What The Voters Want!
The message conveyed by voters in the recent assembly elections is loud and clear. Will political leaders understand and heed it? Except in Manipur, the national parties have triumphed only against each other. In whichever state there are regional parties, as in Uttar Pradesh, they have either been trounced or, as in Punjab, played a secondary role in the victory. This needs to be viewed in the context of the demands for federalism voiced by several chief ministers after the union government tried recently to enforce a National Counter Terrorism Centre without consulting the state governments even though law and order is a state subject.
The time to create a federal party could not be more propitious. Four chief ministers representing regional parties are already indicating support for the move. Now two more chief ministers representing Uttar Pradesh and Punjab can join them. The central leaders of Congress and BJP are irrelevant. If chief ministers belonging to either or both parties support this move that would have relevance. If Congress and BJP CMs are averse to joining this federation both parties should merge with each other. That would help create a two-party system in India. It would also provide a stable government till 2014. Centralisation versus decentralisation is the logical polarisation for India. Minus Congress and BJP, formidable regional parties out of government can be roped in. Karnataka, Andhra, Assam and Maharashtra all boast of regional parties with the potential to seize power.
The nation is sick of unprincipled alliances immersed in squabbling, mutual blackmail and fighting for greater share in power. People want stability and governance. That is why if a new alternative has to address the needs expressed by voters it must not be a coalition but a single federation at the Centre. As pointed out earlier in these columns for creating a credible federation three steps would be required to ensure lasting success. There must be an appropriate policy agenda, the appropriate organisational structure, and the necessary systemic change.
The policy agenda should avoid empty slogans such as ending corruption and bringing down prices but specify structural changes required in the administrative setup that would deliver genuine federalism and effective governance. Secondly, the federation must agree to contest parliamentary elections under a single common symbol. That would reduce blackmail and squabbling. It must be a single federal party in parliament. For that it must formulate a party constitution that provides a parliamentary board and a candidate-selection process acceptable to all the federal allies. Finally, the proposed federation must reappraise the letter and spirit of our written Constitution and support the pro-active role of the President as enshrined in it. Only an executive President will provide the cohesion to ensure that decentralized governance implicit in genuine federalism will not threaten national unity.
AVOIDING A MID-TERM POLL!
Trinamool Party’s Union Cabinet Minister Mr Dinesh Trivedi’s clarification about his statement that he anticipated a mid-term poll after the assembly results were declared was irrelevant. The minister claimed that he had spoken as an individual “student of politics” and was not representing his party’s view. Regardless, what he said was logical. The suggestion of a mid-term poll has been raised by different voices in the Opposition. In days to come the clamour will grow. The results indicated that all the regional parties could significantly increase their strength in parliament if a general election was held soon. By debunking the possibility of a mid-term poll the Congress is whistling in the dark. Going by the current situation the avoidance of a mid-term poll suggests an alternative that would be worse. The government would continue to totter along half paralysed as it constantly looks over its shoulder at allies either derailing or distorting its policies. The prospects of a mid-term poll are strengthened further by the growing solidarity among regional parties on the issue of federalism.
Earlier I had pointed out that for the BJP to derive advantage from the emerging political federation it would have to change its attitude and stoop to conquer. The current leadership of the party in parliament would have to recognize its irrelevance in the event of BJP joining the federation. The focus would be on the BJP chief ministers. The fact that the party would be represented by several chief ministers and not just one, as by the regional partners, would in the natural course give it dominant influence. But for the rest, the party would have to function with democratic discipline. The parliamentary leader would have to be elected democratically by the majority of the federation MPs through a secret ballot and not automatically appointed by any high command based in Delhi or Nagpur. There would be no bar on any of the regional parties throwing up a leader capable of garnering sufficient votes among the federation’s MPs.
It is not clear if the BJP’s parliamentary leadership would be prepared to adopt this approach. In the event the possibility of several BJP chief ministers breaking away from the party to join the federation cannot be ruled out. Among the half dozen BJP chief ministers at least two, in Gujarat and Goa, have strained relations with the parliamentary leaders of the party. A third imminent claimant to be chief minister in Karnataka is equally disenchanted. If the central leadership of the BJP cannot reconcile itself to the new emerging realities it would have to keep out of the federation and possibly split the party.
Were that to happen it might be for the nation and for the UPA government a blessing in disguise. It could ignite a major political realignment that would stabilize the government up till 2014 and lead to a healthy two party system based upon rational polarization. In India the natural political divide is not between Left and Right as witnessed historically in the west. In our large multilingual, multi-ethnic continental nation the natural divide is between centrifugal and centripetal forces which both have equal relevance. It is the ebb and flow of events that determines whether the forces of centralized consolidation or decentralized democracy are more in demand at any given point of time.
If the BJP leadership in parliament were to shun the emerging federation even though a few of the party’s chief ministers were to join it, the bulk of the MPs could merge with the Congress. Such a move would call for statesmanlike vision by both Congress and BJP leaders. There is no serious division between the Congress and BJP regards foreign or economic policies. The combined strength of both parties in parliament would make the emergent government stable and impervious to pressure by its current regional allies. At the present critical time facing the nation the government could function more decisively till it completes its term in 2014.
In the interregnum the regional parties could evolve into a proper federal party to challenge the national parties combine in the scheduled general election of 2014. India would get a healthy two party system. This would be rationally the best way out. Political parties are seldom rational. Their leaders are generally impelled by expediency and motivated by individual egos. Well, if the Congress and BJP leaders cannot rise to the occasion there is always the possibility of continued dithering at the Centre leading to a mid-term poll. (RP)
How can the plan for creating such a federation be implemented? Failing a Congress-BJP merger the government at the centre could be toppled by regional parties and a mid-term general election forced. If the Trinamool Congress withdraws support and the Samajhwadi Party refuses to fill the breach the government could fall. Mr Sharad Pawar’s party will have much to gain and little to lose by entering the proposed federation. It might be persuaded to join the proposed federation and withdraw support to the UPA government in parliament. If there is a mid-term election at this point in time every regional party most likely would significantly increase its tally of MPs in parliament. So no regional party would have anything to lose. Each party would have the promise of getting a real voice in the central government.
In order to create a Presidential system in keeping with our written Constitution there is a simple device to realize it in the natural course. The term of the current President ends in the middle of this year. If the government at the Centre is toppled soon and a mid-term poll is ordered to synchronize with the Presidential poll due in July, consider what could be made to happen. The new President would be elected not by sitting legislators but by new MPs yet to be elected. If the Presidential candidates campaign in the poll for their respective supporters among the various parties who are to elect them the eventual victor would have won virtually through a popular mandate representing all voters. In the event the President would have the full moral authority to play his assigned role of the chief executive.
All this is very theoretical and far fetched of course. To achieve it would require the cooperation of all the regional parties and the Election Commission. But it is an idea. It offers a way forward to transform our political system not by changing the Constitution but by implementing it. For permanent change to this system amendments to make the elections of Parliament, assemblies and the President would have to be made simultaneous and for fixed terms. Such amendments would not in any way violate the basic structure of the Constitution. If the crisis in our system of governance is as serious as one believes it to be, should not the politicians and officials concerned have the courage to think out of the box? India needs an executive President and a two-party system.
By Rajinder Puri