May 19, 2019
Let me at the outset make my intentions absolutely clear. I am writing this opinion after the fates of all the candidates in fray in this election have been sealed in those blue boxes which have often like the famed Pandora’s box brought evils into positions of power and influence but at the same time offered the nation a glimmer of hope in a winded and painfully slow democratic system. So my writing this introspective piece has nothing to do with my desire to influence others to also vote for the BJP, although as it is evident, I do not claim to not have such desires, it is just not the motivation for this piece. These intentions have become moot on the 19th of May when the largest electorate in the history of humanity has cast its last vote and sealed its judgments, prejudices and aspirations into the EVMs.
Several years ago I had read a quote about democracy which has since rung in my head every time I have looked at the political discourse around me. Like most voters today I also boastfully own an ephemeral memory and hence I can only paraphrase it: great men are needed to build a democracy but only average men are needed to run it. This I think captures the ultimate dilemma of democracy. It has stayed rooted in large countries like the United States and India when the greats who once fought for it were quickly replaced (not always but often) by spineless hypocrites, goons and even autocrats, yet it has withered so regularly in the many formerly colonized African nations and that one big neighbor of ours which is the epitome of a system of charades, where dictatorship is disguised in the “democratic” single-party politburo. I, therefore, believe that it is the sense of earning democracy that adds endurance to it. The greats that snatched it from colonialists and made tremendous sacrifices in the process insulated democracies from the constantly averse conditions they were to face in the future.
Once I have said why I am not writing this perhaps I should also write why I am. This is a conversation. It is a conglomerate of my participation in numerous discussions, tirades, debates and those very contemporary forms of dialogue where one listens to their interlocutors just to formulate a defence of one’s points and not to understand the alternate point of view. After all that has settled in, I write this as a dialogue between contradictory ideas not completely void of prejudices but to some extent allowing enough space to agree to disagree.
My own political leanings developed during the UPA I and II regimes and from whatever I could read, learn by listening to others and see around myself I developed into someone who stands slightly right of the centre on a political, social and economic ideology spectrum. Having said that my primary concern with this part of the conversation is beyond matters of policy which are extremely complex and disagreements over which are only a natural consequence of democracy. Let’s begin.
The foremost thought that has resonated in my mind this entire election season was the idea of accountability. Parliament is sovereign and this sovereignty is borrowed from the franchise of the people who elect Representatives to assert their aspirations and to seek redressal from the executive. This system works if the executive is accountable to Parliament and ultimately to the electorate. This is the core question of this election. In a Westminster democracy any government which commands a majority in the house rules but does it remain accountable to the people just by its mere survival? Let’s try and make more sense of this.
Most Indian elections can be divided into two categories, ones which are won and lost primarily on local issues and grass root level performance of legislators, and the second kind which are fought projecting leaders like Indira Gandhi or Narendra Modi. This election seems to more or less fit into the second category. It seems that it is centred around one individual, you are either for him or against him. This is not only the making of the opposition parties or the media, but this is also because most people see this election as a mandate for or against Narendra Modi (and again this is based on the range of political views I had access to and I might be completely wrong).
In such elections it is, therefore, this person or set of people who become accountable to the electorate, not the cabinet, not the legislators nor the alliance or party in the majority. Accountability is fixed on the heads of a few. In such elections how does one ensure that parliament remains sovereign? The simple answer is it can’t be and in a utopian Westminster democracy one would not want such an election. So what should a voter like me do when this Hobson’s choice is presented to him. This is where I believe it is important, almost essential to have a single party or pre-poll alliance majorities, or at least a majority government centred around a major national political party with a large chunk of seats in the house. Fragile governments such as those in the post-emergency ’70s and the early ’90s cannot be relied on simply because they are not accountable to the people and hence such parliaments are not sovereign.
The executive can and will always blame any policy paralysis onto not having a consensus, even the opposition does not know who it is really up against. Minority governments running on ventilators of outside support are no better. Classic examples were the United Front governments under IK Gujral and HD Devegowda and the final years of the UPA II respectively. Such governments are worse in presidential style elections as leaders do not own up to their failure to govern. When the voter next goes to cast his vote he is left confused. On whom does he place the buck on? The legislators who were non-existent and even whose names he does not know, the leaders who claim that they just didn’t have the numbers to the governor himself for not anticipating this mess when he voted last time around. At least to me, the answer is evidently the last one.
