September 21, 2002


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Kuldip Nayar

The mirage of consensus

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee does not speak much these days. After the Bharatiya Janata Party's national executive session in Goa, he has considered it politic to withdraw from centrestage. But his statements from America seem to give a different impression. He had to be in New York --- and speak --- because of the September 11 anniversary and the opening of the UN General Assembly. Actually, he has not changed at all.

Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani now presides, even over the all-party meeting. It is not health that restrains Vajpayee. It is probably the realisation that the liberals who once respected him have become disillusioned. And that he has little respect among the extremists.

Had Vajpayee been younger, he might have tried to win back that opinion. He might have fought against the elements that have pushed him aside. The hardliners have nearly taken over the BJP. This must be irking him. Maybe he still feels like asserting himself sometimes. Just to show that the fire within him has not died out.

Not long ago, he ticked off Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for speaking against Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh. The CEC's fault was that he had said that the conditions in Gujarat were not favourable for an early election. Modi wanted to cash in on the polarisation he had brought about in the wake of the carnage.

But, obviously, Vajpayee doesn't count much. The state BJP chief asserted, after Vajpayee's admonition, that the party would never say "sorry" to the CEC.

I wonder if Vajpayee still guides Cabinet meetings. The ministers I have talked to confirm that he goes over the agenda. But they add that it is obvious where the power lies. Cabinet ministers look towards Advani whenever any item is taken up. "Vajpayee rules, but does not govern," was the comment of one minister.

How soon will Vajpayee step down to make way for Advani, is the talk in BJP corridors. One top party leader says: "George Fernandes should know because he is the one who proposed the elevation of Advani." It is taken for granted that Advani will be the prime minister long before the general election. BJP president M Venkaiah Naidu has scoffed at this impression at a press conference. But Vajpayee seems to be stepping out slowly.

Once I asked former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu whether the ruling National Democratic Alliance would agree to Advani's name when Vajpayee stepped down. Basu's reply was that power provided glue to the NDA; its members would do anything to stay in power.

But it may not be that easy. Vajpayee has acquired an image that is acceptable to many political parties. Advani has begun following in his footsteps. His performance in London before a Muslim gathering was impressive. He is trying to soften his hardline image. But he has a long way to go. Vajpayee has disappointed people, but not alienated them. The BJP still wants someone like him to happen to it.

Vajpayee spoke the other day about the need for consensus among political parties or the 'Lakshman Rekha', the limit beyond which none should go. Was he trying to retrieve lost ground or was it mere rhetoric? Vajpayee may be sincerely seeking the opposition's support in dealing with the country's numerous problems in the economic, political, and social fields. But it is futile.

In an atmosphere where confrontation, not conciliation, is the order of the day, consensus, even if sincerely proposed, is not feasible. In a multi-party system, there is an inherent compulsion to be one up on the opponent. Numbers count in a democratic system. The reason why consensus will always elude the country is the opportunistic politics that every party has played. The race for power has corrupted the system. Ends have come to justify the means.

The BJP is the biggest culprit. It has used all types of methods to increase its strength in the Lok Sabha, from five or six to 181, within 10 to 15 years. While doing so, it has thought little of the "nation first", which Vajpayee said should be everyone's prime consideration.

After quitting the Janata Party in 1979, the then Jan Sangh changed its name to the BJP and revived its old communal agenda. It has been relentlessly playing the Hindutva card since. In the process, the party has adopted the hated two-nation theory, the basis of Partition, to polarise the country. And it has met with success of sorts. Can it give up this agenda?

The BJP has injected communalism into politics, others the caste system and regional chauvinism. All parties have, more or less, played havoc with norms and values. No political party has even paused to think that the tactics it is using to increase its support might pollute society itself. And this is what has happened.

The question that arises is: At what stage do political parties call a truce? The outfit that has lagged behind is bound to use the tactics the other one employed to improve its strength. How do you draw the line if you yourself have not stopped at anything? The BJP must introspect on this point. Democracy does not mean a free play of ideas that fundamentalists and casteists disseminate. Political parties have to think how to put a stop to it if the content of democracy is to be saved.

A consensus means an agreement in opinion. But when the eyes of parties are fixed on power, how do you bring about a consensus? How do parties in the opposition put faith in the ruling party's exhortations for a consensus? The objective of rulers is to keep the opposition out at any cost, while the opposition wants to come in by hook or by crook. Unless there is a code of ethics, the situation will deteriorate. And there has to be a sense of accommodation. It existed in the past. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru included Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Mahasabha leader, in the first post-Independence Cabinet.

In four-and-a-half years at the Centre, the BJP got many opportunities to prove that it was honest in its endeavour for a consensus. Gujarat is the most recent one. It should have asked Chief Minister Narendra Modi to quit on day one. When the prime minister says "there can be no place for such violence in a civilised society", how can the architect of violence have a place in that civilised society?

The Vajpayee government has no consultations with the opposition, much less any understanding. There are fora available for the two to interact. The government does not use them. The prime minister has never called a meeting of the National Integration Council, which includes eminent people from different walks of life, to discuss the country's problems, rising above party lines. Maybe the council has to be reconstituted. More than four years have elapsed since Vajpayee's takeover. Still there is no sign of the National Integration Council.

The real problem is that the BJP is pushing its parochial agenda when it has only one-third of the Lok Sabha's strength and still less in the Rajya Sabha. The party has to have a verdict from the nation before it takes the country the Hindutva way, as it is trying to do. If the BJP stops its endeavour to polarise the country, the opposition may come round to support certain government steps. It will not be a consensus, but limited co-operation.

This may still be better than the present situation where the hostility between the ruling combination and the opposition is not allowing even Parliament to function.

Kuldip Nayar

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