Elections to five states are over. What do they tell? The Congress won in Pondicherry, was defeated in Kerala, got reduced in Assam, slipped in Bengal, and rode piggy-back to a great victory in Tamil Nadu. The results for Congress therefore appear mixed. But this is illusory. All Congress losses were the gains of its allies. The parties opposing the central government are nowhere in sight. It was therefore a spectacular victory for the UPA combine. To cap this, Mrs Sonia Gandhi swept Rae Bareili with a stunning margin. Her personal standing therefore has never been higher. The moment therefore is propitious for the government to move forward towards stability, coherence and improved governance.
Political leaders too often make a common error. They formulate strategy on the assumption that political arrangements remain static. They do not. They have a dynamic of their own. Politicians ignore this at their own peril. Is Mr Prakash Karat too falling into this common error? Immediately after the polls he was asked on TV about the prospects of CPM becoming the lynchpin of a future Third Front. He said that was a long term possibility very much on the horizon.
Why should the CPM contemplate a future Third Front when the present UPA is working so well for it? The error, one suspects, arises from CPM’s surmise that the present arrangement is temporary and that the party can always go back to its original position. This is where the political dynamic needs understanding. A mixture of political compulsion and advantage impelled the UPA arrangement. Now the alliance cannot stand still. Either it will move forward to its logical culmination or slip back and disintegrate. The UPA leaders should reflect. They could with advantage consider out-of-the-box ideas to reach a rewarding culmination of the arrangement.
India desperately needs a national party, preferably two national parties. Demands of governance, of the economy and of foreign policy dictate this. Why cannot the UPA evolve into a national party? Before throwing up hands in horror and ridiculing the suggestion, trends preceding the present political situation might usefully be recalled.
Democratic functioning within political parties ended with the tenure of Pandit Nehru and the stint of Mr Lal Bahadur Shastri. Their democratic functioning kept alive, to a large extent, the devolution of power which is so fundamental to a federal polity. Due to human frailty, expediency, permissiveness regarding norms, or whatever, after these two leaders inner-party democracy all but vanished from Indian politics. This severely eroded federalism. That in turn led inevitably to a proliferation of regional parties. This development impelled truncated national parties to strike opportunist alliances with regional partners for mutual benefit. This untidy, opportunist and unstable arrangement was hailed by politicians as a great step towards federalism. The coalition era had arrived, they said. The use of the term, ‘coalition dharma’, became popular. There is a grotesque flaw in this perception. Federalism cannot be protected by opportunist coalitions. It can only be safeguarded by disciplined federation.
The UPA leaders might seriously consider making the UPA a federal party. It already has a Common Minimum Programme. That could be enlarged and made a party manifesto with directive principles. Drawing up a party constitution of the federation would be a simple affair. Each party’s identity could remain intact at the state level. The franchise in each state would be given to the most dominant partner in the federal party. That partner’s writ would run in state assembly elections. Smaller partner-groups in the state, whether national or regional, would have to accept decisions of the majority view as final. In state assembly elections, all candidates would have to contest on one symbol endorsed by the majority. To begin with, dominant state partners of the national federal party might retain their election symbols at the state level. Only after passage of time, and with confidence created in the experiment, might they adopt, if they choose to, the federal party’s common parliamentary symbol for use also in assembly elections. The candidates for parliamentary elections from each state would be selected at the state level. However, all candidates of the federal party would contest parliamentary elections on one common symbol. That would remove all threats of defection. It would introduce discipline and coherence at the level of parliamentary functioning. To draw up the constitution of a federal party for achieving coherence at the centre without eroding power at the state level is not a difficult task.
In short, democratic functioning absent from most parties at present can, at least in part, be reclaimed by institutionalizing a federal framework for inner party functioning. The UPA has three remaining years in office. If its leaders recognize national priorities and act with determination, they can create India’s first federal political party. Are there any genuine ideological hurdles to render this insurmountable? Each participant would gain from a federal arrangement.
If the UPA were to move in this direction the NDA would be impelled to do the same. The Janata Party in 1977 was the only party apart from Congress to have ever governed India as a single party. That became possible because a fraudulent and dictatorial Emergency had been imposed. The beneficiaries of the Janata Party, who, without conscious intent, were propelled by events to seize power in the centre, squandered their legacy. The party disintegrated. Today the BJP is the largest party that was once part of Janata. Many of its stalwarts are drifting away. The relationship of the party’s most senior leaders with the RSS is fractured. The party is falling apart because its ideological beliefs are in sharp conflict with electoral advantage. In short, Hindutva has failed. The party leaders know it. That explains their clumsy efforts to somersault. Mr Advani belatedly discovered virtues in Mohammed Ali Jinnah. RSS Chief Sudarshan discovered many peace-like qualities in Prophet Mohammed. He praised the beneficent nature of true Islam. These abrupt about-turns will not do. The party will have to acknowledge what it gained from the Janata and what it lost when it retraced steps to its origins. Only then would it regain the confidence of allies. They might consider then to federate with it permanently. If the BJP accepts this reality the NDA too like the UPA could realistically attempt becoming a federal party. Were this to happen India would get its two-party democratic system.
It is not unlikely that this idea will be contemptuously dismissed by politicians. Nevertheless it has been put on record. One believes that, short of a miracle, no single party will govern India again unless it is a federal party.
Rajinder Puri can be reached at email@example.com