The choice that this election offers apart from a clear majority for either the NDA or the UPA is my worst nightmare. A wild assemblage of confused individuals looking for upmanship not through their ideas but through political brinkmanship. The Mayas and the Akhileshes of UP coming together with absolutely no common ideology apart from an ominous realization of losing on their own strengths. The chief minister of West Bengal who is unable to tolerate even the slightest of dissent but constantly bickers over the so-called autocracy of the central government. This when her own party almost admittedly and brazenly has been suffocating democracy in West Bengal to the extent that this abuse of muscle power and often government machinery to rig elections is rationalized by some of her “intellectual” supporters on the grounds of being a fight against fascism, a fight for democracy. What sheer hypocrisy?
When more or less like most recent ones elections have been free, fair and most importantly non-violent across the country, in Bengal even with the additional support of hundreds of units of paramilitary forces, and a seven-phase election, the most basic levels of law and order could not be maintained just because her own supporters were the cornerstones of this violence.
[I recall another infamous and unique incident which portrays effectively the aversion to dissent of the current Hon’ble chief minister of Bengal. It was a first in India’s long political history that a budget was recalled after it had become a property of the house breaking all constitutional precedence. The minister was asked to resign and a new budget by a new railways minister Shri Mukul Roy was brought in. The rail budget in question is that of 2012 by Dinesh Trivedi where he introduced some long due passenger fare increases to supplement the deficit in the allocation for safety, security and maintenance of railways. I do not call this act of mismanagement and insensitivity to dissent; fascism or dictatorship just because what she was doing was to protect her manifesto promise of not letting price hike affect the common man. It was fair but the way it was carried out was improper and foul.]
The Chandrababus and the Stalins are looking to become consensus leaders of a hypothetical third front government with support from a weak and timid Congress leadership. These aspiring prime ministers have a non-existent stance on matters of national importance such as the economy, national security and foreign policy. Had any of these potential leaders even alluded to declaring a national manifesto? They fight elections in single states on local issues and dream to reap the benefits of a fractured mandate.
This is where I would put the blame on the main opposition party, the grand old party, the Indian National Congress. Even after having a strong base of support across the length and width of this country, they have failed to provide credible leadership for the past two decades and here I am not criticizing them on matters of policy. This I shall save for the next part of this discussion. Why is it that smaller regional parties do not consider its party leader as the natural leader of an alliance centred around the Congress. At least the previous Gandhi dynasty prime ministers had the public and political support to seem in charge.
Even the often forgotten P.V. Narasimha Rao, who to me was by far the most efficient congress prime minister in modern times, managed to run a minority government and still bring radical economic policy changes in the initial years of his government because he as a prime minister and natural leader of the party was accountable and not just a puppet nor an inexperienced and guile individual thrown into the position just because of his last name. (Of course, he had been fast forgotten by a party which believes that only a Gandhi is fit for the prime minister’s office and the prime minister’s office is the only office fit for a Gandhi.)
I would belie my conscience if I told you that I believed that the BJP had not used some immoral strategies to twist the political discourse and dialogue of this election. Raking up issues of national security for votes, making political statements on the opening of a war memorial and implicitly asking votes for martyrs were unsavoury tactics, to say the least, and not to put too fine a point on it showed how tentative the party had become as election day came closer. In a utopian world, I would, therefore, have always chosen a Vajpayee Ji like statesmen over a Narendra Modi like a leader on any given day, but it is practicality and the choice that this election offers that require some pragmatism from the voter. He must weigh his options and then vote for the lesser evil, someone who he could hold to account at the next opportunity.
Having said that my contention with the opposition is also on the fact that it is their primary duty to question the government on the real issues and set the discourse of election debate. Had it taken some time off from making personal attacks against the prime minister, it could have done that. (Only a few days back I could hear a woman leader and a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh commenting on how even the cabinet ministers’ wives were afraid of the prime minister as he had left his own wife and would teach the same to his cabinet colleagues. I personally feel ashamed to even imagine this person as one who aspires the prime minister’s office in our great nation.)
I shall now move on to talk about the primary concerns about the present government to the extent that I could perceive them. Many academicians, intellectuals and liberals have deemed this government as fascist and one with dictatorial tendencies. I understand this concern and identifying these tendencies is essential to maintaining a meaningful democracy. I mark my dissent to their analysis and I am seriously discontented by the affixing of such tags to an entire party and those who vote for it. I will try and expand my point of view with the help of a few concrete examples.
Let us take as an example one of the most contentious issues of this government’s tenure. The infamous “Beef Ban” and the killings of innocent people against this backdrop. What does the article 48 of the Indian Constitution say about beef? It states that the slaughter of milch and draught cattle like cows and buffaloes is prohibited. At the same time under article 21, freedom of life preserves the individual’s rights to consume food of their choice with reasonable restrictions. The Bombay High Court judgement of 2015 taking note of the constitutional provisions upheld the statute enacted by the Maharashtra government banning slaughter of cows within the state at the same upholding citizen’s rights to store and consume beef.
