Report
on the Q&A Session with a Delegation of Indian MPs at Oxford (16th
April 2012)
(co-authored with Dhvani
Mehta)

Apparently when Devi Lal, the ‘tau
of Indian politics, was asked why he had made his son, Om Prakash Chautala, the
Chief Minister of Haryana on becoming the Deputy Prime Minister of India
himself in 1989, he crudely responded  –‘aur kya, Bhajan Lal ke chhore ko banauu?
That level of arrogance may not inform contemporary Indian politics but responses
from a delegation of Indian MPs to a question on dynastic politics indicated that
the tau’s ghost might linger for a
while.
Responses from Supriya Sule (LS, NCP), Piyush Goyal (RS, BJP) and Deepender
Hooda(LS, INC), who were part of a panel that also included Chandan Mitra (RS,
BJP), Asaduddin Owaisi (LS, All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen), Jayant
Chaudhary (LS, RLD) and Rajagopal Lagadapati (LS, INC), made it clear that
solving the problem of entry barriers into Indian politics was far from being a
priority. Their focus, as has very often been the case on this issue, was on
justifying why positions of privilege do not prevent them from being sincere
and hardworking MPs. The democratic deficit caused by the entry barriers hardly
found any mention in the responses. Supriya Sule’s passionate declaration of
the personal sacrifices she was making, Piyush Goyal’s treatment of his
political lineage as an advantage and Deepender Hooda’s assertion that election
victories (after the first one) were all about individual merit reeked of a
power elite determined to hold on to its position of political privilege.
Perhaps the question stood no chance given that it was being put to a panel
where 6 out of 7 speakers were inheriting the political legacies of their
families.
Panellists seemed more willing to introspect when posed a question
on the institutional reforms needed to make Parliament functional again. They
acknowledged problems with the system, and stated that attempts were being made
to forge solutions across party lines. Details however were scant, apart from
the mention of a proposal to introduce an annual minimum of parliamentary
sittings. Chandan Mitra was of the view that, contrary to public perception,
Parliament achieved significant results through consensus in its standing
committees.
Given the history of the Third Front in Indian politics, it was
surprising to see the degree of optimism amongst non-Congress/BJP panellists
about the possibility of such a government in 2014. Perhaps the most enduring
account of the problems surrounding the formation of a Third Front government
is Devi Lal’s insistence on taking the oath as Deputy Prime Ministerin 1989
despite President Venkataraman’s strong suggestion during the ceremony that the
Constitution permitted him to take oath only as a Minister (And well, it took a
decision of the Supreme Court
to finally resolve the issue). Supriya Sule’s answer, if implemented, might
well be a way to counter such deep levels of suspicion and discord – she
emphasised the necessity of presenting a pre-poll Common Minimum Programme to
the electorate, rather than cobbling together a post-poll alliance. If voted to
power, Asaduddin Owaisi was of the view that the economic and foreign policies
of a Third Front government would be substantially different from the largely
indistinguishable policies of the two national parties. However, Piyush Goyal
believed that a government dominated by regional parties might be ill-suited to
address national issues. In a polity that is increasingly dominated by regional
parties, Deepender Hooda acknowledged the need to address regional aspirations
and strengthen leadership in the States. 
The responses to a question on whether identity politics impeded or
enabled democracy were predictable. Chandan Mitra promptly held up the examples
of Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi and their brand of politics as moving away
from the fixation with identity. Rebutting the mainstream discourse about
Nitish Kumar’s development agenda, Asaduddin Owaisi claimed that the Bihar
Chief Minister had merely got his religion and caste permutations right by
carving out Maha-Dalits and Most Backward Classes from the Scheduled Castes and
OBC categories respectively. While the jury might still be out on the political
feasibility of Nitish Kumar’s strategy in other parts of the country, it
certainly represents the next level of legal challenges for reservation
policies. While courts have been willing to uphold the sub-classification of
OBCs along economic lines, the constitutional fate of Nitish Kumar’s
reservation policies for Scheduled Castes remains uncertain, especially in
light of the Supreme Court’s decision in EV Chinnaiah v State of AP &
Ors
Being rather dismissive of Narendra Modi’s model of development,
Asaduddin Owaisi asserted that it was too high a price to pay. He delivered an
impassioned justification for identity politics, especially in the context of
safeguarding minority rights. The reactions from
Mr. Owaisi and other Muslim MPs
to the Supreme Court’s observations on
the Haj subsidy
have been interesting. Neatly capturing the benefits of
identity politics, he concluded his remarks with a poetical flourish- ‘phool nahin toh phool ki patti hi sahi’
[if we can’t have the flower, then we may as well have the petals]. 
If one were to attempt to roughly label the responses, arrogance,
predictability, lack of nuance and evasiveness would be good candidates,
typical of so much of Indian political discourse. While some of the responses
to questions on climate change, reservations based on economic criteria, and
the Gujarat riots betrayed the latter two characteristics, other answers on the
same issues were certainly more measured and reasoned. When asked whether India
could afford not to transition immediately to a low-carbon economy, Piyush
Goyal attempted to portray India as the victim in global negotiations and
seemed to suggest that development and environmental protection were
antithetical. In contrast, Mr Chaudhary remarked that this distinction was
counter-productive, and that moves to adopt low-carbon measures ought not to be
viewed as a conspiracy of the developed world. Instead, it was in India’s
self-interest to move towards sustainable growth particularly in the light of
our vulnerability to the effects of climate change.
Supriya Sule also displayed a lack of nuance when she cited the
Right to Education Act as an example of affirmative action based on economic
criteria without any reference whatsoever to the manner in which various State
governments had, under their respective rules, divided up the 25% quota. 
This lack of nuance is particularly ironic given that politicians
are quick to accuse civil society of failing to appreciate the complexity of
political challenges, the India Against Corruption movement being a case in
point (Chandan Mitra couldn’t resist a self-congratulatory pat on the back as
he reminded the audience of the high quality of parliamentary debate on the
Lokpal bill).  
The BJP’s
defensiveness
over Narendra Modi is evident in its reaction to the report
submitted by the Supreme Court appointed amicus
, Raju Ramachandran, on the
Zakia Jafri case. It was also evident when, on being asked whether there would
be adverse political consequences if Narendra Modi apologised for his moral
culpability (rather than legal) for the Gujarat riots, Chandan Mitra’s initial
reaction was a refusal to answer the question. It took him very little
provocation to respond when Asaduddin Owaisi responded to a question on whether
such an apology would suffice for the Muslim community. He said that Narendra
Modi would never apologise because an apology for such an act required a ‘human
heart.’ He asserted that all legal proceedings would have to continue, and
indicated that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission based on the South African
model might be acceptable. This response was sufficient for Chandan Mitra to
spout the BJP line on Narendra Modi that there was no question of an apology,
since no legal culpability had been established. 
The session was a unique opportunity to interact with
parliamentarians from across the political spectrum and although several trite
responses were duly parroted, there were some well-articulated positions along
with encouraging passion for convictions. It gave us a taste of what makes
Indian politics exciting and frustrating at the same time.
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