Report on the Q&A Session with a Delegation of Indian MPs at Oxford (16th April 2012)
(co-authored with Dhvani Mehta)
Apparently when Devi Lal, the ‘tau’ of Indian politics, was asked why he had made his son, Om Prakash Chautala, the Chief Minister of Haryana on becoming the Deputy Prime Minister of India himself in 1989, he crudely responded –‘aur kya, Bhajan Lal ke chhore ko banauu?’ That level of arrogance may not inform contemporary Indian politics but responses from a delegation of Indian MPs to a question on dynastic politics indicated that the tau’s ghost might linger for a while.
Responses from Supriya Sule (LS, NCP), Piyush Goyal (RS, BJP) and Deepender Hooda(LS, INC), who were part of a panel that also included Chandan Mitra (RS, BJP), Asaduddin Owaisi (LS, All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen), Jayant Chaudhary (LS, RLD) and Rajagopal Lagadapati (LS, INC), made it clear that solving the problem of entry barriers into Indian politics was far from being a priority. Their focus, as has very often been the case on this issue, was on justifying why positions of privilege do not prevent them from being sincere and hardworking MPs. The democratic deficit caused by the entry barriers hardly found any mention in the responses. Supriya Sule’s passionate declaration of the personal sacrifices she was making, Piyush Goyal’s treatment of his political lineage as an advantage and Deepender Hooda’s assertion that election victories (after the first one) were all about individual merit reeked of a power elite determined to hold on to its position of political privilege. Perhaps the question stood no chance given that it was being put to a panel where 6 out of 7 speakers were inheriting the political legacies of their families.
Panellists seemed more willing to introspect when posed a question on the institutional reforms needed to make Parliament functional again. They acknowledged problems with the system, and stated that attempts were being made to forge solutions across party lines. Details however were scant, apart from the mention of a proposal to introduce an annual minimum of parliamentary sittings. Chandan Mitra was of the view that, contrary to public perception, Parliament achieved significant results through consensus in its standing committees.
Given the history of the Third Front in Indian politics, it was surprising to see the degree of optimism amongst non-Congress/BJP panellists about the possibility of such a government in 2014. Perhaps the most enduring account of the problems surrounding the formation of a Third Front government is Devi Lal’s insistence on taking the oath as Deputy Prime Ministerin 1989 despite President Venkataraman’s strong suggestion during the ceremony that the Constitution permitted him to take oath only as a Minister (And well, it took a decision of the Supreme Court to finally resolve the issue). Supriya Sule’s answer, if implemented, might well be a way to counter such deep levels of suspicion and discord - she emphasised the necessity of presenting a pre-poll Common Minimum Programme to the electorate, rather than cobbling together a post-poll alliance. If voted to power, Asaduddin Owaisi was of the view that the economic and foreign policies of a Third Front government would be substantially different from the largely indistinguishable policies of the two national parties. However, Piyush Goyal believed that a government dominated by regional parties might be ill-suited to address national issues. In a polity that is increasingly dominated by regional parties, Deepender Hooda acknowledged the need to address regional aspirations and strengthen leadership in the States.
The responses to a question on whether identity politics impeded or enabled democracy were predictable. Chandan Mitra promptly held up the examples of Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi and their brand of politics as moving away from the fixation with identity. Rebutting the mainstream discourse about Nitish Kumar’s development agenda, Asaduddin Owaisi claimed that the Bihar Chief Minister had merely got his religion and caste permutations right by carving out Maha-Dalits and Most Backward Classes from the Scheduled Castes and OBC categories respectively. While the jury might still be out on the political feasibility of Nitish Kumar’s strategy in other parts of the country, it certainly represents the next level of legal challenges for reservation policies. While courts have been willing to uphold the sub-classification of OBCs along economic lines, the constitutional fate of Nitish Kumar’s reservation policies for Scheduled Castes remains uncertain, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in EV Chinnaiah v State of AP & Ors.
Being rather dismissive of Narendra Modi’s model of development, Asaduddin Owaisi asserted that it was too high a price to pay. He delivered an impassioned justification for identity politics, especially in the context of safeguarding minority rights. The reactions from Mr. Owaisi and other Muslim MPs to the Supreme Court’s observations on the Haj subsidy have been interesting. Neatly capturing the benefits of identity politics, he concluded his remarks with a poetical flourish- ‘phool nahin toh phool ki patti hi sahi’ [if we can’t have the flower, then we may as well have the petals].
If one were to attempt to roughly label the responses, arrogance, predictability, lack of nuance and evasiveness would be good candidates, typical of so much of Indian political discourse. While some of the responses to questions on climate change, reservations based on economic criteria, and the Gujarat riots betrayed the latter two characteristics, other answers on the same issues were certainly more measured and reasoned. When asked whether India could afford not to transition immediately to a low-carbon economy, Piyush Goyal attempted to portray India as the victim in global negotiations and seemed to suggest that development and environmental protection were antithetical. In contrast, Mr Chaudhary remarked that this distinction was counter-productive, and that moves to adopt low-carbon measures ought not to be viewed as a conspiracy of the developed world. Instead, it was in India’s self-interest to move towards sustainable growth particularly in the light of our vulnerability to the effects of climate change.
Supriya Sule also displayed a lack of nuance when she cited the Right to Education Act as an example of affirmative action based on economic criteria without any reference whatsoever to the manner in which various State governments had, under their respective rules, divided up the 25% quota.
This lack of nuance is particularly ironic given that politicians are quick to accuse civil society of failing to appreciate the complexity of political challenges, the India Against Corruption movement being a case in point (Chandan Mitra couldn’t resist a self-congratulatory pat on the back as he reminded the audience of the high quality of parliamentary debate on the Lokpal bill).
The BJP’s defensiveness over Narendra Modi is evident in its reaction to the report submitted by the Supreme Court appointed amicus, Raju Ramachandran, on the Zakia Jafri case. It was also evident when, on being asked whether there would be adverse political consequences if Narendra Modi apologised for his moral culpability (rather than legal) for the Gujarat riots, Chandan Mitra’s initial reaction was a refusal to answer the question. It took him very little provocation to respond when Asaduddin Owaisi responded to a question on whether such an apology would suffice for the Muslim community. He said that Narendra Modi would never apologise because an apology for such an act required a ‘human heart.’ He asserted that all legal proceedings would have to continue, and indicated that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission based on the South African model might be acceptable. This response was sufficient for Chandan Mitra to spout the BJP line on Narendra Modi that there was no question of an apology, since no legal culpability had been established.
The session was a unique opportunity to interact with parliamentarians from across the political spectrum and although several trite responses were duly parroted, there were some well-articulated positions along with encouraging passion for convictions. It gave us a taste of what makes Indian politics exciting and frustrating at the same time.