Indian democracy needs to be much more transparent, accountable than it is today. The coalition of parties ensures that the interests of wider sections are taken into account in any decision-making process.
IRFAN ENGINEER | Caravan Daily
AFTER the air strike by Indian Air Force in Balakot, Pakistan on February 26, 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to have recalibrated its main campaign issue to a strong leader and powerful India. Although even in the general elections held in May 2014, the 56” chest of the then aspirant PM Narendra Modi vs. the then PM Manmohan Singh – soft-spoken, weak and remote controlled underpinned the main campaign around “sabka saath sabka vikas” (solidarity with all and development of all) and “achhe din aanewale hain” (good times will be arriving).
Referring to the air strike by Indian Air Force in Balakot, the BJP president Amit Shah said, “Today’s action further demonstrates that India is safe and secure under the strong and decisive leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” (PTI, 2019). Prime Minister Modi himself accused that the opposition was guided by politics and selfish interests and neither wanted a powerful India nor a strong armed force (PTIa, 2019). It appears that one of the main campaign issues of the BJP would be that India would be weak and unsafe if the opposition parties were to be voted to power and only the BJP and PM Modi could ensure a powerful India.
Although the ruling BJP led coalition – the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – itself is a coalition of several parties, PM Modi ridiculed the efforts of opposition parties to form a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) to ensure that the contest in general elections in 2019 is, as far as possible, one to one and the opposition votes are not divided. Mahagathbandhan in Bihar defeated the BJP in Assembly elections and later when SP-BSP-RLD came together to contest Parliamentary by-polls in Gorakhpur and Kairana, the informal mahagathbandhan succeeded in defeating the BJP candidates in the seats formerly held by the BJP.
Later, BJP was defeated in the elections held in all five state assemblies – Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram. This gave momentum to coming together of non-BJP parties opposed to their policies. The opposition raised issues of lack of promised development, lack of jobs for youth, agrarian distress and farmers’ suicides, corruption in Rafale deal, growing lawlessness of the goons subscribing to Hindutva political ideology, weakening of various democratic institutions, threat to pluralism and diversity, failure in combating terrorism in J&K and Maoists, and such other issues directly touching people’s day-to-day existence and bread and butter issues.
To counter these issues, before the air strike in Balakot the PM was building a campaign around his charismatic personality, presenting himself as an underdog victim who was abused as “neech” (of lowly origin), tea vendor, etc. by the well endowed “dynasty”, to invoke the sympathy and energies of the “bhakts” (devoted followers) and those under the influence of Hindu supremacist ideology in particular and marginalized sections of the society in general.
The forthcoming electoral battle so to say was being pitched as one between the dynasty and products of western education on one hand and him (Modi) as an underdog from marginalised section on the other. The other issue was ridiculing the efforts to build a mahagathbandhan of parties which stood for the idea of India as a plural, democratic and a secular country with equality, social justice and respecting fundamental rights of all citizens. In other words, the contest was shaping up as between charisma and populist leadership of Modi and upholding the Constitution and Constitutional values, democratic institutions and lack of promised development.
On the floor of the Parliament PM called the mahagathbandhan as mahamilavat (highly adulterated; unprincipled alliance) with only one political to agenda to dislodge him as he was against corruption. However, as noted above, after the air strike by the IAF in Balakot, the BJP seems to be reformulating its campaign increasingly on the issue of strong leader and powerful India.
Strong leader and powerful India may convey different meanings and different sense to different sections. To the liberals and left, a powerful country is one in which the citizenry is well provided for, healthy, skilled, productive and educated and where the state protects fundamental rights of every citizen on one hand; and the ownership of an identification of the citizenry with the state is strong. Powerful country according to the liberals and left is one where state ensures that basic needs of all sections of the society are met, which include no one is deprived of adequate nutritious food; adequately and decently clothed; everyone has access to decent and affordable housing; access to basic education; affordable and good health care and youth have jobs.
