India approaches another Independence Day with a sense of political ennui. Never before was such immense possibility held hostage to mightier pettiness, great historical hope stymied by little men. Democracy’s great virtue, Alexis de Tocqueville said, was that it allowed for “retrievable mistakes”. It allows for constant renewal. He underestimated its power to make the same mistakes over and over. The possibility of renewal seems to be turning into more of the same. Independence, it seems, was the project of replacing the shackles of being colonised by the shackles of our own politics.
The ramifications of what happened in Parliament cannot be underestimated. India’s credibility has again been dented. With the delay in legislation, we lose precious time in implementing reforms that could affect millions. Time is not a free good. Each year’s delay wastes the prospects of another generation, squanders another possibility. With political energies diverted into relative trivia, the issues that really deserve scrutiny escape attention. It is possible that the world is our oyster, but we cannot transcend the narcissism that cannot see beyond the nose.
We can rationalise our political pathologies. After all, it is the incentive of opposition parties, many would argue, to make sure that any incumbent government fails; they revel in that failure. But what is going on in India is more than that; it displays a deeply disfigured psychology.
Begin with the Congress. The party of India’s Independence is also the source of its deepest corruption and monumental stupidities. It acts as if it did not lose the last election, but the election was stolen from it. Think of the sheer shamelessness of a party that wants to put all its parliamentary cards on what was at best a misdemeanour by Sushma Swaraj. Every pathology that India suffers from — a vulnerable banking system to corrupt cricket to the agriculture crisis — has the active connivance of that party. If anything, the brief debate in Parliament reminded us why India was right to boot it out.
It could be said that the Congress is excused because voters punished it. But this is because they wanted a new beginning, from everyone. However, the sense of the Congress’s entitlement is so great that there is still not the slightest trace of contrition; no sense that it needs to make amends before it stops all the nation’s business. There is no political judgement. There are so many things a debate would have put this government on the mat for. The government even handed the party a victory by rethinking the land bill. But the abiding image will be one of a party that does not have a trace of national interest left. Till 2009, the only asset Rahul Gandhi had was sincerity. His humiliation of his own prime minister, Manmohan Singh, when he tore up the disqualification ordinance, was the first indication that he is capable of encouraging staccato hooliganism. It shows all that’s wrong with India — remarkably intelligent people so easily compromising with mediocre leadership. Even this would be justified if it were attached to a worthy cause; if it did not carry the imprimatur of his own ego and obsessions. The Congress even pooh-poohed one of the rare occasions where India’s industry actually made sense and appealed to Parliament to function. It will be said of the Congress under Gandhi — in victory it displayed corruption and hubris; in defeat, pettiness and destruction. This is the party that carried the flame of independence.
But the BJP’s own psychological baggage is also damaging. Two things became clear. Whatever the prime minister’s politics and psychological makeup is, it is not parliamentary. The PM is incapable of handling an assembly, with its rough and tumble questions. Just think what the simple gesture of camping out on the front benches of the House would have done to prick the Opposition balloon. His refusal to take Parliament seriously emboldened a powerless Opposition. His party would not have had to take to the streets had he taken his seat.
The BJP’s second psychological baggage is hate. Its contempt for the Gandhi family borders on the visceral. It may be entitled to this. But it also seriously disfigures political judgement. It will prevent them from reaching out. The Congress has sensible proposals on the GST. The BJP could have presented the U-turn on the land bill as an example of political consensus on farmers. But you almost get the sense that there are insuperable psychological obstacles in dealing with the Opposition. It also comes from the party’s own narrow conception of strength. It confuses strength with bombast, not recognising that artful compromise can add to strength. Like the Congress, it has also not understood that our besetting vulnerability is declining institutions. No ego, whether it comes from dynastic entitlement or a plebiscitary mandate, can substitute for institutions. The PM could have so easily occupied the high ground. Instead he took the low road and reduced himself to the level of his opponents.
Self-interest will always have a hold in politics. But you wish you could say that this is politics marked by self-interest. Self-interest can be directed in an intelligent way; it is open to negotiation. Instead, this politics is marked by a numbing lack of self-awareness, not even a slightest sense of living in a glass house before picking up stones. Instead of matching idea with idea, leadership with leadership, tactful coalition with interesting alliances, political adversaries match sin for sin, abdication for abdication, and obstruction for obstruction.
It has been India’s peculiar fate that its political system has shown great resilience. Its ruling classes always manage to withstand the costs of their abdication. They also have the peculiar ability to domesticate and corrupt challengers. India seems to chug along, finding artful ways around, invoking stoic accommodations and taking violent pathology in its stride. We will console ourselves that there is so much happening outside Delhi. But that should make Delhi’s betrayals rankle even more. Yet, the ever-present promise of renewal that democracy presents also fades easily. The weight of accumulated disappointments is stronger. There is always hope, but the shadows of foreboding loom larger. Our system will probably do enough to avoid a deep crisis. But the republic is still a long distance away from redeeming its pledges. For a brief moment we will enjoy that marvellous spectacle that a Parliament lit up for Independence Day presents. But we will also wonder whether the glitter is there to deceive.
The writer is president, Centre Policy Research, New Delhi, and a consulting editor for ‘The Indian Express’.