Then United, Now Divided

Then United, Now Divided

Things would perhaps not be so grim if the Mahatma’s revolutionary plan of dissolving the Congress following independence had been accepted by Nehru, Patel and others. The Mahatma wanted its place taken by a Lok Sevak Sangh. He even drew up a constitution for the Sangh and decided to place it before the Congress leaders. He favoured new political parties based on ideology and economic programmes --- one leaning to the left and the other to the right.
Then United, Now Divided

India has come a long way since “Quit India” Day — August 9, 1942. The nation then was united in the struggle for independence. It rose and rallied to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for “do or die”. The country was put before self and no questions were asked. There was no looking back. Freedom alone counted. In sharp contrast, India today is divided as never before. The Congress-I still rules the Centre. But it is not the pre-1947 Congress, which represented the nation and consisted of the best leaders and other elements from all parts of the country. The Congress-I today is essentially a one-person show — even if it has the outward appearance of an all-India organization. The party is divided and subdivided down to the grassroots. There are as many leaders and aspirants to ministerial jobs at the Centre and in the States as there are MPs and MLAs. Only the lure of office holds them together — a lure which has brought many back into the party fold, even at the cost of what they once proclaimed as principles.

Things would perhaps not be so grim if the Mahatma’s revolutionary plan of dissolving the Congress following independence had been accepted by Nehru, Patel and others. The Mahatma wanted its place taken by a Lok Sevak Sangh. He even drew up a constitution for the Sangh and decided to place it before the Congress leaders. He favoured new political parties based on ideology and economic programmes — one leaning to the left and the other to the right. But the assassin’s bullet ended his life and the plan remained unfulfilled. The Congress thus continued after independence even though differences emerged at the top before long. Following Nehru, the party started cracking up and eventually split. Alas, those who came out failed to help evolve a two-party or a three-party system. Today the Opposition too, is badly divided. The lure of office keeps them apart. The situation has been made dismal by the clash of ego and the continuing inclination of the leaders to put itself before country.

Happily for those who still pray for a two-party or a three-party system, unity-makers in the Opposition are again on the move. Their aim? To forge a credible alternative to the Congress-I. The approaching Lok Sabha poll has lent urgency to the unity moves. Remember, Mrs. Gandhi won a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha on a minority mandate: 43.6 per cent vote. The two Opposition conclaves at Vijayawada and New Delhi have provided encouragement. But no one has illusion about what these conclaves can eventually yield. There is little question of all the participants coming together except perhaps in forging a united stand on some national issues. The CPI has, for instance, left no one in doubt about its continuing stand in regard to the BJP. What the others will or will not do is anybody’s guess. Nevertheless, the conclave reflects an inner desire among most Opposition leaders to let bygones be bygones and to strive for unity. Indeed, one senses a new mood of cooperation in which some top leaders have shed their personal predilections and met informally over meals.

Meetings have taken place between Mr. Charan Singh and Mr. Jagjivan Ram during the past few weeks — as also between Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Lok Dal and the Congress (J) leaders. Mr. H.N. Bahuguna, President of the Democratic Socialist Party, has held talks with several Opposition leaders separately and gone all out to clear certain misunderstandings created by his initiative in convening the New Delhi conclave. The Congress (S) leader, Mr. Sharad Pawar has visited New Delhi and held talks with Mr. Chandra Shekhar and others. Mr. Bahuguna, Mr. Sharad Pawar and Mr. Ratubhai Adani, President of the Rashtriya Congress in Gujarat, have already announced their decision to merge. Mr. Sharad Pawar is also known to be close to Mr. Chandra Shekhar personally since he was Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Mr. Chandra Shekhar has now held talks with Mr. Vajpayee and also taken part in “dinner diplomacy.” The summit meetings have been followed up by those next in command, such as Mr. Shyam Nandan Mishra, who is actively aiding Mr. Charan Singh.

Importantly, the leaders are exploring all possible avenues for cooperation and understanding, even for forming a limited united front. All options are consequently being kept open, thanks to the availability among parties of senior dedicated leaders who have equal access to leaders in the rival camps and enjoy their confidence as much as of their own. This is reflected in the broad understanding reached between Mr. Charan Singh and Mr. Jagjigan Ram and, among other things, the views expressed by the Janata President on the question of Opposition unity. Mr. Charan Singh is said to have told Mr. Jagjivan Ram that they could do one of two things. Merge the Congress (J) in the Lok Dal or vice versa. He then added: “If your party merges in the Lok Dal, we shall gladly accept you as the President.” Mr. Jagjivan Ram is said to have promptly responded: “Likewise, if the Lok Dal merges in the Congress (J), we shall be pleased to have you as our President.” All this may not eventually add up to much. However, it significantly indicates the new pragmatism and the new outlook.

