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Toughest Test for Democracy

John Dayal John Dayal
11 Jul 2022
Mr. Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s generalissimo in electoral battles, has announced that the Bharatiya Janata Party will rule India for the next thirty, forty or even fifty years.

Mr. Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s generalissimo in electoral battles, has announced that the Bharatiya Janata Party will rule India for the next thirty, forty or even fifty years.

These may be famous last words, as they say, but Mr. Shah’s buoyancy is based as much on the ease with which they deposed the coalition government of Shiv Sena Chief Minister Uddhav Thackrey – reportedly buying up almost forty MLAs of his party from under his nose – as the fact that these moves could not be foreseen by even veterans like Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar who had cut his political teeth under Indira Gandhi, and was once everyone’s second choice to be Prime Minister.

The nation, it would seem, is comatose, lying supine as Mr. Modi, Mr. Shah, and arguably Mr. Mohan Bhagwat, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh supremo, marshal their forces for the final battle in the general elections of 2024 when they expect no more than minor skirmishes in some states currently ruled by regional one-man or one family parties with no ideological moorings and less staying power.  There is no more talk of the federal structure of the Indian state, and the cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious plurality of the people of India which had so far been the font of their strength as a nation.

The Congress, the only other national-level party, has shown no signs of any urgency in retrieving its electoral base. New upstarts, such as the Aam Aadmi Party which swept Punjab in the last Assembly elections, has shown it remains vulnerable to sustained multi-pronged attack by the BJP. AAP founder and Delhi Chief Minister, Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, watches helplessly as his right-hand man and health minister Mr. Satyendra Jain remains in judicial custody as Mr. Modi’s Enforcement Directorate and other agencies investigate him for financial corruption.

Each electoral and chessboard victory swell its battle chest, adds to its battalions of cadres, and puts crushing pressure on constitutional and allied institutions, among them the Supreme Court and Parliament, the armed forces, and the Press.

The office of the President of India, ceremonial and no more than a rubber stamp at the best of times, has been made all but redundant, with the incumbent not daring to even show that he has a moral authority by sheer lineage as the legal occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhawan.  Parliament has been denied serious discussion on almost every bit of legislation passed in the last eight years, including the far-reaching New Education Policy, the new health policy on the anvil and the changes sought in armed forces recruitment practices with a 200-year-old tradition, which is being shaken. 

The circular Parliament building, where the Constitution was signed, is being replaced with a new angular structure which will sport ethnic artwork but will not have the Central Hall which saw joint sessions of the two Houses, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, and which provided the roof under which many a tough political knot was unraveled in bipartisan political processes and negotiations. It was also a place where media persons, including this writer, could interact with politicians, including sometimes even the Prime Minister, in an understanding of mutual trust. Future generations of journalists have been robbed of this institutionalized platform.

The Central police forces and those in BJP-ruled states have, in Mr. Modi’s second term, become in all but name the militias of BJP Chief Minsters, doing their bidding in flagrant violation of the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code.

If this anarchy of men in uniform was not sufficient, the government’s apparently ill-planned and controversial scheme of recruitment to the armed forces, labelled Agnitpath, is feared to be the secret device to ideologically infiltrate the last bastion of state neutrality and secularism. The scheme, as is known, envisages an annual intake of 50,000 youth as soldiers, seamen and airmen in a special rank at a monthly salary of Rs 40,000, a four-year tenure, and a post service gratuity of Rs 10 lakh. The historic practice of Regimental recruitments is presumably out in cold storage. There is no official talk of it for the moment. Retired officers and families in catchment areas such as the Garhwal hills, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Punjab, and Bihar are deeply perturbed. Many youths have risen in revolt. Two have been killed in Ranchi in police firing.

Fueling the totality of the crises, in a manner, is islamophobia, the new national slogan. It drowns all opposition to state thuggery. The state goondaism is itself legalized by Chief Ministers ordering government bulldozers demolishing houses of Muslim activists who protest gross violation of personal liberties or blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam. This is over and above the arrest and jailing of men who marry young Hindu women in violation of the new and expanding anti-conversion laws that cover both Muslims and Christians but condone similar acts by men of the majority community.

Collectively, some fear, these are the fissile materials which can trigger an implosion of the state as we have known, and the nation that was built through a peaceful freedom struggle under Mahatma Gandhi, past a bloody partition of the sub-continent, and a grueling rebuilding of new India through much of the Twentieth century by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors.

