The notion of ‘badla’, or revenge, has always had a special place in the Indian imagination: Remember all those Hindi films that centred around the idea of vengeance or settling scores. Indian politics too has played out its own version of ‘badla’, or tit-for-tat politics, shades of which are now being witnessed in the manner in which the Congress has chosen to disrupt Parliament over what it describes as the Narendra Modi-led government’s vendetta politics against its opponents, more specifically the Gandhi family. The Congress narrative is simple: The BJP didn’t let Parliament function when we were in power, we have every right to respond in similar terms.
Statistically, the PRS Legislative research figures show that in the 15th Lok Sabha, when UPA 2 was in power, productive time was just 61%, 60% of question hour time was lost and only 179 of the 328 Bills were passed, the worst record in 50 years. Some of the stoppages were entirely avoidable. For example, an entire winter session of Parliament was stalled over the BJP’s demand to set up a joint parliamentary committee to investigate the 2G scam when a Supreme Court-monitored probe was already being conducted. Now, the Congress seems to have decided to match disruption for disruption. If the monsoon session was washed out over the demand for the resignations of Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje, the winter session is also heading towards a similar deep freeze.
Once Parliament had paid ritualistic obeisance to Babasaheb Ambedkar and celebrated Constitution Day with a fine debate, familiar scenes have returned to haunt the legislature. The Congress wants General VK Singh to resign for his alleged anti-Dalit remarks. Now, the general does suffer from a foot-in-the-mouth syndrome (it is he who used the derogatory epithet “presstitutes” for journalists), but to seek his resignation for remarks that may have been inappropriate but not malicious is stretching the argument. Even stranger is the Congress’s stand that a high court order ratifying the summoning of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case is an act of political vendetta that must be met by blocking Parliament.
Let’s assume for a moment that the case against the Gandhis is based on mala fide intent driven by ‘spiteful long-standing enemy’ Subramanian Swamy and there is no proof of criminality: Should the merits of the issue not be decided in the courts rather than the floor of the house? By choosing to mix a judicial battle with a political slugfest, the Congress runs the risk of losing the perception war: To an average citizen, it would seem as if the Gandhi family believes it is above the law, or has something to hide. The Congress has every right to exhaust its legal options like anyone else; what it does not have is the right, at least morally, to use Parliament as a weapon to strike back.
This isn’t just about passing the much-delayed Goods and Services Tax (GST), which might signal some respite for a troubled business environment: This is, frankly, about getting the institution of Parliament back on track. The monsoon session had seen the ludicrous spectacle of government and opposition MPs taking to the streets to protest against each other’s positions. Instead of debating issues in Parliament, there was a bizarre scenario where MPs were slugging it out on the streets or in television studios. Such is the level of animosity that both sides seem to view each other as “enemies”, not as adversaries.
Sadly, neither the Prime Minister nor the Gandhi family leadership has tried to step in to end this mood of constant combativeness. Mr Modi’s approach to Parliament has been eerily similar to the manner in which he acted in the Gujarat assembly: Scarcely attending it, and rarely participating in any debate. He could get away with unilateralism in a relatively small state assembly; in a parliament that has at least five former chief ministers and two former prime ministers as members, it’s a recipe for a gridlock.
The Gandhis too seem unwilling to accept Mr Modi as the natural leader of the house: He is still seen through the lens of the 2002 Gujarat violence. A mutual lack of respect, bordering on contempt, means that the space for dialogue is shrinking. When the prime minister, for example, chooses not to invite Sonia Gandhi for the India-African summit formal dinner and the entire Congress hierarchy boycotts the function as a result, it is a worrying sign. Deep-seated personal resentments on both sides cannot be allowed to rupture the courtesies of a democratic order.
At the start of the winter session, when the prime minister invited Mrs Gandhi and his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, for tea, there was some hope that the chai pe charcha might mark a new beginning. Perhaps chastened by his Bihar defeat or simply desperate to push through his legislative agenda, it seemed that Mr Modi was finally ready to shed his authoritarian streak and work with the opposition.
The Congress response though has been less than adequate: A section of the party seems to believe that by rejecting the prime minister’s overtures, they can eventually undermine his government. This smacks of political short-sightedness: Mr Modi must be challenged in the electoral battlefield like in Bihar, not through parliamentary obstructionism as an end in itself. And if the Congress party is convinced that the Modi government wants to put its leadership in jail, then that too is a challenge they must face squarely, not by muscle-flexing but giving a point-by-point rebuttal to the charges against them. If Parliament can debate ‘intolerance’, why not debate vendetta politics too?
Post-script: In a show of defiance, Mrs Gandhi claimed that she was “Indira Gandhi’s bahu, and not scared of anyone”. Her mother-in-law had used similar fighting language to script a famous political comeback in 1980. Tough words may well mobilise party cadres, but do they confer immunity against the law?