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Mainstream, VOL LV No 9 New Delhi February 18, 2017

Democracy in Decline

Tuesday 21 February 2017

by Ashok Celly

Indian politics presents a distressing picture today. Both the ruling party and the Opposition have shown little regard for Parliament, the most important of our democratic institutions. Also, they seem to be totally indifferent to the suffering of the people even though they swear by them day in and day out. The last session of Parliament, which conducted zero business and thus set up a record of sorts, was the most deplorable demonstration of that.

The Opposition parties have behaved most imprudently by disrupting the proceedings of Parliament, and thus missed a great opportunity to put the government in the dock. There cannot be a better forum for the Opposition to expose the misdeeds of the government and to voice the grievances of the people. There cannot be any justification for disrupting the proceedings of Parliament just because the Prime Minister is often absent from the House. Why should the Opposition attach so much importance to the presence of the Prime Minister who does not care for democratic norms? Is the Prime Minister more important than Parliament? Is he more important than the people of India whom the MPs represent? The Opposition needs to overcome its fixation with the Prime Minister. Well, they could have denounced him for neglecting his parliamentary duties and got on with the job. It is a matter of great regret that on the issue of demonetisation, popularly known as notebandi, they haven’t served the people well. The press seems to have done a better job than the Opposition in highlighting the miseries of the people, that is, people queuing up for the elusive cash (and some of them even dying of stress and/or fatigue), the farmers starved of cash unable to buy seeds, and, above all, the labourers losing their livelihood and going home in utter despair.

During all this period of financial uncertainty and emotional stress, the conduct of the government has been simply bizarre. It is hard to believe that a Prime Minister, who prides in his humble origins and never fails to remind his audience that he worked a a chaiwallah once upon a time, can be so cut off from the ground reality as to declare: “The poor are sleeping soundly, while the rich are looking for sleeping pills.” Perhaps absolute power alienates absolutely. And his colleagues, high on technology but somewhat low on common sense, keep on singing praises of plastic money advising the people: “Don’t have cash. Use plastic money.” This is one better than the French queen who told her subjects to eat cakes if bread was not available.

Likewise, the Kashmir agitation following the death of a terrorist was handled in an extremely inept, unimaginative and apolitical manner by the government, and the Opposition again failed to rise to the occasion. The use of pellet guns by the Indian Army left scores of Kashmiri young men and women blinded for life. How can a civilised and democratic government permit the use of such brutal methods and that too against one’s own people? The BJP leaders shout from every forum that Kashmir is an integral part of India. Sometime back, our Foreign Minister, Ms Sushma Swaraj, declared in the UN General Assembly: “Kashmir Bharat ka abhin ang hai.” Is this how you treat an integral part of India, Ms Swaraj? Are pellet guns the language of love and reconciliation?

In spite of all this, the people of Kashmir were hoping that the Prime Minister’s 15th August address to the nation would provide the much-needed healing touch. But to their utter shock and dismay the PM didn’t utter a word about Kashmir even though he talked about Balo-chistan and Pak-occupied Kashmir. Naturally, the people of Kashmir felt let down and seem to have lost all faith in the Indian political establishment. The BJP Government can take credit for the almost total alienation of Kashmiris from India. Now how patriotic was that?

And what about the role of the Opposition? It is true that the Centre’s response (or the lack of it) to the Kashmir unrest came in for some sharp criticism from the Opposition leaders. Ghulam Nabi Azad, the senior Congress leader from Jammu and Kashmir, voiced his concern over the alarming situation in his home State thus: “Kashmir is burning but the government in Delhi seems completely unaware of it.” And Sitaram Yechury, the CPM veteran, strongly disapproved of the use of pellet guns, which, according to him, “even the Israelis don’t use against the Palestinians”.

But there are occasions in a nation’s life when delivering speeches and addressing press conferences are not enough. The Kashmir crisis was one such occasion because the integrity of the nation was in peril. If the Opposition leaders felt strongly about the situation in Kashmir, they needed to go the whole hog. If your house is on fire, you don’t stop at shouting about it, you do something concrete to extinguish the fire. Did Ghulam Nabi Azad and his colleagues in the Congress do anything of the sort? Similarly, if Sitaram Yechury was revolted by the use of pellet guns, he could have appealed to his party to launch an agitation or as an individual resorted to satyagraha. The Commu-nists need to overcome their allergy to the Mahatma and Gandhian modes of struggle especially when violence as an instrument of social change is neither possible nor desirable. The Opposition will do well to recall what Dr Lohia used to say: “Zinda qaumein paanch saal intezaar nahin karti. (Living nations don’t wait for five years.)” The harsh truth is that our political parties have lost their militancy and moral passion. All they can think of is a march to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The erosion of democratic values has been evident for sometime now. Sixteen years back a young woman, known as Irom Chanu Sharmila, went on a fast to protest against the imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur. Irom Sharmila was protesting against a draconian law in the finest Gandhian tradition. Her protest received a lot of international attention but little support from mainstream political parties in India. And the ruling dispensation of the day killed it in an extremely cynical and clinical manner remini-scent of a colonial regime. The failure of Sharmila’s epic protest is in fact the failure of our democratic system to accommodate protest and dissent. In response to Irom Sharmila’s fast the mainstream political parties could have at least started a fresh debate on AFSPA. Meanwhile AFSPA has acquired the status of a sacred cow. In the name of patriotism are we going o worship at the altar of AFSPA for ever and for ever?

The author, now a freelancer, retired some years back as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi.