By Swapan Dasgupta
‘Crisis’ is a term that is used too casually and as a synonym for ‘problem’. Since the conclusion of World War I till the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist parties were habituated to beginning their proclamations with the assertion that capitalism was in ‘crisis’, even its ‘final crisis’. But the problem wasn’t limited to the champions of the proletariat. In a legendary put-down of a man he disliked, a former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour is said to have told friends: “I hear that Winston (Churchill) as written a book about himself and called it The World Crisis.” Yet, since polemics depends in good measure on exaggeration, the overuse of ‘crisis’, though a shade common, is understandable.
Taking needless liberties with the language of understatement is, needless to say, a part of the Indian tradition—an extension, some would say, of the hyperbolic underpinnings of vernacular discourse. In political conversations, ‘crisis’ easily overshadows two other, much overused terms of wilful exaggeration: ‘fascism’ and ‘Emergency’. Whether this refuge in familiarity stems from intellectual laziness or a disdain for the specific is worthy of discussion on a lazy afternoon. For the moment, it is sufficient to note that casual over-usage of loaded terms may well have contributed to a corresponding measure of non-seriousness among listeners or readers: the political equivalent of crying ‘wolf’ for a lark.
Given its dodgy colloquial record, I am a little wary of suggesting that India is at present confronted with a full-blown political-cum-Constitutional crisis—or at least a potential crisis—stemming from the non-functioning of Parliament during the entire Monsoon session. The Congress Party’s declaration of total war on the Narendra Modi Government may, hopefully, be put on hold by the time the Winter session begins. In that case, the only enduring casualty of the sustained disruption of proceedings for nearly a month may well be the delay by one financial year in making the proposed Goods and Services Tax operational—this is presuming the Bill is approved by the Rajya Sabha in a normal vote and endorsed by the requisite number of state legislatures. If that happens, the political turbulence will be episodic and stop well short of becoming a systemic crisis.
However, the portents are not very encouraging. In the course of the Monsoon session, an inflexible Congress Party clearly demonstrated that it is possible for a small, determined minority to prevent the functioning of Parliament for a sustained period and prevent legislation. The Congress has, in effect, been seen to obliterate the all-important distinction between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition. The term ‘taking to the streets’ (or, in some cases, ‘mounting the barricades’) was hitherto the shorthand for trying to pressure a regime using the power of mass mobilisation. Today, by ‘entering the well’ of the House, a determined minority has shown that it can paralyse the normal legislative business of a legitimate government.
The possibility of this extreme opposition to a regime having a multiplier effect and spreading to the states and becoming a routine feature of Indian democracy is enough to fill all citizens with dread. In 1923, the Swaraj Party led by Chittaranjan Das promised to destroy the legislatures “from within.” However, its subversion of the Government of India Act of 1919 was entirely constitutional: the Swarajist legislators voted down Budgets and Minister’s salaries in Council’s where it commanded a majority. Forcibly disrupting legislative proceedings using lungpower never entered its calculations.
The Swarajists played by the rules of the game—once it chose to play the game in the first place—but today the Congress has flaunted its unwillingness to accept the ground rules of parliamentary conduct. Without going into the merits of the demand for the immediate resignation of External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj—the associated demand for the simultaneous resignation of the Chief Ministers of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh is beyond the jurisdiction of the Union Government—it can be said that the Congress’ extreme position leaves it with no honourable exit route. If Swaraj remains a minister when the next session is convened, will it persist with its disruption?
What has compounded the problem is the uselessness of present rules to deal with an abnormal situation. When the Speaker suspended 25 Congress MPs for their misbehaviour, there was a shrill charge of “murder of democracy” and an enlargement of the protest to cover a larger Opposition bloc. The larger political message that emerged was that no action must be taken by the presiding officer to ensure the House functions. India, it was deemed, must wait for the Gandhi family’s nod of approval before Parliament returns to normal functioning.
The return of good sense may not happen in a hurry. The Congress appears to have seized upon a small opening provided by Lalit Modi to craft a maximalist strategy. In essence, it is premised on the belief that prolonged disruption of Parliament will put a question mark on the systemic stability of India, impair the economic recovery and trigger voter dissatisfaction against a Prime Minister who promised achche din. In the short-term, the Congress hopes that a climate of confrontation resulting from the washout of the Monsoon session will be followed by a BJP defeat in Bihar which in turn will further galvanise the opposition into making life more miserable for the Modi government. It is an audacious putschist strategy to transform the BJP Government into a lame-duck regime and, at the same time, restore the primacy of the Congress and the Gandhi family in the political milieu.
In the coming months, the Prime Minister’s ability to regain the political momentum will be tested. The Bihar Assembly elections due in October-November this year is no doubt important in this context. However, far more significant will be the effect of the Congress’ total war approach on the political system. So far, unlike other periods when the government and opposition were at loggerheads, the disruption has been confined to inside Parliament. The Congress has failed to galvanise street protests against Modi.
Equally, there is nothing to suggest that Parliament as a whole is a passive rubber stamp of the executive. The successful pressure put on the Modi Government to modify the terms of the Land Acquisition Bill and even the GST by regional parties and even a section of the BJP indicates that the role of Parliament has been diminished. Had the Congress’ disruption followed a prolonged spell of parliamentary atrophy, it may have struck a responsive chord. Indeed paralysing Parliament on the demand for Swaraj’s resignation for procedural impropriety may strike many as a gross over-reaction.
A larger point to consider is the evidence of popular disgust at what has taken place in Parliament. So far the anger is focussed on the whole political class—the memories of the BJP’s disruption during UPA rule are still fresh. The danger is that if this pattern persists, it could have the unintended consequence of eroding the bi-partisan faith in the larger democratic process. The space for subliminal authoritarian impulses is likely to grow if the Congress chooses to confront the government with its own 21st century version of the Non Cooperation movement.
In the Centre and the states, politics is becoming increasingly presidential and focussed on a strong leader—be it Modi, Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal or Naveen Patnaik. If legislatures are perceived to be an obstruction to governance, the demand for enhancing executive powers is certain to grow. In preferring adventurism to patience, the Congress is playing with fire. India may well be on the cusp of a real crisis.
The Telegraph, August 14, 2015