As provided in the chapter on “Directive Principles of State Policy” in the Constitution of India, a state which ensures a social order n which justice – social, economic and political and strives to promote the welfare of people (Art. 38). Where the state policies secure equality between men and women and right to adequate means of livelihood; ownership and control of material resources of the community are so distributed as to best subserve the common good; economic policies do not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment (Art 39). The state should make effective provisions for securing the right to work, education and public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement (Art. 41). State endeavours to ensure living wages to all workers – industrial or agricultural, decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities (Art. 43).
A powerful country is one in which, as Gandhiji once said, real power rests in the hands of people and those in authority are accountable to the people through various structures of accountability. Right to information; effective grievance redressal mechanisms to assure time-bound delivery of services by the state; Right to recall elected representatives who fail to deliver on their promises are some examples of power in the hands of people. When the citizenry can participate in governance through fair, easily accessible and just procedures, their ownership and bond with the state and between them is stronger and empowered.
The meaning of powerful country to the right of the centre forces – sectarian nationalists, ethnicists or neoliberals is a centralized authoritarian state which has exclusive power to curb the liberties of the citizens under the guise of ensuring security of the state and protecting the privileges, culture, language, traditions, customs or religion of a section of people. They plead for a strong powerful state to ensure order by curbing freedoms of citizens, particularly those sections that are cultural others of the privileged sections.
A powerful country is one where the state has powers to arbitrarily arrest, punish, execute and strike terror in the minds of the citizenry; where the state curbs cultural choices of people as to religious practices, food, clothes, preference of life partners, choices of livelihoods and occupations, cultural expressions and performances; promote segregation of neighbourhoods to ‘preserve’ or ‘maintain purity of’ culture’, etc.; where the state regiments and homogenizes culture; where the state keeps the dissidents under strict restrictions and ensures conservation and glorification of past and ancient culture.
Powerful country for the rightists is where people, the consumers and lower strata of people are heavily taxed and business and corporate houses are under-taxed enabling the corporate houses to become concentrate wealth in flourish. The state heavily taxes the lower strata to fund modernization of its armed forces and security personnel to curb internal dissent and an enable the expansionist state for external aggression and occupation. The state pushes bank to adopt lower interest rates which favour big business to access cheaper loans.
The resultant inflation affects the lower strata of society adversely even while businesses expand and earn more profits. In ‘guns or butter’ the rightists prefer to prioritize increasing capacities for production of armaments and modernization of military over producing more civilian goods for the people and in general are against a welfare state. The economic policy of the rightists is to let the markets determine investments, appropriation of profits and distribution of goods and services minimizing state regulation and intervention.
The cultural authoritarian state that is made palatable to the citizens through three strategies – first, by instilling fear of the cultural ‘other’ of the community or nation that they are a threat to the very existence and survival of ‘their superior’ and glorious culture and its purity. That the demography of the ‘other’ would grow rapidly and out-populate them or the ‘other’ would demand various concessions from the state and even favourable treatment, that they would cast their evil influence on their culture and cause changes beyond recognition.
Second, they stigmatize the ‘other’ as anti-nationals, violent, terrorists, foreign, illegal immigrants, dirty etc. and some of the terms used for them include ‘mlechhas’ ‘Pakis’ ‘cockroaches’ and ‘worms’. Third, use of ideologies of exclusive and sectarian nationalism, ethnic nationalism, racism, sons of the soil, which justify the privileges of a nation; race; ethnic linguistic or religious community.
BJP’s idea of Powerful India:
The BJP and its leaders use all the three strategies – ideology, fear, and stigmatization. The ideology of Hindu Rashtra which the BJP subscribes to propounds privileges of the Hindu community and calls upon the non-Hindu community to entertain no other thought but the glory of Hindu religion and culture and be treated as second class citizens (Gowalkar). The campaigns on love jihad, demand to compulsorily sterilize Muslims and calling upon Hindu women to produce at least 4 sons are examples of fear mongering.
Prime Minister Modi when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat during his ‘gaurav yatra’ in the year 2002 had castigated Muslims for multiplying like rabbits and having large families with four wives and 25 children whereas Hindus, according to him preferred small families of two parents with two children. An example of stigmatization is when Central Minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti during an election campaign for Delhi Assembly elections stigmatized non-Hindus as illegitimate children saying those who are not progeny of Lord Ram (Ramzade) were illegitimate (haramzade). Muslims are frequently told by the BJP leaders and ministers to migrate to Pakistan.
