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Home > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

Can regional satraps dictate national policy?

March 16, 2007

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Did you know that the Marine Engineering and Research Institute is based in Kolkata? That fact has been etched in my own mind thanks to certain dramatic events in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, March 13. That was the day when Communist Party of India-Marxist and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam clashed in the House -- and when I write "clashed" I am talking about a physical confrontation.

What led to a scene so ugly that the Speaker was moved, once again, to offer his resignation? The facts of the matter are fairly clear.

The Government of India wants to set up a maritime university.

Shipping Minister T R Baalu was introducing a Bill to this effect when he was interrupted by furious Left Front members. They were angry that the shipping minister, a DMK member of course, was recommending Chennai as the site of the future university; the Left Front wanted him to simply upgrade the existing, 60-year-old Marine Engineering and Research Institute in their own backyard of Kolkata.

Frankly, I am not sure why both the current institution and the future university should not co-exist. Surely, as India develops, the country will need more merchant navy officers, not fewer. Please remember that the shipping minister did not reject the call to upgrade the status of the Marine Engineering and Research Institute.

And given the fact that peninsular India is now the engine of the Indian economy, it makes sense to choose Chennai as the home of the new university. (I understand that the Bill also provides for branches in Mumbai and Visakhapatnam)

Were the theatrics in the Lok Sabha a once-in-a-lifetime display of anger? Or have we just seen the first shots in a war?

The Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha polls are going to occupy most politicians for the next six or seven weeks. But neither the Left Front nor the DMK has any stake in Uttar Pradesh. Or do they?

Looming up beyond the question of government formation in Lucknow is the presidential election. And I think the rivalry we saw on the question of the maritime university could flare up once again when the time comes to choose the new man in the palace on Raisina Hill.

The DMK seems to believe that West Bengal has got more than its fair share of offices in Parliament. The Leader of the House is an MP from the state, Pranab Mukherjee. (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot take the office as he sits in the Rajya Sabha.) The Parliamentary Affairs Minister is from the state, Priyaranjan Dasmunsi. And, of course, there is the Speaker himself, Somnath Chatterjee.

The DMK is dreading the possibility that the Left Front plans to send the Speaker to Rashtrapati Bhavan. While the party has nothing against Somnath Chatterjee himself, it fears that Jayalalithaa, its bitter rival, will succeed in persuading President A P J Abdul Kalam to run for a second term. That will place the DMK in the position of supporting a non-Tamilian against a Tamilian.

Would that be narrow-minded? Yes, of course, but the DMK has lost every ideological plank but that of narrow regionalism. Chief Minister K Karunanidhi may still claim to be an atheist but his party colleagues certainly do not shrink from participating in the rituals he decries. And nobody in the cadre-based DMK dares to talk about dynasty -- not when Stalin (Karunanidhi's son) is a minister in Chennai and Dayanidhi Maran (Karunanidhi's grand-nephew) is a minister in Delhi.

Of course, you could say much the same of the Left Front. It too has lost its old ideological moorings. The ongoing violence in Nandigram has put the Left Front in the odd position of grabbing land from peasants for the sake of keeping its promise to foreign capitalists.

And having failed to branch out of West Bengal and Kerala, the Marxists are out to prove that they can be every bit as chauvinistic as the openly regional parties -- in everything from pushing Sourav Ganguly's case to the maritime university being put up in Kolkata and nowhere else.

The electoral college for the presidency of India includes elected members from the Vidhan Sabhas, not just those from Parliament itself. Both the DMK and the Left Front believe that the Congress will be further weakened once the results arrive from Uttar Pradesh.

(I hope nobody missed the smug, we-told-you-so attitude that CPI-M leaders oozed after the results from Punjab and Uttarakhand?) That means the CPI-M and the DMK shall be ideally placed to wring further benefits out of the Congress.

Today, the Congress simply does not have the numbers to push its own candidate. It needs the support of at least three of four groups -- namely the CPI-M, the Samajwadi Party, the DMK, and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party. None of the four want a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman in Rashtrapati Bhavan. If nothing else, a President who is, to put it delicately, 'amenable' would be less likely to protest if a Congress prime minister put a document imposing President's Rule...

Mulayam Singh Yadav, for one, is acutely aware that one of the things that held the Congress back from dismissing his government in February was the fear that President Kalam would refuse to sign on the dotted line. Samajwadi Party members might well wonder if the Congress would worry if a former Congressman were the President.

All this points to a deeper malaise that is affecting public policy in India. Regional parties -- and frankly the CPI-M is nothing but an alliance of two such, based in Bengal and Kerala -- rarely have the perspective to look beyond their own states. India once had leaders, even at the regional level, who had the breadth of vision to consider national interests as a whole, but let us accept that leaders like the great Annadurai simply do not exist any longer.

Today, MPs come to blows over a maritime university. Tomorrow, it could be over the election of a new President. And day after tomorrow, we could be talking about economic issues or Indian foreign policy that affect us all. Do we really want national policy to be set by regional satraps who, however well they mean, simply lack a pan-Indian perspective?

T V R Shenoy