Anand K. Sahay | Ideological conflicts set to intensify in run-up to 2024

The Asian Age.  | Anand K Sahay

Opinion, Columnists

Politics is at the bitterest it has been in a long time

Prime Minister Narendra Modi replies to the Motion of Thanks on the President's Address as Congress MP Rahul Gandhi listens to him in the Lok Sabha during Budget Session of Parliament, in New Delhi. (PTI Photo)

A new stage in our politics appears to be setting itself, driven by the intensification of the ideological conflict between the Opposition Congress Party and the RSS-derivative BJP, under the sole leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This struggle is likely to be sharp since the next 12 months are all about fights for state Assembly elections and readying for the Lok Sabha electoral battle of 2024.

Recent events suggest that the period of genteel parliamentary contests are behind us. Senior Congress figure Rahul Gandhi has been served a notice for breaching privilege of the Lok Sabha for his speech in which he sought to put the government on the mat on the Adani issue. If the BJP-heavy privileges committee finds his replies unsatisfactory, he can be suspended or even expelled from the House, though it is not clear if he can be imprisoned, since he is a MP. It will be regrettable and could be dangerous for the country if the contest spills over beyond the boundaries of rhetorical acrimony.

What will the Congress strategy be if Mr Gandhi is suspended or expelled?
Will the Congress then boycott Parliament as a bloc? If so, will it be joined by any others in the Opposition? Perhaps it is early days for these answers, which may also depend on whether the BJP desires to push confrontation to the next level just yet.

But there can be no doubting that we have gone beyond sparring.

We saw the early intensity of the Congress-BJP struggle when the texts of the speeches of Mr Gandhi -- on whom the Bharat Jodo Yatra has conferred a very special status -- in the Lok Sabha and of Congress president and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, were expunged almost wholesale, crippling them from playing their proper role in Parliament.

The extent of such large-scale deletion of the speeches of the most senior leaders of the main Opposition party from the records are unheard of, and raise a point or two about the quality of our parliamentary democracy.

In Britain, whose model we claim to follow, MPs enjoy complete immunity from civil or criminal proceedings for speeches made in the House or voting in a certain way, or for actions taken within the precincts of Parliament in discharge of their duty as MP. Rules for expunction do exist. These enjoin MPs to refrain from the use of unwanted words -- such as “liar”. In fact, Opposition MPs are expected to take the government and its leader apart in their speeches while sticking to a “parliamentary” vocabulary. But we are not Britain. We are India.

With Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra receiving a tumultuous response even in unlikely places in the country, a virtually retaliatory blast ensued from the ruling side at the first opportunity in Parliament where, in its root conflict with the Congress, the BJP seems to have been forced by circumstances to adopt the Adani tangle as its totem.

How long can such tactics be sustained in a year full of elections? It doesn’t make sense for any government to be even indirectly coming to the defence of the richest businessman in the country and be pitted against virtually the entire Opposition on this count when strong suggestions of irregular activity are flooding the world media, even if the media in India has chosen near silence on the principal issues.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra has triggered a change of mood and atmosphere away from one of fear of executive authority that had gripped large quarters in society, and in politics. The BJP is doing what it can to neutralise this new effect. It is seeking to do so by trying to construct a new narrative.

The core of that narrative is that Mr Gandhi, who has let loose the new spirit suffusing the Congress (and perhaps the wider Opposition spectrum), is out to demean the Prime Minister -- and this is tantamount to demeaning India and impeding its progress. In short, the Opposition, at the Congress’ prodding, is against the nation.

It is noteworthy that it is the PM and his persona that are the focus of the ruling party’s defence -- and- guard tactics, and not the BJP party or the government. This storyline is fashioned by the Prime Minister himself. In Parliament, Mr Modi skated over the Adani issue. Instead, he elaborately recalled -- in the vein of making light of the Bharat Jodo walk across the length of India -- “his” own yatra of the 1990s to fly the national flag at Srinagar’s iconic Lal Chowk at the height of insurgency and terrorism in Kashmir.

Those who lived in that era will recall that the reference is to the 1992 “Ekta Yatra” of then BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi, who had desired to unfurl the national flag at Lal Chowk on Republic Day 1992. The P.V. Narasimha Rao government at the Centre assisted the effort.

Some bombs had been hurled around the venue, but the small yatra group, comprising the then relatively unknown Mr Modi, were fully guarded by the security forces and flown in a helicopter to Lal Chowk, where they unfurled the tricolour, spending some 15 minutes at the venue. At a press conference afterwards, according to a report in the Tribune newspaper, the BJP president introduced Mr Modi as an “energetic” and “promising” young leader. But in the Lok Sabha the other day, the PM made no reference to the Ekta Yatra led by his then party chief, Mr Joshi. The real yatra protagonist was not even mentioned in the telling. It was Mr Modi all the way.

Politics is at the bitterest it has been in a long time. Mr Gandhi gave no quarter as he probed the government on the Adani affair within the permissible vocabulary, and has been served with a restraining notice. In Rajya Sabha, Mr Kharge faced a similar fate, leading to pandemonium and premature adjournment of the House. That the treasury benches would fight back and take the fight to the camp of the adversary was made amply clear.

When politics begins to look like a stormy tide, as the rising notes of tremulous love led to unchartered waters, the warning famous lines of the great Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir from 300 years ago seem appropriate: “Ibteda-e-ishq hai, rota hai kya; aage, aage dekhiye hota hai kya!” (It is the start of love, why do you weep? Just watch in the distance for what happens next!)