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Subverting Democracy

Mathew John Mathew John
20 Feb 2023
We have diminished freedom, equality and fraternity as fundamental values of our democracy. Instead, we have embraced the PM’s take that secularism is about economic security and not freedom.

“I don’t actually subscribe to the view that all power corrupts, but absolute power – when secured on the back of massive parliamentary majorities, which don’t reflect the balance of political opinion in the country – can corrupt absolutely.” – Charles Kennedy

“Parliament’s job is to conduct discussions. But, many a time, Parliament is used to ignore issues, and, in such situations, obstruction of Parliament is in favour of democracy. Therefore, parliamentary obstruction is not undemocratic.” -- Arun Jaitley

We are at a tipping point in the life of our nation, with democracy on the line. The impunity with which this Government is subverting democratic norms in trying to bail out the biggest corporate brigand ever, even as it glosses over its own complicity in his murky dealings, is stunning in its brazenness. Last week, the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankar interrupted Mallikarjun Kharge’s speech on the Adani group’s malfeasance with this outrageous obiter dictum: “We have to say (sic) from this platform only that which is in national interest.” In effect, the V-P was insinuating that criticism of Adani and the government’s alleged crony links with the Adani group were detrimental to the nation’s well-being and could be deemed anti-national.

A preposterous rationale for not allowing a debate in Parliament on the biggest corporate fraud in history was trotted out by a former law minister and head toady who asserted that it was contrary to the Rules of Business to arraign any person who was not present in the House to defend himself. He further stated that the Opposition should prove their charges before a discussion or a Joint Parliamentary Probe could be considered. The Chairman’s objection is absurd and akin to an SHO at a police station demanding foolproof evidence before registering the FIR of a complainant.

Every possible argument, unfair and foul, was used to stall any debate into ‘Adani-gate’. Plumbing a new low in parliamentary censorship, the Speaker expunged large portions from the speeches of Rahul Gandhi and Mahua Moitra in the Lok Sabha, just as Kharge’s allegations in the Rajya Sabha against the Adani group and its links with the government were blanked out.

There are soccer pundits who believe that attack is the best form of defence especially when your defence is weak; or, as Bertolt Brecht said, attack when you know the truth is too weak to defend itself. Embracing the all-out attack strategy, on successive days in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, the PM put on an impeccable display of 56-inch, chest-thumping machismo, using the grandiose Caesar-like third-person singular, thundering ala our tinsel heroes, “Desh dekh raha, ek akela kitno ko bhari padh raha hai (the country is watching how one person outweighs so many).” He went into rapturous trumpet blowing and theatrical overdrive about having devoted his life to serving the nation, about how “Modi is living for 25 crore families”, and how, in the face of the muck hurled at him, the Lotus would bloom, even as the puppets around him thumped their desks, chanting in adoration: “Modi! Modi!” It reminded one of the refrains in Orwell’s Animal Farm; “Napoleon is always right.”

Ironically, the man who rode imperiously to power as an anti-corruption crusader in 2014 on the back of a country-wide, anti-corruption movement, was now unabashedly proclaiming that the trust reposed in him, and his government by 140 crore people was “a protective shield that neither abuse nor false allegations can pierce,” (and behind which he was taking refuge). He did not once mention the biggest corporate scandal ever, but instead deflected attention to the scams during the UPA years. 

Significantly, on the day of his diatribe in Parliament against Nehru, the Gandhis and the Congress, the lead story in one of the world’s most respected English language economic journals, The Economist, was the Adani scam with all the gory details and featuring Adani along with Modi on the cover. Every day there are new revelations of this government’s deeply troubling partisan association with the Adani group but the government steadfastly refuses demands of the Opposition for a detailed probe to get to the heart of this humongous financial fraud.

In the no-holds-barred, arrogant and often ugly tirade against his opponents in Parliament, the PM stressed that public sentiment – 140 crore people, 25 crore families -- was on his side, and as Lincoln said, “Public sentiment is everything; with it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.” To claim that 140 crore people are with him may be bit of a stretch, but one cannot deny that despite a series of humongous blunders and dubious acts – demonetization, hastily implemented GST, mishandling of the pandemic, the Rafale and Pegasus scandals – he remains the supremely dominant force in Indian politics. The common view is that the PM will ride the “Adani-gate” storm and return to power in 2024 with an even bigger majority. The tragedy of our world today is that our basest instincts of prejudice and hate determine our choice of leaders and not dispassionate appraisal of their performance in making the lives of their people better.

The PM never tires of reminding his countrymen of various welfare measures initiated by his government such as the free ration programme for 80 crore people (does it not alarm this Government that over 70 percent of our people depend on government largesse for their bare survival?), PM-KISAN, Ujjwala, PM Awaas, opening bank accounts and other schemes. Apart from the fact that he takes personal credit for schemes that are wholly funded by the people’s taxes, these handouts have been unerringly described by a friend as “dole by a dole overlord” that do not bring about social empowerment and instrumental autonomy, which can only be engendered through employment, improvement in access to education and health, social belonging, creation of self-help mechanisms. 

Uniquely different from any other world leader, the PM pats himself on the back for any good thing that has happened in his watch, affixing his name and image to any and everything, even on our Covid vaccination certificates. However, the most outrageous example of delusionary self-promotion is his taking fulsome credit for the digital revolution, also known as the Third Industrial Revolution, an inexorable technological march across the world that has transformed interconnectedness and access to information, an unstoppable hi-tech surge which has been slowed down only by totalitarian regimes. It’s happening in India as an inevitable evolutionary advancement, steered by our talented techies, but the laurels are showered on the PM.

In the high-decibel, theatrical demagoguery that the PM unleashed in Parliament, covering a range of issues, the most ominous was his message on secularism, which is the underpinning moral code of our Republic. For our Supreme Leader, the social schemes initiated by his government in “azadi ka Amrit Kaal” are what constitute “true secularism” and social justice. His self-serving, fragmented definition of secularism reminded me of Woody Allen’s condensation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace: “It’s all about Russia!”  The secularism that our founding fathers envisaged required not only the Preamble but also the Directive Principles of State Policy for full exposition of its import, but secularism has been hollowed out in the last few years. The cruellest manifestation of the State’s betrayal of the secular promise of our Constitution is the continued incarceration of two young student activists, Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam, for alleged sedition but, in truth, because they protested against the iniquities of this regime, an unforgivable crime if you are Muslim! 

The ugliness and absolute dadagiri of the ruling party in Parliament over the last two weeks in refusing to investigate one of the biggest scams ever tell a cautionary tale -- that the powerful cannot be called to account.  We have diminished freedom, equality and fraternity as fundamental values of our democracy. Instead, we have embraced the PM’s take that secularism is about economic security and not freedom. Like Charles Kennedy warned, an absolute majority in Parliament can corrupt absolutely, and it has!

(The writer is a former civil servant. The views are personal.)

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