On Sunday 24 March, a popular TV Channel in English, had an absorbing debate ‘Jobs or Nationalism? What does the voter care about?’ Will it be unemployment, the farm crisis, women’s safety and a myriad of other real issues that plague the country today? Or will it be ‘nationalism’? A fanatical frenzy has already been whipped up in certain quarters with emotive issues such as the country’s ‘security’, the ‘external’ enemy, nationalism etc. However, the vast majority of the audience present at that TV show were buying none of the rhetoric of the pro-Government panelists at the debate. For them what mattered most were critical issues like employment, ‘roti, and kapda aur makaan’, the rising prices, the safety of women and children. For them, as they voiced the concerns of millions of India throughout the country: the choice is clear- they want and will vote for a political party which will focus on and address the key issues that grip the country, that will deliver on the pre-election promises and above all, those who pledge to safeguard the sanctity (the rights and freedoms) of the Indian Constitution.
Now that the General Elections are round the corner, The BJP and their allies in the NDA have virtually nothing to offer the electorate in terms of a ‘performance card’. For most Indians, particularly the poor and the marginalized, the last five years have been extremely bad. Economically, the country is at its lowest: demonetisation has taken its toll on those living from hand to mouth. An Oxfam report of January 2019 highlighted the growing gap between the rich and poor; how just nine individuals in India own 52% of the nation’s wealth. Communalism (with lynching as the ‘new normal’) continues to rear its ugly head with minorities on the receiving end. Hate speeches and divisive rhetoric has become the ‘in-thing’ with those wedded to a fascist ideology! A September 2018 UN Report puts India in the category of worst offenders against human rights activists. The prestigious Thomson Reuters Foundation in its annual survey of 2018 declared India as the most dangerous place for women. Millions of tribals and other forest dwellers are on the verge of being evicted from their lands which for centuries they have called ‘home’. Dalits continue to be victims of an unjust society. There is massive agrarian distress with several farmers committing suicide.
There is an upsurge in unemployment. There has been great interference in the functioning of independent/ autonomous bodies of the country - the Judiciary, the RBI, the CBI, the Information Commission and the ECI too; a clear undermining of democratic institutions and processes. Corruption is the way of proceeding, of the ruling party. Two days after being sworn in as the Deputy CM in Goa, a member of the MGP was summarily dismissed from his post, divested of his portfolios and two of the sitting MLAs were made to cross the floor. Attempts are made to put the controversial Rafale deal under the carpet despite incontrovertible evidence proving the wrongdoings! Indian politics has been criminalised as never before!
For members of the ruling party the ‘Ram Mandir’ is a major election issue. The Pulwama attack and the subsequent surgical strikes on Pakistan ‘seem’ to have given the Government a fresh impetus; even an impartial question asked on the subject is deemed ‘anti-national’ or ‘unpatriotic' by the jingoists! The less said about the so-called ‘mainstream’ media, the better. Most are owned by a couple of pro-government corporate houses. They kowtow to the powers-that-be and dish out blatant lies and false propaganda. The majority of them besides being Corrupt are completely Corporatised, Commercialised, Compromised and Communalised. The ‘Hindutva’ brigade, with the help of their crony capitalist friends, has over the years surreptitiously and tactfully taken over the fourth pillar of democracy. The PM takes credit for ISRO launching a ‘new missile’. Instead of a parliamentary form of Government, the political machinery seems to focus on just one person. A far cry from what Dr B. R. Ambedkar reminded us, "In India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship."
India however, is certainly on the cusp of change. The Indian electorate, particularly the common citizen: women and men are a discerning lot. In the past, it was ballots and not bullets that threw out all powerful politicians like Indira Gandhi. If the groundswell of opinion matters, then Modi and his ilk are certainly going to be shown the door. The people of India have a high degree of tolerance- but this Government has failed on all fronts. The attempt to tamper with the country’s Constitution anywhere is unacceptable. The ruling class has tried at different times to change some essential elements. Thankfully they have not succeeded. In India, there are today several concerned citizens, who leave no stone unturned – despite all odds and never-ending hostility - in herculean efforts to conscientize others of why democracy based on justice, liberty, equality, fraternity and pluralism must be at the heart of the country’s way of proceeding.
