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December 4, 1997


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Requiem for the Lok Sabha

It should really be a contest between the eleventh Lok Sabha, which was given official burial today by the President, and the ninth one elected in 1989 as to which is the shortest one in Indian history. But unlike the earlier one that returned Vishwanath Pratap Singh as prime minister with the help of two crutches, there is hardly any chance that the one succeeding this will see the return of the Congress in the election to follow.

If anything, this party should see its official demise in the poll to be held early next year, and no guesses about which party will benefit from that event.

The irony is that none of the dramatis personae in New Delhi's political theatre wanted the eleventh Lok Sabha to be dissolved. Neither the Congress, which precipitated the crisis, nor the United Front, which decided to call the Congress's bluff this time after giving in earlier, or the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had been making noises about keeping its powder dry, were eager to run to the people so soon.

In couching their unwillingness, they had no hesitation in referring to the country's grim fiscal position, as if bad economics alone could justify the continuance of an administration without a mandate.

The real reason for their lack of enthusiasm was, of course, fiscal, not the nation's, but their own. I have always wondered about the sanctity of quinquennial elections. Why did it have to be five years, why not four, or why not six? Whatever the reasons that may have guided our founding fathers who gave us the outlines of a nation-State, for contemporary politicians the five years represent the period they have to amass wealth before expending a part of it on trying to get themselves re-elected.

Everybody knows that despite the best vigilance mounted by the Election Commission, elections in India bleed the candidates and parties dry. It is really a rich man's game, and the reality is that one of the parties in the fray has not had the opportunity of making enough money in the last 19 months, so busy has it been in firefighting. Even the vaunted BJP must be cash-strapped now, after its expensive drama in Uttar Pradesh.

There is some poetic justice in returning to the people for a fresh verdict. In a sense, the mess of 1996 was nothing but a creation of the electorate which gave a fractured mandate. Perhaps that was the best the voter could do given the choice before him, so where is the guarantee that he will not return a similar verdict since the line-up is more or less the same? What will be the President's imperatives in case of such a situation?

I may be in a minority of one, but in my view the twelfth Lok Sabha will not be as badly fractured as this one was. Even if the Congress and the United Front were not to tie up, it will be widely understood that in the event of a hung Parliament the two will join hands once again, hopefully after learning from the mistakes of the previous House.

The eleventh Lok Sabha was unique in more ways than one, but its most distinguishing feature was that it had no heroes or villains. The roles were so interchangeable that one did not know who the bad guys or good guys were. The single largest party was in Opposition, while the party that lost the previous election was part of the government in the form of extending outside support. And power was being wielded by a conglomeration of 13 parties, none of whom had gone to the people asking for a mandate to govern and worse, had fought against the very party with whose support they remained in office. So now who were the good guys, and who were the bad ones?

The arrangement between the Congress and United Front was flawed from the beginning. Here were two sworn enemies coming together so that another entity may not come to power. If the United Front was playing on the Congress's exaggerated fears of the BJP, the Congress in turn was playing on the hunger for power that burns up regional parties and their politicians. It was an amoral arrangement, and it met the end of all such pacts.

That is not to say the 11th Lok Sabha did not have its shares of navratnas. Palaniappan Chidambaram, whose retention in the finance ministry met with total unanimity, was certainly one of them. Home Minister Indrajit Gupta, often not knowing his own government's right hand from the left, was another. As was Agriculture Minister Chaturanan Mishra. And when he piloted path-breaking legislation like the women's reservation bill, even the otherwise lameduck prime minister struck a chord with his sincerity, transparent decency and simplicity. The tragedy is that the system we have does not filter the gems from the rocks like Railway Minister Ram Vilas Paswan. It gives us both and leaves us to do what we can with it.

Now the nation awaits the birth of the twelfth Lok Sabha which, hopefully will carry the nation's destiny forward, into a new millennium. This is an opportunity that comes once in a thousand years, and if the dawn of the current millennium caught the nation on the threshold of its equivalent of the dark ages, a time when our civilisation had its back broken by waves of foreign subjugation, the situation is not very different one thousand years later. The only difference is that today we are masters of our own destiny, but if the future is going to be anything like what we have made of the last fifty years, the nation is in for a long, long night yet again.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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