Ram Madhav
July 6, 2024

Don’t Misread the Mandate

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(The article was originally published in Indian Express on July 06, 2024 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

A month after the unexpected mandate delivered by the people of the country, its meaning and message are still sinking in. Both the ruling NDA and the Opposition INDI Alliance are struggling to cope with an outcome they didn’t anticipate. Global critics, who had cast aspersions on Indian democracy and questioned the ability of its voter to be impartial, too, have been compelled to sing paeans to the elections.

Indian voters have demonstrated their maturity time and again, but political parties tend to forget this. On several occasions in the past, the electorate has given the message that it can be scrupulously ruthless in choosing leaders and parties. It was no different this time.

Delivering his final speech on November 26, 1949, after the completion of the process of Constitution making, Rajendra Prasad, chairman of the Constituent Assembly, highlighted this maturity while referring to a debate over universal adult franchise. Some members believed that giving the right to vote to every adult in a country that was poor and illiterate could bring doom as those masses may not have the political maturity to use the right diligently. They feared that India would become a “mobocracy”.

Referring to the members who “doubted the wisdom of adult franchise”, Rajendrababu said, “I am a man of the village… I, therefore, know the village people who will constitute the bulk of this vast electorate. In my opinion, our people possess intelligence and common sense. They also have a culture which the sophisticated people of today may not appreciate, but which is solid. They are not literate and do not possess the mechanical skills of reading and writing. But I have no doubt that they are able to take measure of their own interest and also of the interests of the country at large if things are explained to them… I cannot say the same thing about the other people who may try to influence them by slogans and by placing before them beautiful pictures of impracticable programmes. Nevertheless, I think their sturdy common sense will enable them to see things in the right perspective”.

These words, spoken more than seven decades ago, sound prophetic after every mandate. The challenge is for political parties and their leaders to understand that message. Sadly, if the just-concluded first session of Parliament is any indication, it appears that the message has not sunk in sufficiently, especially among the Opposition.

In the first five decades after Independence, the Congress hardly had a reason to sit in the Opposition benches for long. It was either in the treasury benches or propping up governments that survived on its mercy. Three years of the Janata Party rule during 1977-80 and 11 months of the National Front government in 1989-90 were the brief occasions when the Congress was in Opposition.

By the time the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government assumed office in 1998, forcing the Congress to sit in Opposition for a full six years, it had developed a mindset of being the “natural party of governance” for India. In fact, this became the trait of the Congress after it came under the new leadership in 1996. By then, many senior and mature leaders like Sharad Pawar had left the party and it became a prisoner in the hands of “the family”. As Sonia Gandhi rose to power within the Congress, her inexperience, coupled with arrogance, resulted in her contempt for the Vajpayee government. A leader of Vajpayee’s stature, whom many in her own party used to respect as “Ajaatshatru” — one without enemies — was dubbed by her as “incompetent, insensitive and brazenly corrupt”.

The week-long session of the newly-elected Parliament showed that the principal Opposition party is still reeling under that mindset. That the party leadership is unable to accept the fact that the electorate had handed down a mandate for them to sit in Opposition was evident from their speeches and actions. They appear to still believe that the mandate was not for Narendra Modi, but for them.

A country of India’s size and significance needs a constructive Opposition. But if the Opposition believes that the ruling party has no right to rule, the functioning of Parliament will become a challenge. That is precisely what was witnessed again in the new Parliament. A clear contempt for the ruling party was on display, wherein the Opposition, led by Rahul Gandhi, seemed determined to not allow Parliament to function smoothly. Having sat in Opposition for 10 years, there was palpable impatience in the Opposition over the prospect of another stint of five years.

Parliamentary democracy succeeds only when the ruling and Opposition parties recognise and appreciate the mandate. The ruling party has to realise that the Opposition has returned to the House with an enhanced popular mandate. But the Opposition should shed this mythical illusion that there is some “moral defeat” that has made the ruling party ineligible to rule. This mandate was a complex one with lots of important messages, but clear to the extent that the NDA was given sufficient numbers to rule and the Opposition sufficient numbers to be effective on the other side.

It will be the immaturity of the elected — not the electorate — to interpret the message of the mandate in a way that will defeat the Constitution. Rajendrababu had warned in that famous speech, “A law giver requires intellectual equipment but even more than that the capacity to take a balanced view of things, to act independently and above all to be true to those fundamental things of life — in one word, to have character”, adding, “It is not possible to devise any yardstick for measuring the moral qualities of a man and so long as that is not possible, our Constitution will remain defective.”

 

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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