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Poke Me: Sixty-eight years since gaining independence, are we witnessing the twilight of parliamentary democracy?

If the new aggressive Congress under Rahul Gandhi refuses to cooperate with his government, then Modi must use political tricks to out-manoeuvre it. Otherwise, parliamentary democracy as we know it will wither away.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Aug 13, 2015, 08.41 PM IST
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If the new aggressive Congress under Rahul Gandhi refuses to cooperate with his government, then Modi must use political tricks to out-manoeuvre it. Otherwise, parliamentary democracy as we know it will wither away.   
If the new aggressive Congress under Rahul Gandhi refuses to cooperate with his government, then Modi must use political tricks to out-manoeuvre it. Otherwise, parliamentary democracy as we know it will wither away.   
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It doesn’t really matter who won the monsoon battle in Parliament. We as a nation stand to lose the war unless the BJP and Congress come out of the trenches and start talking again.

Rarely has Parliament seen the ruling party and the main opposition gridlocked in a total communication breakdown as evident in the washed-out monsoon session. Veterans recall that even in the charged post-Emergency atmosphere, when the Morarji Desai government hounded and arrested Indira and Sanjay Gandhi, back channels between the Janata Party and the Congress remained active. Parliament went about its business, albeit amid high drama and often, pandemonium.

Not anymore. It was obvious from the maximalist positions the BJP and the Congress took before the monsoon session began that there was no meeting ground between the behemoths that control the operational levers in Parliament. Worse, neither seemed interested in making any effort to reach out and find a middle path to stop the paralysis looming on the horizon. Pending legislative business mattered little in the clash of egos between a party high on hubris after a famous victory last year and another desperate to script its revival from the ashes of a humiliating defeat.

Ironically, the long-awaited debate that finally happened on the penultimate day of the session has only deepened the crisis instead of resolving it. The bitter tones of the Sushma Swaraj-Rahul Gandhi slugfest possibly slammed shut the door on reconciliation. The barbs they flung at each other were too personal and some were decidedly below the belt. So much so that Parliament elders have started privately lamenting what they fear is the ‘twilight of democracy’.

Certainly, the portents for the future are ominous. There is already talk that the winter session may go down the tube like the monsoon session. If the BJP loses the Bihar assembly polls due in between the two sessions, rest assured, the Congress will be on the rampage once again. If the BJP wins, on the other hand, it’s the ruling party that will be bullish.

The en bloc suspension of 25 Congress MPs this time is being seen by some sections as an experiment to introduce what is loosely dubbed ‘the Gujarat model’. The Gujarat assembly rarely meets for more than one month in the year and the opposition Congress is routinely thrown out, giving the government a free run.

Parliament is not a state assembly. It is the nerve centre of democracy. MPs have usually shown gravitas in addressing policy matters and issues of national importance, with notable exceptions of course. One hopes that the two biggies understand this.

Undoubtedly, the Congress has been obdurate and irresponsible in setting pre-conditions for parliamentary functioning. If it was going to agree to a debate in the dying moments of the monsoon session, surely it could have shown flexibility earlier. The democratic way is to allow an accused to have his or her say in the form of a structured discussion and win the debate through reasoned arguments. Maybe, just maybe, Parliament could have cleared some important Bills after that.

However, the Congress in opposition has nothing to lose but its reputation. The BJP in government, on the other hand, has everything to gain by making Parliament function as it should. After all, it is the government’s responsibility to make laws, enunciate policy and manage the pulls and pressures of parliamentary democracy.

Successful parliamentary management has always been about striking bargains through informal backroom discussions. For instance, if the Modi government was indeed serious about getting the GST Bill cleared for implementation of a uniform tax code by April 2016, it could have served up its proposed U-turns on the Land Bill as bait to the Congress. The Congress would have got an opportunity to gloat but the long-term gains for the Modi government were surely higher in the reaffirmation through Parliament of its commitment to reforms and economic growth.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee used to have a host of interlocutors through whom he managed his unwieldy 24-party coalition and the Congress, which was in opposition with much larger numbers than now. Some interlocutors were in the public eye, like his able parliamentary affairs minister, Pramod Mahajan.

Others worked quietly behind-the-scenes like his late principal secretary Brajesh Mishra whose friendship and foreign service connections with Sonia Gandhi’s key confidante in that era, Natwar Singh, proved useful on many occasions. And failing everything, he never hesitated to make a personal intervention even with bitter opponents in the Left Parties.

Narendra Modi is no Vajpayee. He not only lacks effective interlocutors in Parliament, he doesn’t seem to believe in personal outreach either. Given these handicaps, it is mystifying why he has allowed the confrontation with the Congress to reach the point of no-return so early in his tenure. To paraphrase Robert Frost, Modi has promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps.

If the new aggressive Congress under Rahul Gandhi refuses to cooperate with his government, then Modi must use political tricks to out-manoeuvre it. Otherwise, parliamentary democracy as we know it will wither away.

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