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July 16, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Ashwin Mahesh

Dissent and the Expulsions Raj

The political descendents of the once-resplendent Indian National Congress recently expelled three of their more prominent members for questioning the right of a foreign-born person to head the government of India. This, after said person herself declared her noblest intentions of service to the nation with the unequivocal statement that power is the farthest thing from her mind. For a moment there, I wondered if the Quit India movement was a Nehru-Gandhi vote-catching fabrication. How the mighty have fallen!

Forgive me, but is this the same Congress that we read of in history books in school, in whose support countless men and women gave the very best years of their lives to British jails and guns? The same party whose leaders so gloriously paved the road to liberation that to this day, non-violent nationalists of every stripe look upon India as the trailblazer? Hmmm. But hey, after Sitaram Kesri dramatically removed his topi from where it had lain at Narsimha Rao's feet and vigorously plunged a knife into the ex-PM's back, what could be worse, one might ask. Perhaps there wasn't that much farther for the once-mighty to fall, after all.

Whatever. Frankly, the machinations within the party, be it the Congress or any other, ought not to concern us very much. Given the abysmal state of politics in India, we can write these off as battles of feigned character and honour among crooks. And if a few of them get woefully wronged in the process, it can be little more than reaping what has been sown. Shed no tears. Instead, let us look to something that ought to concern us, namely the role of dissent within political parties. This is very much fair game and quite meaningful too, in these times of sub-nationalism and regionalism.

The dominant theme in nearly all political parties these days appears to be the supremacy of individuals who are at the top. Gandhi, Jayalalitha, Thackeray, Mulayam, and Laloo all come up immediately as examples. Expression of opinions that fly in the face these leaders' thinking is simply not brooked - the immediate response is to expel anyone who dares question such high-handedness. So much so, that even those with a history of questioning authoritarianism from the press hoardings appear to toe the party line once they are roped in to politics; no prizes for guessing who recently became a Shiv Sena MP and began arguing that dissent is an anti-party activity!

Can you think of other institutions where disagreeing with the standard fare of the establishment gets one excommunicated? Precisely - our doctrinaire netas now aver that their will and intent merit being regarded as on a par with faith! The chant for these times is a curious combination of scary politics and outright lunacy. "Trust in me, Mulayam Singh Yadav, champion of the .... er, what was that again? Who are you people?"

The sad truth is, plenty of people appear to readily trust these leaders. But is their loyalty to leaders whose public image suffers continuous tarring really paying off? Why haven't any Sena or AIADMK leaders come forward to take their respective parties down newer paths? Without the comforts and perks of office, and with the threat of an adverse decision from the courts looming, what keeps an AIADMK MP loyal to Jayalalitha? Beats me; surely alternatives exist?

Still, I suppose all of this must boil down to the simplest ground-truth, that political parties in India are not aggregate bodies representing individuals with comparable ideologies. Instead, we have congregations of people (a generous description, perhaps) who usually gather together at their own instance, appoint their minions to serve their nefarious purposes, and execute their will through such organisation. Representation and voter-approval are distant theories to them. And leadership is usually resolved by a simple trick - to borrow Arthur Conan Doyle's famous line of reasoning, when all those who disagree have been expelled, whoever remains, however disgusting, must be the leader.

There are, however, at least two political parties in the land which fare much better on this account. Ironically, they are also the most consistent of opposition to each other - the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Capitalist-Not Really Sure). Intra-party deviance from the standard fare of the top leaders is definitely visible in both organisations.

This is achieved in the two parties by different methods; and although healthy, it is not something the parties can take credit for. The cadres and support-bases of the BJP, drawn increasingly from better-off sections of the nation, exert a natural power on the leadership; this ensures that diversity of opinion is respected, even if not encouraged. To say that Yashwant Sinha is completely unqualified to be the FM, for example, may not reveal much more than one's own convictions, but it draws at least a small platform. True, those like Govindacharya suffer mild indignities for speaking the truth, or un-masking it :-), but nevertheless maintain a respectability within the party. This is partly because widely-known allegiances to those other than the party president or prime minister is considered quite normal.

The red birds, on the other hand, inevitably tolerate dissent by spreading themselves thin. This may be unavoidable given the widely separated support bases of the left. In the absence of murderers like Stalin who they merely worship but are unable to emulate in democratic India, the top leaders are also held in check by the politburo system. One man to negotiate, another to be CM, yet another to be heir-apparent, and still another to ensure a healthy dose of capitalism. Is it any wonder that Basu's candidacy got shot down? But let's give the boys credit where it's due; in most other parties, Basu's opposite number would have expelled the obstacles to his/her ambitions.

Whether Sharad Pawar's new group draws support from enough others to keep him a prominent player is beside the point. As is the issue of how the Sonia Congress will perform. Ultimately, for those of us interested in political reform, the key question is whether the people of India can exert sufficient pressure on their elected leaders that the process of doing so naturally brings forth some tolerance for intra-party disputes. Otherwise, we can have more endless rounds of splintered DMKs, still more Dals, and every kind of Yadav, allegedly joined at the hip in the Fifty Second Front.

We need to ask ourselves and those who represent us, repeatedly and endlessly, how contrary opinion is to be handled. How shall we find merit in the arguments of those who espouse ideas different from our own? How can we ensure that we are not blinded by the arrogance of our thinking? Lasting solutions to our political problems will continue to avoid every political party until ideological togetherness can be cemented by tolerance for those who raise their voices in dissent, and an honest examination of the ideas in those voices.

The Expulsions Raj is an idea whose time never should have come in the first place. That it appears to be perennial is worrisome.

Ashwin Mahesh

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