Our country has witnessed 15 general elections, and countless elections to states that are themselves more populous than most countries in the world. Moreover, unlike in neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar — and unlike dozens of African and Latin American nations too — the military in India has been kept completely away from the political process.
The protesters in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and elsewhere are fighting for what they have not seen in their lifetimes — namely, for an opportunity to elect their own leaders, and for the retreat of the military to the barracks. Ironically, as the people of the Middle East struggle for their first taste of democracy, Indians are working overtime to degrade the democratic institutions that their forebears built and which have now seen us through 65 testing years of independence.
A start can be made by a private, off-camera conversation between a major Congress leader and a major leader of the BJP. Who could these be? The prime minister rules himself out, because by not — even after seven years in office — offering to stand for a seat in the Lok Sabha, he has betrayed his own lack of respect for Parliament.
A more plausible leader of such a initiative is Sonia Gandhi, who has herself won three terms to the Lok Sabha, and who is in political terms more important than Manmohan Singh anyhow. Perhaps she should have a meeting with Sushma Swaraj, also a several-term Lok Sabha MP, and, as it happens, the current leader of the Opposition in the Lower House. This meeting can call for a moratorium on abusive remarks about individuals, and, more broadly, for a regular process of consultation and dialogue between government and Opposition.
Politics is a serious business, whose substance can often be aided or impeded by symbols. In suggesting that Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj have this meeting I had in mind their respective positions in Indian politics today. But then I remembered that they had fought one another in a Lok Sabha election in Bellary in 1999, an intense, surcharged contest in which some less-than-decorous language was used. For Sonia Gandhi to meet Sushma Swaraj now would thus be resonant with meaning, symbolic as well as substantial. It would be a reaching out, a reconciliation, that may lead in turn to a more civil relationship between their two parties.
The Arabs, who have never had democracy, struggle desperately for it. We, who have had it now for several generations, degrade it in practice and in theory. To restore and renew Indian democracy we must, first of all, restore and renew the dignity of Parliament. For this the suspicion and hostility that mark relations between government and Opposition must be overcome. A ordinary, face-to-face meeting between two women, each with great stakes in this democracy’s future, may be a productive starting-point.
Take a look!