When the BJP government at the centre through a ministry of environment circular put an umbrella ban on the sale of cows for slaughter, the supreme court struck it down. It did not although strike down its 2005 judgement upholding the constitutional validity of cow slaughter bans enacted by various state governments. Veterinary care and animal husbandry being state subjects, it allowed the states to enact their own statutes under constitutional provisions of articles 48 and 21. This is where this story took a twist.
The newly elected UP government in 2017 brought in a directive indicating strong action against illegal and mechanized slaughterhouses and started shutting them down. This is where vested interests came in and a section of the media, political parties and others started weaving a farrago of misleading litanies and deceit. They advertised the directive as a beef ban, a ban against the owning and consumption of beef and a ban against the sale and slaughter of cows. This was no such thing, simply because the state of UP already had a ban on cow slaughter long before this directive was issued. It was action against cruel and illegal mechanized slaughterhouses which often produced low quality degraded meat under brutal conditions for animals mostly buffaloes (since cows were anyways banned) but sometimes even illegally acquiring cows and calves. What was an administrative exercise was turned into a contentious issue by misleading propaganda?
The BJP had promised action against these illegal slaughterhouses in its manifesto and having won had every right to enact it, there being nothing illegal in it. It was accountable to the people for this like any other policy decision. But what this propaganda did was that it gave the extremists amongst us the perfect opportunity to wreak havoc, create unrest and violence. The infamous lynchings began. One could legitimately question the governments in different states where these killings were taking place and also the one at the centre on their policy and their failure to maintain law and order but to paint a party and all of its voters as fascists and intolerant is to the least an underestimation of a complex issue like this which is also intermingled with faith. These state of affairs were as much a fault of the extremists and the government failing to maintain harmony as it was a result of the malevolent deceit and misinformation propagated by some.
I do not support extremists and murderers even if they support the same party as I. It is government policy that is accountable not the policy of its uncountable supporters. Oppose the policy, give your dissent to the way things were handled and vote against the BJP if you don’t like the direction in which this country is going but don’t paint people as fascists. When you marginalize the moderates you empower the extremists amongst us. Remember the boy who cried wolf, if one keeps calling everyone a fascist, rest assured when the real one arrives no one will be left to believe us.
I am a student in a research institute and I even hear people calling the government dictatorial and fascist for a reduction of budgets to academic institutions. One should discern between matters of policy and propriety. I support these budget cuts having witnessed the wasteful and unaccountable expenditure that goes on in the most elite of these institutes and labs. There is a complete lack of transparency and accountability in the name of academic freedom. Now, you and I can fight it out over these facts and figures and why it was that the BJP government could as find 3000 crores for a statue and not for academic institutes and I might reply by suggesting you look at how these academic institutions over the past years have not been able to utilize even the funds allocated to them in the first place and returned huge sums of money each year, just because of an aura of laziness that is eating up the academia in India inside out. As long as we fight and bicker and sometimes listen to each other, democracy lives. Let’s talk it out and not call each other names because in a democracy one gets what one deserves.
Let me give you another example from another time and leave you to ascertain for yourself if it better fits the definition of a dictatorial and fascist decision. You might in the way realize the hypocrisy of many commentators of the day who conveniently forget this incident. The Rajiv Gandhi government overturned a decision of the Supreme Court of India which commanded a Muslim man to pay a meagre sum of 500 rupees to his wife and 5 children as maintenance whom he had abandoned after 14 years of marriage at his whim in order to live with a younger woman.
This is the famous Shah Bano case in which the Rajiv government brought in an ill-thought and hastily prepared law using its absolute majority ironically called the Muslim women (protection of rights on divorce) act 1986 to deny the redressal that had been won by Muslim women through the supreme court judgement in Shah Bano vs Mohd. Ahmed Khan. This was an elected government (they were accountable and ultimately lost their majority in the successive election) overturning a reasonable decision of the court as a matter of policy and using statutory instruments, to intentionally deny redressal to a constituent with 5 children and nowhere to go.
When constituents can’t seek redressal because vested interests of extremist clerics are looked after by the elected government to win a few votes, is when democracy weeps. But then Mr Rajiv Gandhi was an honourable man. (Just to remind you it was the present BJP government that even after clear opposition from the Muslim personal law board enacted the triple talaq act making this barbaric practice a criminal offence following the verdict of the honourable Supreme Court).
Many media houses have often painted all BJP supporters as Hindu terrorists since the unfortunate Gujarat riots. With their biased reporting, they were busy raking up religious tensions with live reporting as if it was some reality show but failed to later question the government on its failure to maintain law and order.
