Last of the greats

HE MAY have fretted over it endlessly, and helplessly, in his sick-bed, but at least in his death former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar was able to do something about what he saw as the most dangerous trend in Indian politics: leaders of various parties not talking to each other. The BJP and the Congress have stopped talking, he would say.

By Shekhar Gupta

Published: Wed 18 Jul 2007, 8:58 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:13 AM

The Left won’t talk to the BJP anyway, and Lalu and Mulayam stay clear off each other, as do Mulayam and Mayawati. Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa won’t even greet each other. ‘This is no way to run India’s politics. It wasn’t like this even when the Emergency ended and so many of us came out of Indira’s prisons,’ he said when I dropped by to check on his health several months back.

He was happy the NDA had got defeated in 2004, and that Sonia Gandhi had decided ‘wisely and magnanimously’ not to become prime minister, as it would have divided India and embittered its politics. But even a veteran like him was completely foxed by how polarised this Parliament had become. At this rate, he said, it might just become impossible to build another coalition in 2009.

In the bitterest of times in the past, he said, the consultative process between the serious political parties and players had not broken down. Most importantly, social graces were never lost. But now, he was dismayed by how divided the polity had become. He said he did not exactly know where the talks with Pakistan or the US on the nuclear issue were headed but he trusted this government to look after India’s interests as well as anybody else. But will they be able to settle anything unless they take the NDA along?

Many biographical tributes have been written to the man who, more than being an accidental prime minister, will be remembered as one of the last great titans of the Indira era who was both a destroyer and conciliator. I am not qualified to write another. I wasn’t covering national politics in his heyday and had got to know him a little only lately. For years now he had a detached view of politics, with no stakes of his own except his Lok Sabha seat in Ballia which, it seems, all other parties conspired to leave alone for him. He was too much of a character, too warm and individual and, more recently, too harmless a politician to have been kept out of Parliament.

He had seen India’s evolution from socialism to a free market economy. In fact he started that process, in a manner of speaking, as he had inherited a bankrupt exchequer from VP Singh and mortgaged India’s gold by the plane-load to avoid a default. He knew socialism of the kind he had believed in, closer to JP’s rather than Indira’s, was now passe. He acknowledged the fact that all old socialists, including committed Lohiaites, had accepted that reality now. But only if Mulayam, Lalu, Mayawati and Nitish would somehow come together! The last time I called on him, he joked about how times had changed with India’s economy. There was a time, he said, when foreign exchange was so short, he had to mortgage India’s gold reserves. Now they say they have too much foreign exchange. But not for a moment did he see this as some kind of defeat for his long-held socialist beliefs. Chandra Shekhar was probably the last of the greats in our politics who had seen the picture from all sides, and represented a generation of very tough, but very flexible leaders that fought yet networked with everybody.

With him, that species more or less goes extinct now. And the greatest tribute to him was the collection of leaders from all shades of politics and ideologies at his cremation. Photographers captured that moment in a way that says more for Indian politics than the proverbial thousand words. It shows a grave and grim Sonia walking in and a whole collection of her bitter rivals, Chandrababu Naidu and Mulayam included, half-rising in spontaneous greeting. Some justice, even if in death, for a man who had fretted so much over the loss of old culture and grace in our politics when alive.

This loss of communication across ideological and personal prejudices is now a reality. In the past, you always felt so proud seeing leaders from across the political spectrum turn up at state banquets for visiting heads of state. Of late, however, you’d be struck by the sheer absence of NDA leaders, even from official banquets. I haven’t yet checked as to what is the reason behind this — whether they are not being invited, or are choosing not to attend. Either way, it marks a new low in our politics. And the way the presidential campaign has gone, it’s going to get worse.

While the NDA may be guilty of being too ‘oppositionist’ and for not being able to shake off their frustration at their unexpected defeat in 2004, the UPA is equally to blame, if not even more, for this breakdown. This government is theirs to run, and five years is a long enough period to build a decent legacy in governance and make a mark for the future. A combination of global, regional and domestic factors, political and economic, has also created an environment where the government of the day has a historic opportunity to resolve India’s most serious problems, from settling its border disputes to cementing its place in the new architecture of the global balance of power. From progress with Musharraf and the Chinese to the nuclear deal, it also made a good beginning. But in its desperation to pander to the Left, and equally its vain hope of winning back the Muslim vote banks, it is blighting its own political prospects.

The nuclear deal does not require parliamentary approval and will go through. But to expect any settlement with China or Pakistan to happen without the NDA’s concurrence is fantasy. There are unanimous resolutions of Parliament for both those borders and if people think they can rail-road any settlement through a numerical majority in a divided Parliament, it would be a dangerous fantasy. At the same time, can the leaders of the Congress reach out to exchange notes on these issues with the BJP when they are even forbidden from seeking their votes to pass the pension bill, which had been proposed by the NDA and is now endorsed by the UPA? In the NCMP, the Congress may have signed its own Treaty of Versailles with the Left. But by allowing the Left to force it into this exclusionist politics, it is only having its own government hamstrung and knee-capped.

The Congress will have some valid complaints too. That there is nobody senior available — and mandated — in the BJP that they can speak to in confidence. That the party is still punch-drunk and can’t focus on its role in opposition. Or that Mulayam and the ‘new’ (but same old) third front believe in such vicious, personalised politics that it is impossible to have a healthy conversation with them. But, at the end of the day, the government is the Congress Party’s. And it is for the Congress to set its goals for the remaining two years and to take a call on whether it is better off in this situation of total breakdown, or if a course-correction is called for.

Shekhar Gupta is the Editor-in-Chief of Indian Express daily

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