On 1 February, a path-breaking document ‘Reclaiming the Republic’ was brought out by an eminent group of citizens with Justice A. P. Shah as Chairperson, Anjali Bhardwaj and Prashant Bhutan as convenors. The preamble to the document states , “We are a group of concerned citizens – drawn from the world of scholarship, writing, law, administration and activism – with some experience in fields such as health, education, environment, social inclusion, transparency and accountability. Some of us have worked in the media and some have held positions in the judiciary, government and institutions of accountability. We have varied political opinions and affiliations, but are united in our trust in democratic institutions, in our adherence to the philosophy of the Constitution and belief in the idea of a plural, democratic Republic of India. Deeply concerned, of late, about the multiple challenges to that Republic, we have undertaken to examine these challenges in some depth, and to propose to our fellow citizens means to protect and strengthen the Constitutional safeguards for our democratic polity and composite society. We see the forthcoming Lok Sabha election as an opportunity to retrieve and, indeed, reclaim from manipulation and subversion, our legacy of the Republic”.
Their document recommends a whole range of reforms which are vital to development of the nation; these include:
· Doing away with several antiquated and draconian laws which have been widely misused to curtail personal liberties and intimidate political activists;
· Reforms to repair the damage done to anti-corruption institutions and putting in place a functional law and institutions to deal with public grievances;
· Judicial reforms aimed at making the judiciary more independent, accessible, efficient and accountable;
· Electoral reforms aimed at reducing the influence of money power in elections and making the electoral system more democratic;
· Media reforms aimed at making the media freer, more diverse and accountable through an independent regulator;
· Health reforms to ensure that the public health delivery system is put in place across the country and health care is affordable and accessible to all;
· Educational reforms to ensure properly staffed and funded government schools and better endowed, oriented and regulated higher educational institutions;
· Agricultural reforms to ensure that farmers receive remunerative prices for their produce, are freed from indebtedness and that we move towards more healthy and sustainable farm practices;
· Environmental reforms to ensure that environmental costs and benefits of every developmental project is examined by proper, independent regulatory bodies, especially if it involves the destruction of forests, coasts and other eco sensitive zones.
· Policies and programmes to ensure health, education, employment and social security to especially disadvantaged groups such as the disabled, SC/STs, women, Muslims, etc.
· Extension and expansion of MNREGS to guarantee to every adult at least 150 days of work a year at minimum wages; and
· Universal basic services for all citizens, including universal pension for the aged and special provisions for specially disadvantaged groups.
· Enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law and establishing independent commissions for looking into systemic injustice meted out to vulnerable groups.
A discerning citizen will certainly applaud the visionary nature of this document. It should become the core of the manifesto of every political party in India. Whether our politicians have the political will and the courage to address these concerns is anybody’s guess. The fact however remains that the policies/ reforms suggested are not merely urgent but in many ways non-negotiable for the growth of democracy in the country.
The suggestions made in the document should not only be studied but should also be implemented. Strangely enough, the reforms suggested are in sync with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs were adopted at the UN Sustainable Development Summit on 25 September 2015 in New York. India was one of the 193 countries of the UN General Assembly which ratified the 2030 Development Agenda titled ‘ Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. and given the state of the country today- it is almost a certainty that the realization of the SDGs will still be a distant dream in 2030. Unless perhaps, political parties ensure that their manifestoes in the run up to the elections, focus on the reforms suggested by the members of ‘Reclaiming the Republic’ and on the SDGs; and once in power, the new Government will demonstrate a political will – based on responsibility, accountability and transparency- to ensure the implementation of their pre-election promises.
In his message for the ‘World Day of Peace 2019’ (1 January) Pope Francis says, “ every election and re-election, and every stage of public life, is an opportunity to return to the original points of reference that inspire justice and law. One thing is certain: good politics is at the service of peace. It respects and promotes fundamental human rights, which are at the same time mutual obligations, enabling a bond of trust and gratitude to be forged between present and future generations”.
Winds of change are blowing in the country! From 11 April onwards the votes cast will be for a new India. On 23 May when the results are announced – it will be shared that for the people of India the CHOICE WAS CLEAR- they voted for authentic guardians of the ‘Constitution’ and the future of India!
(The writer is a human rights activist. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org(Published on 1st April 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 14)