Wanted: a Liberal Party

PARTH J SHAH
The Economic Times May 15, 2002
Liberals of all persuasion should come together under the banner of rule of law and fair, transparent, and accountable governance, says Parth J Shah.

After all is said and done, nothing much has improved in Gujarat. In Parliament, opposition parties howled, staged walk-outs, even got a resolution passed in one of the Houses, though largely of symbolic value. Symbolism is what we got from the main instrument of democracy. Politicians took tours of the affected areas, visited relief camps, walked in peace marches, a few went on a relay fast. Yes, relay-fast, an invention of the symbolic times.

Nothing much is really heard from or about opposition parties and politicians in Gujarat. Secular NGOs conducted fact finding missions, issued reports, held seminars and press conferences, filed PILs. Some NGOs are doing relief work in the background. Hardly anyone from the civil society really stood upto the raucous voices of rage and revenge. Industry associations conducted business confidence surveys and mumbled something about investments and growth rates. A few individuals did indeed show courage, but given the scale of the problem, even that turned out to be symbolic. All of the three pillars of the society-government, civil society, and the private sector-crumbled under the weight of communal violence.

There are many thoughtful suggestions to start the process of reconciliation and reconstruction: Restructure the institutions of law and order, reform the police, establish enquiry commission with a firm deadline, and special court and prosecution team to speedily try all who participated and abetted the Godhra and post-Godhra carnage. For good law and order, it is critical that all acts of violence against life and property should be dealt with equally and quickly, notwithstanding the reasons for such acts. Nothing justifies initiation of violence.

Modern technologies can provide a great deal of help in maintaining the rule of law. The police should be given video cameras to record the act of violence. Recordings would furnish more reliable evidence for speedy justice than hearsay, metamorphosing physical evidence, and fickle eye-witnesses.

There are no shortcuts to effect understanding and tolerance between Hindus and Muslims. Sustained efforts are required to form and maintain inter-community groups across different walks of life, peace committees (Ram-Rahim tekdas) at the local, mohlaa level, as in Bhiwandi. Understand and invite the newer Hindu sects like Swaminarayan Sampraday, Swadhyay movement that have a large mass areas following across urban and rural areas.

Though the traditional leadership cannot be completely ignored, new leaders should take more responsibility. Media will play a critical role in creating civic space and in establishing credibility of new liberal leaders on both sides.

Competitive politics of our democracy turns communities into vote banks. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) election system is a primary cause. In the FPTP system, a candidate wins as long as he has more votes than the next candidate, he doesn't even need to win a majority. A suitable proportional representation system will abate the vice.

Personal name is a tag that marks the individual's religion, caste, class, and even geographical origin. In no other country, names contain so much personal information. Let's launch a name change project across India where people take names that have no markers or have contradictory markers (for example, Ram Rahim, Iqbal Raju) that confuse those who want to discriminate. Not only the name on the house door, but also on the business board matters. Name for the project? Naya Naam, Naya Samaj!

Probably the most critical issue is to define India's national identity such that all Indians be proud of irrespective of their caste, creed, or class. Bhikhu Parekh proposes: We need an overarching notion, not of Hindutava but of Bharatiyata, one that affirms and cherishes our rich cultural and religious diversity and embeds it in those public values, sensibilities and institutions that we all do or should share in common. He then continues: This great political project requires historically sensitive imagination, a culturally attuned intelligence, and a shrewd sense of political possibilities.

I agree. Would our current political parties and politicians be able to fulfil this role? At the next assembly election, among which political parties would Gujaratis make the choice? If there is a liberal "silent majority," as observers argue, where would it go? Would Gujarat have any new political alternatives in the next election?

Leaders of the community and voluntary organizations, the corporate world, the academia, the media, student groups who are toiling to rebuild Gujarat must think not just of now, but also of the near future. Their efforts would bear little if Gujarat is forced into the regressive political regime. It would then be even more of an uphill struggle to achieve peace and harmony.

It is time to think big, take risk. Despite all the reservations about political life, they must become politically active. They need to prepare themselves to contest the next election as independent candidates. They must provide political leadership for reform, reconstruction, and reconciliation. Political participation is necessary to remove the fear that looms on the 'silent majority.' Liberal voices that have been silenced by the threat of violence may then find air. Vocal advocacy of liberal values in public would help restore confidence.

May be a new political party can take shape if there is sufficient courage and commitment. The party would transcend all artificial barriers and unite the people of Gujarat. It would offer a bold new alternative, a brighter future, a garvi Gujarat.

Liberals of all persuasion should be able to come together under the banner of the rule of law and fair, transparent, and accountable governance. They may disagree about economics but they can stand united on politics, which is the need of the hour. They can also demonstrate that a clean, candid, youthful political party that itself adheres to democratic norms is possible. May the liberals of Gujarat and India unite to launch the Liberal Party of Gujarat.

(The author is president, Centre for Civil Society)

New Delhi, May 15, 2002
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