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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 1, December 20, 2008

’Maya’ in Indian Politics

Sunday 21 December 2008, by Ajay K. Mehra

“Will Mayawati do an ‘Obama’ on India?” —this question deserves an answer keeping in view the projected march of the ‘elephant’ in the ongoing Assembly elections and the grace with which the US election concluded. Maywati is arrogantly aggressive in power, not sparing any rival from her pithy slangings. In the USA, not only was the vanquished gracious to the elected, the victor too crossed the narrow boundaries of partisanship to put together the best team. This has been missing in India since Nehru’s first team.

At present, however, in order to aggressively defend her turf against a possible revival of the Congress, Mayawati continues to deny allotment of land and permission to any project in the strongholds of the Gandhis. Earlier, she locked the gates of the Chandrashekhar Azad University of Agriculture and Technology on Rahul Gandhi and denied him security. She also cancelled land acquisition for the Indian Railways in Rae Bareli and thwarted Sonia Gandhi’s scheduled public rally. Her calculated, though brazen, actions are meant to bolster her ‘tough’ image for her constituency.

The spat that predictably followed these provocations, her eventual restoring of the land allotment, but blocking where she can, reflects the ‘maya’ (delusion) in Indian politics that all political actors are party to. The same ‘maya’ was on play in the Lok Sabha on October 24, 2008 when Speaker Somnath Chatterjee ‘walked out’ in distress! This ‘maya’ creates a mirage of unsubstantiated or non-existent political gains. In the long run, however, Indian politics gets shorn of its remaining grace, institutions are deinstitutio-nalised and constitutionalism suffers erosion.

Parliamentarism in India has already suffered a deadly blow in this fall of decorum in politics. Each session of Parliament is being reduced to street politics at the expense of its governance and legislating functions of representation, as well as accountability; the less said about State Legislative Assemblies the better. Manmohan Singh bemoaned being called a nikamma (useless) by the Leader of the Opposition. He was not allowed to deliver his speech during the no-trust vote. Somnath Chatterjee has repeatedly lamented the difficulties he faces in running the Lok Sabha and staged a ‘walk out’ after being pilloried by the CPM MPs. The media stings on gaping holes on its hallowed edifice tell a story of deepening deinstitutiona-lisation with a broadbased participation.

THE post-Congress party fragmentation in India since the 1980s has caused gradual erosion of values, in functional and operative rather than the moral sense, in the way parties and leaders connect to each other. Obviously, grace in inter-personal behaviour and relationship as well as in verbal reference to each other is getting corroded. Sadly, prime ministerial aspirants are leading by example. The epithets used by Lal Krishna Advani to describe the relationship between 7 Race Course Road and 10 Janpath did not enhance his stature, neither did Prakash Karat’s angry outbursts against the Prime Minister on the nuclear deal, nor his party MPs’ tirade against the Speaker, Sitaram Yechury’s indefensible explanations notwithstanding. Mayawati, being a recent entrant in the race for 7 Race Course Road, appears unable to curb her basic instincts to confront India’s ‘first party’ and a member of the country’s ‘first political family’ with strident earthy statements and perceived political checkmates. No wonder that the Amar Singhs, the Yadavs, the Thackerays and such others of Indian politics do not mix parliamentary ethics with their political conduct. Whether and how it gets them any addi-tional political mileage or votes is another matter.

This unwarranted political stridency and partisanship impair constitutionalism, which in turn exacerbate deinstitutionalisation (which is no one’s concern) and feed the prevailing political antagonism. In order to question the visit of Sonia Gandhi—an MP from Rae Bareli, the President of the Congress and chairperson of the ruling UPA—Mayawati wrote a new chapter in Centre-State relations by cancelling land acquisition for the Railways. Whether or not the local MP of the ruling coalition, who also heads the party and chairs the UPA, should have been inaugurating the construction of the rail coach factory rather than a Minister or a constitutional functionary is a different debate that could have been carried out on a different platform. In cancelling the land acquisition, Mayawati clearly violated both the letter and spirit of the provisions in Part IX of the Constitution of India, particularly Articles 256 and 257, that oblige the Centre and State Governments to forge cooperative federal relations. It is binding on the States to exercise their executive power in compliance with parliamentary laws and ‘not to impede or prejudice the executive power of the Union’, while the Union has the responsibility to ‘the giving of such directions to a State as may appear to the Government of India to be necessary for that purpose’. Moreover, Article 257 also mentions the Centre’s responsibility with regard to the takeover of highways and waterways and protection of railways. Clearly, even when Mayawati restored the acquisition, she vented her frustration on an IAS officer for not informing the State Cabinet regarding the acquisition. A leader, claiming national stature and projecting herself (even being projected by others) as a potential Prime Minister of the country, should have done better and been more gracious.

As the fifteenth general elections, following the six State Assembly elections, are drawing near, the question we are faced with is whether Indian politics can continue to be under the political ‘maya’ (Mayawati may not necessarily be the only one creating it) and still take care of people’s needs. The question acquires even more nuanced overtones in the face of the violence damaging life and property across the country being supported directly or surreptitiously by parties and leaders. Who could imagine that the country boasting of being the largest democracy in the world, having the bulkiest Constitution anywhere and projected as the new takeover giant in the world economy has a chauvinistic surge in its finance capital and is politically entangled in terror? Obviously, the leaders must introspect and voters be circumspect about the prospects of transforming the largest democracy into the world’s best democracy.

Prof Ajay K. Mehra is the Director, Centre for Public Affairs, New Delhi. He can be contacted at : drmehra@vsnl.com; ajaykmehra@gmail.com

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