Instead, they always kept looking for a way to accuse the government of bias towards a particular religion when nothing of this sort could be proven in multiple inquiries or in any court of law. Where were these same people when a sitting prime minister justified or at least condoned violence in the anti-Sikh riots, by stating in public that one must remember Indira Ji and who killed her. Going on to add that when a big tree falls the earth around it is bound to shake. Wouldn’t it be wrong to paint all Congress supporters as anti-Sikh fascists since a few extremists like the current chief minister of Madhya Pradesh famously went around Delhi with televised slogans such as Khoon Ke Badle Khoon?
The weakening of institutions is another allegation against the current BJP regime. This is where I believe the wrong conclusions have again been drawn. We had gotten so used to the consensus governments of the Vajpayee era and policy paralysis of the UPA era that we have forgotten what a strong majority government looks like. I ask a simple question? Why do we elect a government? Is it to run the nation as the opposition wants it to be run, or heed to the advice and wishes of an RBI governor? Or is it to govern based on the promises it had made in its manifesto once you had passed your sovereignty into its hands until next time. Whenever there is disagreement between an elected government and an advisory body with statutory powers it is the elected government that should prevail.
Otherwise, we would end up with what Arun Jaitley so succinctly called a “tyranny of the unelected” although in a different context. The matters of monetary policy like liquidation of RBI reserves, which was the main contention between the government and the then RBI governor fall under the purview of the RBI and it has statutory powers in these matters, but the constitution is clear about the supremacy of the elected government through cabinet in situations where a consensus cannot be achieved. The constitutional principle behind this is quite simple, the cabinet is accountable to parliament and ultimately to the electorate, not the RBI governor and hence broadly on all matters of overall economic well being of the country the RBI governor’s advice is important but is not supreme.
After all the appointment of the RBI governor is a political one. This was clearly not the first instance when an RBI governor resigned, in fact, contrary to the graceful resignation this time, there have been several occasions when the governor has been simply asked to resign. This is why I keep saying that to me the central question of this election is one of accountability. God knows who would prevail and who would be answerable if a similar disagreement occurs in the scenario when the leading government party has double-digit numbers in parliament and prime ministers are shuffled like a pack of cards. A quite peculiar pack with all jokers.
Coming now to the issue of nomination of honourable judges to the Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court is a constitutional body quite distinct from a statutory body like the RBI. Hence, interference from the government in its functioning which leads to influence over its decisions is completely unwelcome. It is separate from the executive and this is what ensures its independence but at times leads to its non-accountability. Even if one were to stick with the highly contentious and unique collegium system wherein judges elect judges, isn’t it fair that the elected accountable government has a right to at least make fruitful dissent, by asking the collegium to reconsider some of its recommendations.
The entire discussion about the collegium system’s merits and demerits is a long and winding one but I just leave you with a thought, why is it that elected accountable politicians can’t interfere in selection of judges in an open and transparent system since they are somehow considered per say corrupt, whereas judges can elect judges behind closed doors because they are somehow considered insulated from any corruptibility? The NJAC to me was the near perfect answer, wasn’t the court dictatorial to reject a constitutional amendment passed by super-majorities in both houses of parliament and then ratified by almost all state assemblies of the country?
Just before I end this discussion and enter into the realm of policy, I would like to pose one final parting question to my dear reader who has endured this long winding self-indulgence. What is a dictatorship? The imposition of emergency and the murder of democracy by an “elected” prime minister just to save her own “throne” when the courts annulled her election on grounds of being found guilty of using government machinery to sway an election; if this is not dictatorial then clearly the government’s imposition of its policy after listening to and disagreeing with a statutory body is also not dictatorship by any stretch of the imagination.
It is at most an outreach or a failure to gain consensus, a failure to keep a dissenting adviser on board after he has been given a say and not agreed with. Let us not forget what Lady Thatcher had to say in a similar situation when her super-majority government was accused of outreach and dictatorial tendencies, she said and I quote it as the final word on accountability of government: “advisers advise and ministers decide” Let us call a spade a spade and a dictator, but lets not make every decision where there was some dissent an example of dictatorship or fascism.
No doubt, there are several issues on which this government has left a lot to be desired of in terms of conduct, such as the lack of credible employment data, its failure to take action against irresponsible statements and actions of some of its extremist leaders, lack of opportunities to question an otherwise very vocal prime minister are just a few which come to mind. The list is also longer in terms of policy and I will try and touch onto some of them in the next piece at the same time trying to also assess what it did right and why I believe its policies are on the whole a right step (pun intended) towards India’s growth.