Mr. Chandra Shekhar, for his part, candidly stated the other day: “The Janata Party will be prepared to make adjustments or alliances or even go in for consolidation. Consolidation could mean anything. It could be merger. It could mean joint action. It could mean adjustment. In 1977, the Opposition leaders and various parties were able to consolidate into one organization and form the Janata Party in 15 days. Everything is open insofar as the poll is concerned. Mr. Madhu Dandwate is already in touch with the other Opposition parties for cooperation in Parliament. We approach the whole matter in a long-term perspective. Cooperation in the Opposition is welcome, but not enough. Some ask if we are willing to form a coalition Government. I have nothing against a coalition. But there is very little chance of any such formation. We have to remember that people, by and large, vote for stability at the Centre. Their experience of coalition governments has not been very happy so far. The masses are clear. They want a good Government and a stable Government. We are keeping our options open.”

Meanwhile, two interesting trends in Opposition thinking have emerged. First, the leaders have, more or less, agreed on close and active cooperation in Parliament. Meaningful understanding on the floor of the two Houses, it is argued, could bring them functionally together and pave the way for unity. (The current session has already provided “heart-warming evidence” of this approach. On the opening day, all the Opposition leaders steadfastly stuck to their agreement to bring forward adjournment motion only on the tragic situation in Punjab and nothing else. This was done despite the strong desire among some leaders to put AIR and Doordarshan on the mat for “suppressing” Opposition news such as their decision to raise the NTR-AIR controversy.) Second, to revive an old but untried formula for beating the Congress both at the Centre and in the States even on the basis of the existing multi-party system — a formula which was vainly advocated by some independent observers for the Assembly poll in 1980.

Under this formula, the Lok Dal, Janata, BJP and the Congress (S) and other non-Communist Opposition parties are being urged to be practical and accept the fact that they are really not all-India parties even if they, like the Congress-I, are recognized by the Election Commission to be national parties. (The Congress-I is relatively more national because Mrs. Gandhi as its unrivalled leader has an all-India image.) They are essentially “regional parties” like Telugu Desam or AIADMK even though their sway spreads to more than one Hindi-speaking States. Consequently, it is argued that the Opposition should jointly agree to leave each State to the most popular or biggest party among them and extend it all support to enable it to give the Congress-I a straight fight. Thus, it is proposed to leave UP and Haryana to the Lok Dal, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh to the BJP, Karnataka, Bihar and Orissa to the Janata, Maharashtra to the Congress (S) and Gujarat to Janata and BJP jointly.

Some questions arise. If, for instance, Madhya Pradesh is handed over to the BJP or UP to the Lok Dal, what happens to the other parties in these States? Do they wind up business and commit political hara kiri? Again, the formula may help various parties to win in different States. But what happens at the Centre? A broad approach has been advocated. It is pointed out that the idea is not to get the other political parties to wind up business or commit hara kiri in any State. The principal party in each State would be expected to act graciously and enable the smaller Opposition parties to register their continued presence in the State even as it took on the Congress-I in a straight fight and endeavoured to form the Government. What happens at the Centre has yet to be worked out. However, preliminary discussions point a finger in the direction of a federal all India set-up on the basis of an agreed minimum programme — and collective leadership at the summit. Explained one leader: “we are determined to find a practical solution which can help secure the confidence of the masses. There is no shortage of ideas. Many formulae have been tried elsewhere and found workable.”

The federal idea is certain to be opposed by the “hawks” in each party, especially Janata and BJP. These “hawks” are of the view that any combination is certain to revive fears in the masses of what happened to the Janata in 1979 and keep the voters away. They, therefore, argue that their best bet lies in going alone and encouraging like-minded people to join them. But the “doves” are confident that reason and reality will help them carry the day. More and more Opposition leaders are convinced that the people everywhere are “yearning for achange” and, as in the case of Andhra Pradesh, waiting for an NTR. Mr. Chandra Shekahr told me that his padyatra had shown, among other things, “that 60 per cent of the people are not influenced by AIR and Doordarshan and their Congress-I propaganda. Most people hear the BBC, not AIR. This is the truth even though it is a matter of national shame…” The basic question nonetheless remains. Will the Opposition leaders unite? Or, will they continue to fight for the pie in the sky?—INFA


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Then United, Now Divided