Consensus is the way

Editor’s Column
Consensus is the way
Prime Minister must take the initiative
by H. K. Dua

NO democracy can be run without providing plenty of space for dissent and debate on vital issues of the day. A variety of opinions gives better choices and throws up more workable policies.

In a nation like India with all its diversity expressed through various religions, castes, creeds, regions, languages and ethnic groups and vast sections of society experiencing stark inequality, democracy allows some pent-up steam to come out.

By opting for a democratic polity, the founding fathers of the Constitution also ensured the country’s unity, belying the predictions of those who had thought India, with so many groups competing with each other for one reason or another, will dismember as a nation not long after Independence.

Democracy requires intense questioning of the executive by the citizen, a vigilant Parliament, an independent judiciary, a free Press and the unelected representatives of the people, who are being fashionably called the civil society these days. Their voice must be taken seriously and influence the policies of the government. This will make the State more responsive and give the people a sense of belonging.

While the right of the people to have their say in the governance of the country is sacred, there can be situations when different sections of society begin exercising pulls and pressures, which by their very nature can create social and political tensions. These tensions in turn are bound to divert the nation’s attention from the essential task it has set for itself: To emerge as a one of the major powers in the first half of the 21st century.

One way to tackle these tensions – in Parliament and outside – is to evolve a consensus among political parties on some national issues that do not permit continued acrimony among the political parties, often leading to an atmosphere of confrontation.

The need for a national consensus among political parties on vital issues was rightly emphasised by Dr Manmohan Singh in his address to the nation on Independence Day. The plea for a national consensus came at the end of the address, but it was clear that his experience as Prime Minister for over two years had convinced him that the country could not make a major headway unless the political parties “shun the politics of divisiveness” and adopt the politics of change and progress. “Our political parties and leaders must learn to work together and to build a consensus around national issues”, he said.

The Prime Minister did not spell out the issues or who is to bring about the national consensus he was seeking. The obvious leader who can take the initiative in building a consensus is the Prime Minister himself, although he gave no indication that he is prepared to undertake the task. The present is the best time for doing so. Dr Manmohan Singh has virtually completed half of his present term as Prime Minister and as the country drifts towards the next parliamentary elections in 2009, consensus- building will become more difficult.

If Dr Manmohan Singh chooses to undertake building a national consensus, he will find that the task is not as easy as it seems. This is mainly because of the sharp divisions that continue to exist in Indian society and politics. Added to this is the kind of people that have come to acquire leadership positions in several political parties and sections of society.

Evolving a national consensus will require a capacity to look ahead, tolerance of others’ points of view, willingness to give and take, and at times sacrificing personal and party interest for the wellbeing of the nation.

Unfortunately, the severe decline in the quality of leaders, their myopic vision and petty concerns, as also the growing amorality of politics hardly leave any scope for a constructive and forward-looking pursuit of consensus. The search for consensus, however, cannot be put off simply because the task has become formidable.

The Constitution was the result of the labours of a national consensus the leaders of the time had succeeded in evolving. It helped the nation tackle the post-Partition travails and steer it on to a track for building a democratic and economically strong India. Despite serious differences in political and economic policies among the leaders in those formative years, the country kept moving, riding on a national consensus. Irrespective of their beliefs, no party or leader tried to rock the boat.

Two major events shattered not only the prevailing national consensus but also the elementary consensual approach that is necessary for running a democratic country. One was clearly the imposition of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi and her son, Sanjay Gandhi, who chose to throw the democratic system overboard and send most opposition leaders to jail, impose censorship on the Press and suppress the Fundamental Rights, and much else. (It was shocking to see the Supreme Court uphold the denial of even the Right to Life by the Emergency Raj.)

The second traumatic event that tore the national consensus apart was the Ayodhya movement and the destruction of the Babri Masjid by the Sangh Parivar. It was an act of national shame, which sharpened the communal divide in the country and made minorities feel insecure. While the country has to a large extent come out of the after-effects of the Emergency, it is yet to recover from the psychology and the political situation the destruction of the Babri Masjid created. Narendra Modis, Singhals and Tagodias are still out doing their nasty work and sharpening the divide.

If Dr Manmohan Singh is really going to make a serious attempt on a national consensus, he could begin by taking up a few questions of utmost importance to the country. There must be, for instance, a consensus that the Basic Structure of the Constitution should not be fiddled with by the executive and Parliament, whichever political party in power. Although the Supreme Court has not defined the Basic Structure of the Constitution, it can safely include parliamentary democracy, sanctity of the Fundamental Rights, secularism and protection of the rights of minorities, independence of the judiciary, the Freedom of the Press, and a federal polity. This list can only expand, not shrink.

Parliament has lately been going through a harrowing experience with walkouts, boycotts, the storming of the well, unending uproars and many an ugly scene. No political party stands to gain from the kind of the situation that has lately been prevailing in Parliament whose reputation with the people will depend on the conduct of the MPs on the floor of the House. The MPs have to use Parliament for making laws, voicing the feelings of the people and influencing the making of policies; Parliament in turn has to provide ample scope for debate and dissent, without providing any quarter to those who want to cause disruption.

Evolving a consensus on the smooth functioning of Parliament – may be with the help of the chairperson of the Rajya Sabha and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha – could be the first step that the Prime Minister can take towards a larger consensus on major issues.

These could also include serious electoral reforms and banning criminals from contesting elections. Recent experience shows that foreign policy and combating terrorism will also have to be added to the list, among other questions.

In the task of building a consensus on larger questions, Dr Manmohan Singh may have to involve former Prime Ministers – who all have faced similar problems – leaders of most political parties, Chief Ministers and many others who are not in the political mainstream, but shape public opinion.

Building a national consensus will not be a mean venture, if the Prime Minister decides to embark on it, even if it takes a lot of his time and effort.