According to the BJP, the Hindu nation can be strengthened by arousing ‘patriotic’ feelings amongst the citizenry. The BJP believes that frequent sighting of the country’s flag and hearing the national anthem and nation song – vande mataram would arouse patriotic feelings. That is why they strongly backed the Supreme Court order of singing the national anthem in cinema theatres before the start of the cinema. The Supreme Court later withdrew the order. The HRD ministry under Mrs. Smriti Irani ordered that the Indian flag should be hoisted on a flagpole of 210 feet high. Seeing the flag, the students are expected to become ‘patriotic’. The Vice Chancellor of JNU even installed an army tank on the campus of JNU!
The problem isn’t with the singing of national anthem or installation of Indian flags and army tanks in every nook and corner. The problem isn’t either with patriotism if that means that every citizen sacrifice for the wellbeing of fellow countrymen. The sight of Indian flag and singing of national anthem army tanks may or may not make one more selfless towards fellow countrymen, particularly those more marginalised, needy, deprived, and oppressed. The BJP hopes that sight of army tanks would the citizenry, particularly the marginalised, excluded and oppressed sections more fearful and intimidated meekly and unquestioningly accepting their plight and the authority of those in power however self-seeking they may be and whomsoever their policies and orders may be favouring. The problem is with BJP’s brand of patriotism which has come to mean accepting the authority however arbitrary, discriminatory and violating the Constitutional principles and democratic norms.
The strong leader arbitrarily demonetized 86% of currency putting citizenry in immense difficulties and hardships lining them up for days to withdraw small amounts of money for their basic needs like medicines and causing over hundred deaths, job losses and loss of GDP. We now learn that the RBI was unconvinced that demonetization would achieve any of its stated objectives of fighting corruption, black money, and terrorism. BJP’s brand of patriotism required citizens to unquestioningly submit themselves to all the hardships of arbitrary decisions of the strong leader reminded of and intimidated all the time by the army tanks installed on the roads and campuses.
The strong leadership likewise imposed GST with 5 slabs of high tax rates. The strong leader tells us Takshila is in Bihar and Alexander the great came up to Bihar and that must be accepted. The strong leader tells us that India had known plastic surgery 5 thousand years ago and Lord Ganesha is proof of that and Hindus had all the advanced technologies and missiles known to the world today and that must be accepted unquestioningly as patriotism. The Rafale deal must not be questioned and there must not be any questions on air strikes.
Strong and powerful leadership means centralised decision making bypassing democratic processes and checks and balances in the system. Centralised decision-making process may be faster, but can be extremely arbitrary and harmful. When the decisions prove patently harmful, considerable resources and time are spent in proving to the people how wise the decision was! For example, post demonetization, for months the country was engaged in debating how wise the decision was and demonetization would end corruption, bring back black money and end counterfeiting. Similarly, the GST was touted as the most important reform of the strong leadership and Parliamentary session was held midnight to heighten its significance. The strong right-hand man of strong leader announced that 250 terrorists were killed in air strike in Balakot even though the Indian Air Force Chief in press conference said they did not count the bodies and all they know is that IAF hit the given targets with precision. Aadhar was another measure which was strongly enforced on the citizens in violation of their privacy and without adequate measures to protect the privacy data of the citizens.
Rather than strong leadership creating the illusion of pride in citizenry telling the gullible that India is now among the most powerful countries and climbed several notches in ease of doing business even though children die of hunger and debt-ridden farmers are forced to commit suicide. More than strong leadership, we need democratic governance where there is transparency, checks and balances and decision-making process engages a wide range of stakeholders, and citizens.
The decision-making process may be slow on account of engagement with diverse sections but at least it will not be arbitrary and favouring any section or individuals. Democratic process should enable the weakest and most marginalized sections too to participate in the decision making and claim its stakes. Indian democracy needs to be much more transparent, accountable than it is today. The coalition of parties ensures that the interests of wider sections are taken into account in any decision-making process.
(Irfan Engineer is Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism; he is also co-editor of a recent book, Babri Masjid, 25 Years On… Views expressed here are personal.)