The contrast of political stability
The Nation
April 7 , 1997
In Indian politics, next Friday is very important. For, if till then the Congress and the United Front could not reconcile their differences, Deve Gowda’s government will fail to win the vote of confidence in Lok Sabha. The BJP being the single largest party in Indian parliament will then try to form a coalition, which is also out of question. Like the Congress, the BJP also seems to have failed to break into the ranks of the United Front’s 13-member loose alliance of nationalist, regional, centrist and leftist parties. The end result, thus, may be yet another general election in less than a year, yet another hung parliament—and more instability.

For Pakistan, on the other hand, last Tuesday was a day of crucial significance, when its National Assembly unanimously took the historic step of passing the Thirteenth Amendment in the Constitution, eliminating the most controversial parts of the Eighth Amendment. The much-needed parliamentary supremacy in the country was restored. It was a coincidence that this most positive development in Pakistan’s democratic politics took place just two days after India was plunged into political uncertainty.

Today, therefore, Pakistan stands on a much stronger footing as compared with India insofar as its rating as a democratic state in the comity of nations is concerned. The so-called ‘largest democracy of the world,’ India seems to be marching fast on the road to political instability. Pakistan has a strong civilian regime, which came to power through a landslide electoral victory.

And, every other day, it is taking radical decisions to socially, politically and economically reform the country. Even in the case of Pakistan’s relationship with India, the present leadership has come up with many bold initiatives. On the other hand, the present political crisis has so gripped the Indians that they do not seem to afford to even look beyond the corridors of power in New Delhi, what to talk of making any bold gestures in normalizing and improving their relations with Pakistan.

Lok Sabha is a 545-member house. Out of this, the United Front has 180 seats, BJP 162, and Congress 140. The remaining 63 seats belong to individuals and parties which chose to dissociate themselves after last June’s election in India. Both the Front and Congress have a common enemy: the communal Hindu revivalist party, the BJP, which was what had brought them together as coalition partners after BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpaee failed to win a vote of confidence and the BJP government he led at the Centre, thus, had to collapse within 13 days after the election.

Right from the time the coalition government was formed in India, it was expected that it would not last long, as the clash between Congress and United Front parties was bound to occur.

That it happened the day foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan were meeting in New Delhi to resume Indo-Pak normalization dialogue after a gap of over three years, was another coincidence. In the letter that Congress president Sitaram Kesri wrote to Indian president Shankar Dayal Sharma on 30 March telling him that the Congress had decided to withdraw its parliamentary support to the United Front, Kesri argued that his coalition partner Deve Gowda lacked the “will to govern and coordination direction.”

Since that day, Kesri and other Congress leaders have been insisting that Gowda must resign and are urging the Front parties to replace Gowda with Kesri as the head of the coalition government.

Attempts at bringing about reconciliation between the two estranged coalition leaders are also under way. The two have separately met Jyoti Basu, the communist leader, as part of a ‘face-saving’ strategy, whose ultimate aim is to keep the communists out. Nothing can be said at this time whether such a strategy will materialize before Gowda seeks vote of confidence from Lok Sabha on Friday.

But the chances are that it will not. For the tempers on the two sides are still high, preventing all options of a possible reconciliation bid. Even if any such bid succeeds, the resulting coalition arrangement will be as precarious as was the previous one. The same will be the case if BJP musters up some support from among the United Front’s or other members of Lok Sabha. In any case, the holding of snap election in India in the months ahead is a foregone conclusion.

What will the expected mid-term election bring for India? Probably another messy round of politics. Never was Congress as divided as it is now. One of its key leaders, Sharad Pawar, reportedly did not approve of Kesri’s decision to ditch Gowda. Other Congress pundits such as N. D. Tiwari have long split from the party.

The former prime minister and Congress party president, Narasimha Rao and some of his close party compatriots are facing corruption charges. This means that, in all probability, the Congress will not fare well in the snap polls if they are held. For its part, even though the BJP did emerge as the largest electoral winner in the last election, it has yet to establish itself as a political party having roots across the country. So far the political support it has enjoyed is restricted to some and not all of the states constituting the Indian federation.

In recent times, there has been a mushrooming growth of regional parties in India. The United Front, having as many as 13 parties as alliance members, therefore, has its own peculiar dilemmas. It has the communists and socialists of Marxist, Leninist and Maoists varieties. It has the centrists, left-to-the-centrists, and right-to-the centrists.

Then, it has regionalists and nationalists. A leader from Kerala, for instance, would first look at the interests of Keralites than anyone else’s at the Centre. So would a Tamil, a West Bengali, a Dalit, so on and so forth. The foremost question in today’s Indian politics, thus, is to accommodate such diverse political, ethnic, nationalist and ideological interests.

Neither Congress nor BJP can enter into coalition arrangement with such diverse forces. Even if any such coalition is formed, it is bound to fall. And, suppose if snap polls are held and won by the BJP, then India’s fate will be determined not by politicians but by communalists, Hindu revivalists, religiously chauvinistic leaders like Bal Thakeray. As regards the fate of the Muslims of India—who already maintain a meaningless place in the Indian polity—it will be in a deplorable state.

All along Pakistan’s history, the Indians have taken pride in being ahead of Pakistan in their democratic experience. For framing a Constitution immediately after Independence. For having no martial law regime.

For building and strengthening institutions required for a smooth democratic functioning. To their utter disappointment, however, everything seems to have turned upside down after fifty years of Independence. And, fifty years after Partition, despite having martial laws in most of its history, Pakistan has perhaps the most stable civilian regime it has ever had.

Having a stable regime is not enough. What ultimately matters in politics is whether an elected leader is able to push forward the agenda of his party as chalked out in the party manifesto and, most importantly, implement its major elements. This Nawaz Sharif is in the process of doing within days and weeks of his coming to power, by banking upon his tremendous parliamentary strength.