After what was an often acrimonious pre-election campaign, the US mid-term elections have brought the Democrats to a majority in both Houses of Congress—for the first time after 12 years—with a potential to radically undermine the final two years of Mr George W Bush's presidency. Given President Bush's current unpopularity, his increasing vulnerability, and the degree of polarisation US politics has experienced during his two consecutive tenures, it could have been expected that the Democrats would leave no stone unturned to make things as difficult as possible for the increasingly beleaguered President. Such an expectation would be reinforced by the virulence of the election campaigns, during which Mr Bush, at one point, went so far as to claim that a Democrat win would mean that "terrorists win and America loses".
And yet, just as the dust of the elections begins to settle, Representative Nancy Pelosi, the new House Speaker (and the first woman to hold the position in US history), has been quick to call for bipartisanship, and declared that the Democrats would not abuse their new status: "Democrats are not about getting even. Democrats are about helping the American people to get ahead." Both Mr Bush and Ms Pelosi have pledged to "find common ground". There is clearly, a wide range of national interests, which both parties agree must be placed above partisan considerations.
American democracy—and the American leadership—is, of course, far from perfect, and no general assessments of its many warts and imperfections is intended here. The narrow point is; there is at least a certain spectrum of national interests in the US that can be extracted from the polarised and destructive cycle of electoral politics, and on which consensual governance is possible. There is no evidence of any such identifiable set in India, over which incumbent governments and political parties in opposition can arrive at a consensual and nationally beneficial arrangement. In fact, any policy success by the government, however crucial for national well being, is immediately and vociferously attacked by the Opposition.
Indeed, losing an election here is an abiding disgrace that must be averted at all costs and by all means, including the criminal, including dirty deals with organised crime and terrorist organisations, and including lasting compromises on national security. It is a disgrace, moreover, that must be avenged at every opportunity, by scandalising and paralysing the government, by purveying falsehoods, by malicious litigation and orchestrated demonstrations and violence in the streets. Neither do victors demonstrate the smallest element of magnanimity in their moment of triumph. Indeed, vicious allegations and the abuse of the government machinery to target Opposition leaders and predecessor parties has been the standard operating procedure of each successor regime over the past decades.
It is useful to recall, here, one of the most despicable and damaging episodes of our democracy, the spectacle of a judge conducting hearings on television—the so-called Shah Commission—and fabricating the most outlandish, unprecedented and fruitless procedures of 'inquiry' to participate in the then ruling coalition's efforts to humiliate a former Prime Minister. This charade went on for years, with many retired judges appointed as subsidiaries to the Shah Commission, carrying out separate 'inquiries' into alleged excesses. In one particularly offensive incident in Manipur, the advocate for the commission humiliated the former Prime Minister, and thereafter made it a point of having himself photographed with her, with the photograph splashed across the country the following day. That Commission spelled the predictable end of the muddled and messy coalition that had emerged from the 1977 elections, and the assorted mountebanks who had emerged to 'lead' the country under its aegis, collapsed within three years.
It is significant that, even today, after all the commissions, a continuing campaign of vicious propaganda against her, and a whispering campaign in the media, Indira Gandhi is still regarded by a large majority of the people as one of our tallest leaders. Thereafter, many of those who grew up under her patronage have tried to match her record, and uniformly and miserably failed.
Nevertheless, the setting up of vengeful commissions of inquiries, of court cases, and of criminal 'investigations' against predecessor regimes and Ministers continues, and there is a great race to run to the courts of law in 'public interest litigation' (PIL) and demands for CBI inquiries. Such cases and inquiries are almost invariably guided by the politically dominant group at that time, with judges sometimes joining whole-heartedly in the 'investigations'. The spectacle thus continues, and the media has come to view this as the staple for their page one feeds and 'breaking news' reportage on television.
Much of this reportage defies established norms of journalism as well as a range of legal precedents, and would, at one time, have attracted strong censure, if not proceedings for contempt, from the courts. But our judges are only human, and, like everyone else, have come to love publicity, and celebrate every opportunity to get their photographs and laudatory references in the media. Though this trend is beginning to show some evidence of decline, there has been a parallel rise in the incidence of an assortment of advocates appearing on camera to fill whatever vacuum may thus have appeared.
Mrs Gandhi was not, of course, the only Prime Minister to be subjected to such vengeful vilification by the electoral victors. The aimless investigations of the Bofors case, the prosecution of PV Narasimha Rao in a misconceived FIR and chargesheet which any self-respecting court would have rejected, the smear campaign in the hawala cases, and the stream of charges of scandal against the NDA government by the present UPA partners, are ongoing performances in this theatre of national denigration.
The sheer uselessness of these processes in righting the wrongs that they claim to set out to redress, and worse, the violence they do to the national interest, to national capacities for governance, should convince us that a powerful course correction is now needed. It is heartening that a 'non-political' Prime Minister has now established at least some norms of governance in which national interest takes precedence over partisan interests, and we now see developmental solutions being applied across the board, without considerations of who is heading the government in a particular State. These are the trends that need to be enormously deepened. At this tipping point in India's history, a core of non-partisan cooperation has to be etched out to strengthen the long neglected tasks of nation building.
K.P.S.Gill is a former Punjab DGP and is currently advisor to the Chhattisgarh government on Naxalite
affairs. This piece first appeared in the Pioneer