Advani's apology remarkable

By Rajdeep Sardesai
02 March 2011 20:15 IST

Last week L K Advani did what is considered extremely unusual for an Indian politician: he said 'sorry'. Predictably, in a political environment not used to such courtesies, the BJP leader's apology letter to the Congress president Sonia Gandhi for having dragged her name into the black money tangle has proved controversial. The BJP has tied itself in semantics, claiming that a 'regret' is not an apology. The Congress has been celebratory, viewing Advani's remarks as a victory for its leadership. No one actually knows what prompted Advani to suddenly express regret, but whatever the motives, it did at least suggest a welcome return to basic decency in public life: after all, if you make a personal accusation without enough evidence then propriety demands that you issue a retraction.

Ironically, Mr Advani himself has been at the receiving end of a lack of grace on the part of his political opponents. A couple of years ago, on the occasion of the release of his autobiography, not a single member of the ruling UPA attended the function, barring Mr Sharad Pawar. The 'unofficial' boycott of the book release only confirmed how Indian politics had rapidly descended into a culture of political 'untouchability'. Sonia Gandhi too has had to endure similar insults, especially when she first entered politics. The kind of public abuse she was subjected to would have worn down a less determined personality, and reflected poorly on those who branded her a 'videshi' bahu while claiming to uphold 'Indian' culture.

It wasn't always like this. The first cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru included some noted adversaries of the Congress like Dr B R Ambedkar and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. But as the Mahatma never tired of reminding India's first prime minister, "Freedom has come to India, not to the Congress party!" Its sage advise that Nehru remembered right through his prime ministership. In 1959, when Rajaji, by then the fiercest critic of Nehru's politics, visited Delhi, Nehru made it a point to call on him at Rajaji's daughter's residence and pay his respects.

Where did it all change? Most political observers believe that the period leading upto the Emergency was the breaking point. Indira Gandhi's attempt to 'personalise' politics meant that she began to see political rivals as 'enemies'. Jaiprakash Narayan with whom the Nehrus had shared an enduring bond (Indira's mother Kamala had been a great friend of JP's wife Prabhawati) became enemy number one. By imprisoning him and other opposition leaders during the Emergency years, Mrs Gandhi created the basis for a politics that was no longer fought according to the rules of the democratic game.

Unfortunately, no prime minister has since been able to arrest the slide. In the Rajiv years, a brute majority on one hand and a united opposition on the other created a volatile situation culminating in en masse resignations over the Bofors issue just weeks before the 1989 general elections. In the Rao years, the misuse of investigative agencies to slam charges against political opponents became a survival tactic. Atal Behari Vajpayee was cut in the Nehruvian cloth, but he did little to stop the campaign of calumny against Sonia when she took over as Congress leader.

What is true of national politics has been magnified in the context of regional politics, where the adversarial nature of relationships has touched an all-time low. A Mayawati and a Mulayam Singh will not share a cup of tea, Mamata Banerjee will not attend a meeting presided over by Buddhadeb, Narendra Modi is persona non grata for the state Congress, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa are only looking to put each other in jail.

Sadly, a viciously polarized political climate makes it difficult to evolve a consensus on key issues of state/national interest. When Tamil Nadu fishermen are attacked by the Sri Lankan navy, it should hardly be seen as an issue concerning an individual party, but one that involves the entire state. Yet, little attempt has been made to present a united front by the two Dravida parties. When the Bengal government was looking to keep the Tata Nano in the state, it was not the occasion to score political points but to see the investment as being in the interest of the state. Yet, sadly that did not happen. Even a celebratory occasion like 50 years of Gujarat and Maharashtra has been marred by political upmanship. The result: a regrettable departure from the norms and basic courtesies of public life.

Perhaps, the state assemblies are taking their cue from parliament. Over the last few months, the fallout of the 2 G scam has seen a near breakdown in the opposition-government relationship. The opposition may well believe that a boycott of the winter session of parliament was necessary to force an obdurate government into accepting its demand for a joint parliamentary committee, but it has also set a dangerous precedent: if a ruling party decision is not acceptable to the opposition, then a prolonged parliamentary standoff will be used as a weapon to ensure the government falls in line.

Which is why it is important that parliament now get back to legislative business and look beyond the acrimony. It is vital for the political leadership across party lines to evolve a bipartisan consensus on core issues without allowing personal agendas to take over. The line between a noisy democracy and a dysfunctional one is often very thin.

Post-script: Now that Mr Advani has set the trend, can we expect more such apologies in the future? Not just apologies to each other, but maybe even apologies to the long-suffering Indian citizenry which has endured corruption, mass violence and much more?

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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