Three Penny Opera in A Hung Parliament

By an Amateur Satirist

If revolution could be brought about by mere exposure of the true faces of various reactionary and opportunist political forces, then the summer of 1996 is indeed revolution time in India. True, a hung parliament by itself is no new revelation in India, but then the dear old Lok Sabha has never been hung so hopelessly! And a hung parliament producing two governments in such rapid succession, so rapid as to make them look almost like twins - isn't that a really novel and marvellous spectacle?

Generations of Communists in India have cherished the dream of seeing the Red Flag flutter gloriously atop the Red Fort. History this time seemed to have almost granted that communist dream with one minor modification. It was prepared to allow a communist prime minister with only around fifty members in the Lok Sabha to unfurl the tricolour at the Red Fort this Fifteenth of August. But the 'conservative spoilsports' in the CPI(M) Central Committee, who reportedly outnumbered the proponents of this wonderful experiment by a narrow margin of merely four heads, put their feet down and the world's largest democracy marginally missed having a communist prime minister.

It must have been terribly frustrating for Comrade Surjeet. Ably assisted by the veteran Basu and young Yechuri - the party is not exactly rocked by the fault-line called generation gap - he had tried his level best, but despite turning in such a brilliant performance and having reached so close to victory, he could not yet strike gold. And if that was not exasperating enough, events that followed seemed to add any amount of insult to his injured sense of pride. The 'secular' President he had taken so great trouble to install in the Rashtrapati Bhavan had invited the communal BJP to form the next government. His comrades-in-arms in the social justice camp were also aghast. Two cunning Brahmins had conspired to hand over the reins of power to a third Brahmin! In place of the aborted possibility of a communist PM there was this repugnant reality of having the supremo of a fascist party at the helm of the nation!

But then this is the era of virtual reality and at the end of the day the eleven-member Vajpayee government proved to be just that. A thirteen-day wonder. Yet within those wonderful thirteen days, India's as yet most short-lived government did much more than merely taking out confident photocopies of confidential official files. Saving all its trademark issues like Ayodhya, Article 370 and uniform civil code for sunnier days, it preferred to limit itself to advocating the nuclear option (the "Big B"!) and a ban on the slaughter of all cows, no matter if they belong to the insane majority or the sane minority. Who says the BJP can't shed majoritarianism?

It also managed to add sufficient fuel to the fire in Kashmir - sufficient perhaps to keep the fire burning for the rest of this century - by getting the army stage a unique and eminently successful coup. Elsewhere in the world where democracy is still in its fledgling infancy we have instances of the army militarily subverting democracy. But in the democratic paradise of Kashmir where democratic institutions are so deep-rooted that they can perhaps never be dug up again, the army found itself performing this great job of herding an absolutely reluctant electorate to eager ballot-hungry booths. And, of course, the ardent advocates that they are of economic swadeshi, Vajpayee and his men made sure that right signals were indeed sent in the right directions by re-extending counter-guarantees to Enron in what was perhaps the last official act of their government.

With Vajpayee gone, the decks were now clear for the Mannina Maga (son-of-the-soil) CM from Bangalore to take charge in Delhi. And for such a supremely sacrosanct Delhi Chalo mission, he could obviously not take chances. So he relied on Reliance - giving him good company in the Ambani airliner was another son-of-the-same-soil, liquor baron Vijay Mallya. Deve Gowda could not possibly have announced his arrival in a more potent manner. But even such devastating symbolism has few takers in a nation brought up on the staple diet of high-decibel melodrama from Bollywood. So he had to declare a 25-point common minimum programme for his 13-party United Front. Thus was born the so-called CMP - the Cleverly Manipulated Project of Messrs Rao, Gowda and Surjeet!

