Parties sans Ideology and Democracy sans Parties…. A scary proposition indeed
(This was published in The Economic Times, Saturday, Sept 1, 07)
The Indo-US civilian nuclear deal and the debate on its implication seemed to cover a lot of ground. It is a different matter that the parties and the experts engaged in the debate stuck to their partisan positions. And in this sense, the debate as such did not lead to any substantial changes by way of policy. It is unlikely that the ``mechanism’’ that will be evolved soon would alter the course of the deal in any significant way. Be that as it may.
The debate and the crisis of sorts it created during the past couple of weeks for the Manmohan Singh Government (it even looked like collapsing) also threw up a feature that has implication to the democratic polity in the long run. And that is the role of such parties as the RJD, BJD, JD(U), JD(S), DMK, PMK, MDMK, AIADMK, TDP, NCP, Trinamul Congress, SP and the BSP. The more appropriate way of putting it will be that these parties did not seem to be having a view on the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement or the 123 deal. And yet they all took positions.
Lalu Prasad Yadav, for instance, was concerned about whether the Government would last and refused, even when he sat before TV cameras, to defend the agreement. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s aide and advisor, Amar Singh, meanwhile, was only convinced that the agreement was bad for the country and refused to go into the reasons as to why he felt that way. And Mayawati chose to stay out of the focus during the two weeks when the most important subject for debate happened to be the agreement.
This will not be a serious problem if the parties that we are talking about were mere entries in the long list of registered-unrecognised-parties found on the records of the Election Commission of India. In May 2004, when these were counted the last time, 173 such political parties existed across the country.
The regional parties, however, are a different category. The Samajwadi Party and the BSP, together, now represent 55 out of the 80 Lok Sabha constituencies from Uttar Pradesh; the RJD and the Janata Dal (U) represent 32 out of the 40 Lok Sabha constituencies in Bihar; the DMK and the AIADMK determine the political mosaic of Tamil Nadu in that the various other parties, including the Congress, the BJP and the Left gather around one of them before every election. In other words, the various regional parties are no longer marginal forces in the national political scene. They, in fact, determine the course of government formation in New Delhi.
This being the case, it is striking that these parties were not concerned, in any significant way, to discuss the details of the Indo-US nuclear cooperation. The reason why these parties refrained from discussing the issue has got to do with the fact that a discussion on such an issue was possible only from an ideological frame. The objection from the Left parties, for instance, is based on an ideology that considers the US as an imperialist centre and that the deal would make India into a client state. The BJP, similarly, has a problem with the deal because it will force India to close the option of conducting nuclear rests to develop a weapons programme. The BJP, we all know, is the only party that has been committed to embark upon a nuclear weapons programme.
Manmohan Singh’s Congress, meanwhile, seems to find the deal as the best to ensure a leap forward in India’s energy security and is not worried about the fallout of this on the existing power generation facilities, the environmental costs and such other aspects that independent activists and groups are bothered about. All these, in short, are positions driven by a definite ideological framework and that is what makes the debate critical.
The regional parties, on the other hand, are not concerned with any of these issues. And the leaders of these parties are either innocent of these ideological issues or chosen to pretend that way. And the fallout of this is that their position, on the deal, is determined by the position of their own rivals in the immediate context. Mayawati, for instance, is not worried about the deal and its implications and conveyed that her party will support the Government simply because Mulayam Singh’s party had decided to oppose it.
This is the case with the AIADMK too. The fact that the deal was struck by a Government of which the DMK is an integral part is good enough reason for Jayalalitha to oppose it. It is worth recalling the fact that Murasoli Maran was a prominent speaker at a convention against the May 1998 Pokhran tests in Chennai at that time. He shared the platform with the CPI(M), Arundati Roy and such others to call the nuclear weapons agenda as a dangerous one. Maran did that because Jayalalitha was then a part of the BJP-led NDA. And in less than a year after that, Maran was an important member in the Atal Behari Vajpayee cabinet. He did not whisper against the nuclear agenda that the BJP continued to pursue.
The story is just the same with any other regional party. And this certainly is a cause for concern for this character – innocent of ideology – helps them to move across the spectrum between the Congress and the BJP in recent years. This also leads these parties to swing between launching agitations against industrialization when they are out of power in a State and following the same policies while in power.
All this, no doubt, is contributing immensely to a political culture that delegitimises the party system. A culture that begins to treat the political parties as an impediment to the nation’s progress and tends to celebrate technology and management practices as the driving force behind development. There is a serious problem with this trend. And that is, it creates an illusion that technology is independent of ideology. The fact is that this illusion can cause serious harm to the democratic foundation of the nation! In other words, the idea of democracy without political parties is a dangerous proposition and India seems to be closer to this sixty years after independence.