No one has dared to utter the words Civil War.  But that is because they know walls have ears, mobiles are routinely tapped, and social media companies can bend as much backward to serve government, as the aptly named Godi Media, the lapdog newspapers and TV channels.

But the dog whistles have been heard. Fearful, people wonder from whence will come their help. Many look to the courts for succor.

Civil society in recent times won small victories in the Supreme Court on issues of privacy, and fundamental rights, only to lose major battles on other rights, leaving the people at large in doubt if they can trust the apex court to really be their last pillar of support in challenging a marauding state hell-bent on devouring its young.

But the Supreme Court itself feels the heat. Unusual for a Chief Justice to speak while in a foreign country, but Chief Justice N.V. Ramana expressed disappointment that even after 75 years of Independence, neither government nor people have understood the roles and responsibilities assigned by the Constitution to each Institution. “Ä party in power believes that every governmental action is entitled to judicial endorsement and the Opposition parties expect the judiciary to advance their political positions and causes, but the judiciary is answerable to the Constitution and Constitution alone,” Justice Ramana said in his travels in the United States this month. This flawed thinking flourishes among the people in the absence of proper understanding about the Constitution and the functioning of the democratic institutions. To enforce checks and balances envisioned in the Constitution, "we need to promote Constitutional culture in India. We need to spread awareness about the roles and responsibilities of individuals and institutions. Democracy is all about participation."

Back in India, it fell to a Bench of the Supreme Court to pinpoint the fonts of disruptive forces. One was the official spokesperson of the ruling BJP, the feisty Ms Nupur Sharma, who was suspended by the party after she blasphemed against the Prophet of Islam during a TV debate on Times now, owned by the Jain family. Her "loose tongue" has "set the entire country on fire" and should apologise to the nation for her remarks.

The judges noted how powerful BJP functionaries were in the current state of the nation. "When you lodge a complaint against someone, that person is arrested but nobody dares to touch you.  That shows your clout". Ms Sharma had asked the Supreme Court to transfer to Delhi all the cases Muslim groups and others had lodged with the police of several states after her outburst on national TV. She said she was facing death threats. The Bench said she has "threatened the security of the nation and must apologise." The court said that Ms Sharma and her loose tongue have set the entire country on fire. It directly led to the murder of Udaipur tailor Kanhaiya Lal by two local Muslims. "What is the business of the TV channel and Nupur Sharma to discuss the matter which is sub-judice, except to promote an agenda?" the Bench asked.

That is the precise question civil society is asking the government, the ruling party and above all, Prime Minister Mr Modi.  The Prime Minister has remained silent through the turmoil, keeping himself busy travelling frequently to inaugurate projects in states that will go to the polls in the next twelve months or so. He has refused to address the press in India, or during his several foreign trips to Europe and the East.

As for the opposition, the news is all terrible. The tallest among the opposition, former Bihar Chief Minister Mr. Lalu Prasad, serving long and multiple terms of imprisonment after his conviction in the “fodder scams” in his regime, is ill in a Delhi hospital. He was the man who had arrested the Rath Yatra of Mr. Lal Krishan Advani and given heart to the movement against communalism.

The second tallest, Mr Sharad Pawar, himself a survivor of serious aliments in the past, is licking his wounds after the coalition he had knitted with the Shiv Sena after it was denied the chief ministership by partner BJP, saw Mr. Shah and former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis steal the government before he could even plan a counter move. The BJP stooped to conquer. And then Fadnavis was made to be satisfied with a deputy chief ministership. Mr Shah believes he has set into motion a process which will see the end of Thackeray hold in the next state election. By the way, as an elder statesman, Mr. Pawar is central to any confabulation non-BJP parties have to strategize how to out-think and then unseat Mr. Modi and Mr Shah.

Chief Ministers and party leaders in non-BJP states are now under CBI and Enforcement Department pressure. The mightiest in the opposition, including Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and Mr Rahul Gandhi, are being peremptorily summoned for questioning. Ms Mamata Banerjee in Bengal has her family facing enquiries, Dalit leader and four-time UP Chief Minister Ms. Mayawati has been effectively defanged. 

The solitary voice of dissent comes from Telangana where Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao showed the temerity – and some would say guts – to put up huge hoardings lambasting and mocking Mr Modi during the latter’s recent visit to the state. The RSS has successfully lit a fire in his Capital Hyderabad, where a small temple, set up touching the wall of the landmark Charminar complex, is being made an explosive issue at par with the temple-mosque controversies in Mathura and Varanasi. The fuse is short.

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