When the politician-social worker Nanaji Deshmukh died last month, none of the obituaries mentioned what may have been his finest moment. This occurred during a debate in the Rajya Sabha in the first week of May 2002. The subject being discussed was the recent Gujarat riots. As members of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress traded accusations, Deshmukh intervened to suggest that the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the Leader of the Opposition, Sonia Gandhi, together visit the camps of Gujarat in a bid to restore communal harmony.

Tragically, the polarized political atmosphere of the time would not allow the proposal to be taken forward. Now, eight years later, a bipartisan consensus in the same House has permitted the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill. (Perhaps I should have said ‘tripartisan’, since the support of the Left was vital.) This important—it is too early to say ‘historic’—event prompts a closer look at the past and possible future of bi-and-tri-partisan politics in India.

India was made united and democratic by an extraodinary act of political selflessness, whereby a particular party put the interests of the nation above its own. The Congress had dominated the struggle for freedom from British colonial rule, but when the first Cabinet of independent India was constituted, crucial portfolios were assigned to those who were not Congressmen. The Madras businessman and Justice Party politician, R. K. Shanmukham Chetty, was made Finance Minister, while the Akali Dal leader, Baldev Singh, became Defence Minister.

The most remarkable appointment to that first Cabinet, however, was that of B. R. Ambedkar. Through the 1930s and 1940s, Ambedkar had been a bitter opponent of the Congress, and had attacked Mahatma Gandhi in particular in very sharp language. Yet, as Rajmohan Gandhi tells us, when India became independent, the Mahatma advised Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel to include Ambedkar in the Cabinet, on the grounds that ‘freedom has come to India, not to the Congress party’. The old adversary of the Congress was made Law Minister, as well as Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution. Good deeds led to noble ends, for Ambedkar did an excellent job in piloting the Constitution through an often fractious Assembly.

The second great example of cross-party collaboration took place at the end of the 1970s. Until then, the decade had been marked by vicious rivalries between the Congress on the one hand and the Opposition parties on the other. In 1974 and 1975, the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and her main political opponent, Jayaprakash Narayan, traded charges that brought little credit to either party. A popular movement against the Government led by Narayan was answered by Mrs Gandhi in June 1975 through the imposition of a State of Emergency which led to the arrest and incarceration of thousands of politicians and social workers.

In January 1977 the Emergency was lifted and fresh elections called. On the eve of the polls, the Opposition politician Morarji Desai told an interviewer that if his Janata Party came to power, it would ‘work for the removal of fear which has enveloped the people’. One of its first tasks would be ‘to rectify the Constitution’ to rid it of the Emergency-era amendments which had reduced the powers of the Supreme Court and the legislature, while greatly magnifying the powers of the Prime Minister. ‘We will have to ensure’, said Morarji Desai, ‘that [an] Emergency like this can never be imposed [again]. No Government should be able to do so’.

When the Janata Party came to power and Morarji became Prime Minister, he kept his word. His outstanding Law Minister, Shanti Bhushan, supervised the drafting of amendments to the Constitution which would restore the position of the Courts, make the functioning of legislatures more transparent, reduce the arbitrary powers of the Centre, and so on. These amendments required a two-thirds majority in Parliament. By now, however, even the Congress Party was embarrassed by the Emergency and its excesses. Thus, when these amendments were discussed in Parliament on 7th December 1978, both Morarji Desai and Indira Gandhi voted in favour, along with their respective party members.

Democracy requires debate and dissent, these articulated by individuals and parties who subscribe to different points of view. So long as these arguments are conducted by words and not through violence, intimidation, or blackmail, they are necessary and vital. At the same time, there are moments in a democracy‘s history when political rivals need to work together in the common good.

These not necessarily be Constitutional matters alone. In the wake of the Gujarat riots, had the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition the courage to follow Nanaji Deshmukh’s advice, it would have sent an extraordinarily powerful—and wholly positive—message to the citizenry at large. Now, in the wake of the crisis caused by the rising Maoist insurgency, there needs to be a cross-party (if not all-party) consensus on how not to yield to violence and terror while simultaneously making amends for the shocking exploitation of tribal people by the Indian state and corporate interests down the decades. The corruption of our political class, and of our judiciary, police, and civil service, is another problem that can only be tackled by an abandonment of partisan and self-interested positions.

In the history of democratic India, examples of constructive cross-party collaboration are rare indeed. Those who are pleased with the recent denouement in the Rajya Sabha should now work towards making such happenings a more regular feature of our political life.