On Tuesday, a day after she was sworn in as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa reached out to the Leader of Opposition M.K. Stalin. After the DMK had registered its protest, she assured him that she would have relaxed protocol and ensured a front row seat for him at the swearing-in ceremony if she knew that he would be attending the function. What would be deemed a routine civil gesture in any democracy has attracted attention because both — Stalin attending the ceremony and Jayalalithaa’s outreach — mark a departure from the norm in Tamil Nadu’s political culture. Here, the top leadership of the DMK and the AIADMK have turned political rivalry into personal animosity. In the words of DMK patriarch Karunanidhi, “vengeance, inhumanity and never-ending enmity” have defined the relationship between him and the AIADMK supremo. Over the years, the two have fought each other in the assembly and in the courts with the battles between their respective parties often turning vicious, and even physical.
The Jayalalithaa-Karunanidhi story, unfortunately, is not an exception. Similar blood feuds can be spotted in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, where, too, political differences have led to a breakdown in relations between leaders. Legislative business in many states has been denied of informed debates in the absence of engagement between the ruling party and the opposition. There have been occasions when the party in government has leaned on a brute majority to force its legislative agenda on the House. In the absence of clear majorities, the inability or unwillingness of the parties to talk to each other has crippled the legislative process.
Regular free and fair elections and an enduring constitutional framework have lent stability to India’s democracy. But there is a political field in between where democracy must be nurtured as a contest of ideas. Transactions and exchanges in this space are conducted on the basis of conventions and norms derived over years of democratic engagement and legislative practice. In the early years after independence, the Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru was careful to ensure the participation of all parties in the governance process. This enabled Nehru to build a broad consensus for nation-building and nurture a political culture that was not entirely partisan. It also ensured that the clash of ideas and ideologies never got reduced to a battle of personalities. These are lessons to remember.