The VP Singh government had a manifesto which talked of establishing the right to work as a fundamental right. The CMP has promised to assign that status to the right to kindergarten education. It is also in favour of strengthening the public sector. In Poland, they have a full-fledged Ministry of Privatisation to look after the public sector. The Gowda government however doesn't believe in making over-ambitious moves, so it has only proposed to have a modest beginning by appointing a Disinvestment Commission to oversee the ongoing sale of public sector shares. Multinational Corporations will of course not be encouraged in 'low-priority' areas and suitable 'fiscal measures' will be devised to ensure the same. Food will however top the list in any kind of prioritisation, so KFC and Pepsi fans need not worry. And poverty and illiteracy will cease to be India's trademarks by 2,005 A.D. ...

The Congress is satisfied with this CMP for it reflects the party's own policies, though it would like a few more points to be added. The CPI(M) is also happy, most of its basic suggestions have been incorporated. But if you have a feeling that the CMP and CPM sound somewhat different, especially on matters of economic policy, you should not be unduly disturbed by that. After all, CPM does not subscribe to economic determinism, it is the secular essence of the programme which is the crux of the whole thing. And after listening to that nasty little thing that Vajpayee revealed about Gowda in the Parliament - that he is an ardent admirer of the sacrifices made by that spotless outfit called RSS - if you've started developing doubts about the sincerity of Gowda's secularism, you must realise that his commitment to federalism is real firm. And if you still have doubts ...... Well, ask the voter on the street: does he want another election tomorrow? So the show must go on and everybody has to play everybody's due role till the enigmatic electorate coughs up a 'clear' verdict.

Meanwhile, the Gowda government has won the vote of confidence, but within the hung parliament - and more so without - the air hangs heavy with the now abandoned address of the President inaugurating the BJP government. There is also the ominous odour of multiple splits-in-the-making, the hallmark of a genuine Janata government. Astrologers, however, say the new government can no longer be nipped in the bud now that the only inauspicious imbalance dogging the Gowda government - there was not a single Brahmin in his consensus cabinet - has been overcome with the CPI deciding to join it! Comrade Surjeet is understandably happy with the CPI decision. Let down by his own party, the man now has his honour partially redeemed. But there are still some murmurs of dissent in some quarters.

Comrade Ashok Mitra, for example, struck his dissenting note by accusing the new government of making a total mockery of Mandate '96. If Mandate '96 had any meaning, argues Mitra, it was a verdict against the Congress in general and against its programme of economic reforms in particular. Now if you have a government sheltered in the shadow of the Congress dutifully picking up the baton to contribute its mite to the relay race of economic reforms, doesn't it amount to making a total nonsense of the electorate's verdict? Instead of paying obeisance to Narasimha Rao at every step, couldn't the new government carry the battle into the Congress territory by following its own independent programme and daring the Congress to pull down a secular government and be bracketed with the BJP? Let it be made clear to Deve Gowda, the reticent regional leader who has suddenly turned into a garrulous PM, that if he doesn't mend his ways, the United Front will be perfectly within its rights to shop for a new Prime Minister, says Mitra.

Comrade Mitra's concern for sense and nonsense is well taken. But wasn't Deve Gowda chosen for the top job precisely because of his proven track record as the pro-reform CM in Karnataka? True, all regional chieftains in India have fallen in line, but few have been able to do a Gowda by rolling back land reform legislations to carry the reforms into agriculture. And hasn't the CPI(M) itself said that it doesn't want to destabilise the Gowda government by imposing its economic programme on it, it's happy as long as the latter maintains secular values, walks down the decentralisation lane and provides immediate relief to the people (Mr. Chidambaram has doled out instant austerity measures for the masses!)?

To quieten a garrulous Gowda, Comrade Mitra will first have to address himself to the inherent ambivalence in the CPI(M)'s relationship with the Gowda government. The party has refused to join the government, but Gowda is running the show in the name of the United Front of which the party and its Left Front are important constituents. The party has refused to join the government, but it doesn't mind working overtime to prepare the government's minimum programme. The party has refused to join the government, but Comrades Surjeet and Basu are important members of a high-power committee set up to steer the affairs of the powers that be. Was the refusal then meant to be only a vow of communist celibacy?

P.S. Revolution surely needs much more than an effective exposure campaign. But it's not always that a political volcano emits such explosive exposure materials. So don't let them go waste!