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Mainstream, VOL LI No 44, October 19, 2013

Is a National Unity Government Possible?

Monday 21 October 2013, by Bharat Dogra

The conventional understanding of parliamentary democracy is that there will be a ruling party (or coalition) and there will be an opposition side.

However, given the experience of recent years, a time has come to explore whether a national unity government, which provides at least some presence to even Opposition parties, is possible. Such a national unity government will have representatives of almost all the political parties whose members are elected to Parliament.

Here two aspects of this question are explored: (1) What is the need for a national unity government? (2) If such a need is accepted then how can we achieve this at the practical level?

However, before answering these questions, I’d like to say that the possibility of such unity governments can also be explored at the State level. Secondly, even though the discussion here is in the context of India, these ideas are relevant in the context of many other countries as well.

I

The first question that needs to be answered-is: what is the need for a national unity government? What is wrong with the existing system?
Actually the existing system is not at all bad as long as various sides behave with responsibility and there is recognition as well as grasp of wider and longer-term national interests. Unfortunately, in recent years there has not been much evidence of these qualities so that broad agreements on issues of national and longer-term interests could not be built.

In a country of strong identities of caste, religion and region, it is very important that there is a broad agreement across the political spectrum for unity at the grassroots. Unfortunately, despite lip-sympathy being paid to this ideal by almost all political parties, they have not hesitated to fan the flames of various kinds of sectarian violence to advance their narrow interests of gaining political power or winning elections. This is true not just of the more overtly communal parties, but also, to a lesser extent, of some others. It is hoped that a national unity government will help to check this dangerous tendency which one day can threaten the very survival of our democracy and nation.

Secondly, in some critical matters of foreign policy, particularly policies relating to China and Pakistan, there is obviously need of a certain minimum extent of continuity and consensus in our country. Unfortunately there has been a tendency in the past that when the government initiates even well-conceived moves for better relations with China and Pakistan, or for solving border issues or sorting out insurgencies supported by foreign interests, these are sometimes needlessly criticised by the Opposition as a sign of weakness on the part of the government or, worse, sacrifice of national interests. Of course there is need to be vigilant about protecting our borders and there is need to be very careful about not making any undue concessions, but at the same time every move of the government in these matters should not be viewed with hostility and suspicion. It is hoped that a national unity government will be better able to build a national consensus on foreign policy issues with special emphasis on relations with our neighbours.

Thirdly, there has been a tendency in recent years among various political parties to be more and more intolerant towards each other and to increasingly use rude language. Unnece-ssarily provocative words are used against each other which make media headlines creating controversies that may become so intense as to disrupt parliamentary work.

On the other hand, grassroots issues of critical importance and long-term significance are neglected amidst the din and noise of such trivial issues. The need to save indigenous seeds and farm animals, the urgency of checking genetic pollution caused by GM crops, the need to save the ecology of critical areas such as the Himalayan region and coastal areas which are threatened on a massive scale by new forces, the urgency of preparing adequate plans to cope with the big issue of climate change—these are issues of greatest importance for the longer-term welfare of our people and indeed of all forms of life. Yet these either get very little attention in the existing political system, or else the attention is in the direction of worsening the problems.

It is hoped that this worsening of inter-party discourse as well as neglect of the most crucial longer-term issues can also be corrected at least to some extent by forming a national unity government.

II

Once the need for a national unity government is recognised, the second step is to explore how such a government can be formed at the practical level.

One possibility is that when the leader of the political party which gets the maximum number of seats in the Lok Sabha is called upon to form a government, he or she includes members of almost all political parties which have won parliamentary seats in the Cabinet. If a few of the political parties with the smallest number of seats are excluded for some time so as not to make the Cabinet too large, these can be accommodated in the Cabinet at a later stage.

Of course, it is most likely that the leader of the party with the most seats will select most Ministers from his (or her) own party and its allies, but at least some members will be selected also from the Opposition parties.

The Opposition parties should accept such an offer even if it fails far short of their expectations, respecting the prerogative of the Prime Minister to select his/her team, and also with a view to facilitate the formation of a national unity government.

There are several other challenges for the successful functioning of a national unity government which will have to be faced once the basic idea gains wider acceptance.

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.

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