggling to explain its second successive defeat when they were convinced that this had been an election for the Congress party to lose. The end outcome from the perspective of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is perfect. An Opposition in disarray is a clear chance for them to press ahead with their own agenda without really worrying about answering critics. More so since the Congress, now that it has 206 elected members of Parliament (MPs) of its own, cannot be seriously challenged by other coalition members from within the UPA.
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Till its exit from the UPA in July last year following differences over the government’s decision to ink the civil nuclear deal with the US, the CPM was the self-appointed conscience keeper of the coalition. Now, not only are they not part of the UPA, they are also bereft of significant numbers. The BJP, rudderless at the moment with the leadership in disarray and plagued by self-doubt, is hamstrung to carry out its role as the leading party of the Opposition.
So, from a situation of where the CPM overplayed its role as a conscience keeper in the previous UPA regime, we have swung to an extreme and are now in a situation wherein there are no serious checks on the new government.
While it is great news from the government’s point of view, it is disastrous in the context of democracy. Especially at a time when the government is firming up its stand on two key multilateral negotiations, at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the United Nations discussions on climate change scheduled to take place in Copenhagen in December.
If news reports emanating from Washington, DC—following commerce minister Anand Sharma’s meeting with his counterparts in the US—are to be believed, then India has taken a decision to revisit its negotiating position as part of the efforts to revive the Doha Round of talks. Clearly, for some reason India finds its previously confrontationist stance is not relevant today.
Now the point here is not whether India is going to sell out or not (for all you know, the government may cut the best deal yet for the country). Instead, it is simply that without a viable Opposition, the government cannot be held answerable and we would never really know the real truth.
Just to labour this point and again without going into the merits of the specifics, the Left’s resistance led by the CPM must have played in the minds of the negotiators from the US. And India’s negotiators would surely have leveraged this to their advantage, especially when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went out on a limb and even put his government’s survival at stake by breaking with the Left.
Strangely enough, even though they are at opposite ends of the ideological pole, the BJP and the CPM are facing existential questions after the Congress emerged as the surprise and clear victor in the just concluded 15th general election —but for entirely different reasons.
The Left, because of the pro-development initiatives undertaken in West Bengal, has moved away from its socialist moorings. That is largely because it has been viewed through an either/or prism; unlike, say, how the Chinese Communist party has managed its transition. Consequently, there is a disconnect with the cadres and the leadership. Episodes such as Nandigram have only queered the pitch further. So the Left meet, as reported in Mint on 17 June, will debate the ideological stance and probably force a realignment. The bottom line is that the party has to find means to reconnect with the masses, especially at a time that it will be facing a resurgent Trinamool Congress and Congress combine in the 2011 assembly elections in West Bengal.
Similarly, the BJP has finally begun to realize that its future growth is dependent on how it marries its core ideology with a popularly acceptable electoral offering. At the moment, it seems to be veering around to the view that Hindutva may have run its course.
But dropping this theme is easier said than done. Overnight it will look like a Congress party clone; however, without the baggage of dynasty politics. All the more since the Congress has moved the full distance in embracing right-wing economic thinking without forsaking its agenda for the masses.
Either way, it is crunch time for both the BJP and the CPM. It will be ridiculous to expect the first post-mortem to throw up a solution. More importantly, both parties should not fall into the trap of over-analysing their defeat. The weekend would presumably throw up the contours of change that the two parties are likely to adopt to plot their respective revival.
For the country as a whole, this is critical. Because at this point of time, there is no political party that embodies a national perspective, that can replace either the BJP or the CPM. The risks of failure are plenty. Already, extremist forces are fast taking over the Opposition space. And for them, the dialogue is not democratic, and the outcome decided by the bullet and not the ballot.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org