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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 14 New Delhi March 23, 2019

India needs Democratic Governance and not Strong Leadership

Saturday 23 March 2019


by Irfan Engineer

After the air strike by the 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 the 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 the Opposition parties to form a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) to ensure that the contest in the general elections in 2019 is, as far as possible, one-to-one and the Opposition votes are not divided. The mahagathbandhan in Bihar defeated the BJP in the Assembly elections and later when the SP-BSP-RLD came together to contest the 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, the BJP was defeated in the elections held in all five State Assemblies—Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram. This gave momentum to the coming together of non-BJP parties opposed to their policies. The Opposition raised issues of lack of promised development, lack of jobs for the youth, agrarian distress and farmers’ suicides, corruption in Rafale deal, growing lawlessness of the goons subscribing to the 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 subjects 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 the Hindu supremacist ideology in particular and marginalised 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 the one hand and him (Modi) as an underdog from the margi-nalised sections 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 secular country with equality, social justice and respect for the fundamental rights of all citizens. In other words, the contest was shaping up as between the charisma and populist leadership of Modi and upholding the Constitution and constitutional values, democratic institutions and lack of promised development. On the floor of Parlia-ment the PM called the mahagathbandhan as mahamilavat (highly adulterated; unprincipled alliance) with only one political 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 a strong leader and a powerful India.

Powerful Country

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 the fundamental rights of every citizen on one hand; and the ownership and identification of the citizenry with the state is strong. A powerful country, according to the liberals and Left, is one where the state ensures that the 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 the youth have jobs.

As provided in the chapter on “Directive Principles of State Policy” in the Constitution of India, such state is one which ensures a social order n which justice—social, economic and political—is guaranteed and which strives to promote the welfare of the people, (Article 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 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); the state endeavours to ensure living wages to all workers, industrial or agricultural, alongwith a 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 the 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 the people. When the citizenry can participate in governance through fair, easily accessible and just pro-cedures, their ownership and bond with the state and between them is stronger and em-powered.

The meaning of a powerful country to the Right-of-the-Centre forces—sectarian nationalists, ethnicists or neo-liberals—is a centralised autho-ritarian 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 the freedom of citizens, parti-cularly those sections that are cultural ‘other’s 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 the cultural choices of the people as to religious practices, food, clothes, preference of life partners, choices of livelihood and occupation, cultural expression and performance; promote segre-gation of neighbourhood to ‘preserve’ or ‘maintain purity of’ culture’, etc.; where the state regiments and homogenises culture; where the state keeps the dissidents under strict restrictions and ensures conservation and glorification of the past and ancient culture.

A powerful country for the Rightists is where the people, the consumers and lower strata of people are heavily taxed and business and corporate houses are under-taxed enabling the corporate houses to concentrate wealth in their hands to flourish. The state heavily taxes the lower strata to fund modernisation of its armed forces and security personnel to curb internal dissent and enable the expansionist state to engage in external aggression and occupation. The state pushes banks to adopt lower interest rates which favour big business to access cheaper loans. The resultant inflation adversely affects the lower strata of society even while businesses expand and earn more profits. In ‘guns or butter’ the Rightists prefer to prioritise increasing capacities for production of armaments and modernisation of the 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, appro-priation of profits and distribution of goods and services minimising state regulation and inter-vention.

The cultural authoritarian state 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. 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. They would cast their evil influence on their culture and cause changes beyond recognition.

Second, they stigmatise 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, they use 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 a Powerful India

The BJP and its leaders use all the three strategies —ideology, fear, and stigmatisation. 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 glory of the Hindu religion and culture and be treated as second-class citizens. (Gowalkar) The campaigns on love-jihad, demand to compulsorily sterilise Muslims and calling upon Hindu women to produce at least four sons are examples of fear- mongering. Prime Minister Modi, when he was the 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 stigmatisation is when Central Minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, during the election campaign for the Delhi Assembly elections, stigmatised 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 national 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 210-feet high flagpole. Seeing the flag, the students are expected to become ‘patriotic’. The Vice-Chancellor of the JNU even installed an Army tank on the campus of the JNU!

The problem isn’t with singing of national anthem or installation of Indian flags and Army tanks in every nook and corner. The problem isn’t also with patriotism if that means that every citizen should sacrifice for the wellbeing of fellow countrymen. The sight of the Indian flag and singing of the national anthem and Army tanks may or may not make one more selfless towards fellow countrymen, parti-cularly those more marginalised, needy, deprived, and oppressed. The BJP hopes that the sight of Army tanks would make the citizenry, parti-cularly 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 the BJP’s brand of patriotism which has come to mean accepting the authority, however arbitrary, discriminatory and violative of the constitutional principles and democratic norms.

The strong leader arbitrarily demonetised 86 per cent of the currency putting the citizenry in immense difficulties and hardships lining them up for days to withdraw small amounts of money from banks for their basic needs like medicines and causing over hundred deaths, job losses and loss of the GDP. We now learn that the RBI was unconvinced that demonetisation would achieve any of its stated objectives of fighting corruption, black money and terrorism. The 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 five slabs of high tax-rates. The strong leader tells us Takshila is in Bihar and Alexander the Great came upto Bihar and that must be accepted. The strong leader tells us that India had known plastic surgery five thousand years ago and Lord Ganesha is a 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 the air strikes.

A strong and powerful leadership means centralised decision-making bypassing demo-cratic processes and checks and balances in the system. A 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-demonetisation, for months the country was engaged in debating how wise the decision was and demonetisation would end corruption, bring back black money and end the counterfeit notes. Similarly, the GST was touted as the most important reform of the strong leadership and a parliamentary session was held at midnight to heighten its significance. The strong right hand of the strong leader announced that 250 terrorists were killed in the air strike in Balakot even though the Indian Air Force Chief in a press conference said they did not count the bodies and all they know is that the 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.

Democratic India

Rather than a strong leadership creating an illusion of pride in the citizenry telling the gullible that India is now among the most powerful countries and has climbed several notches in ease of doing business even though children die of hunger and debt-ridden farmers are forced to commit suicide, we need democratic governance where there is transparency, checks and balances and the 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 individual. The democratic process should enable the weakest and most marginalised sections too to participate in the decision-making and claim their stakes. Indian democracy needs to be much more transparent, accountable than it is today. A coalition of parties ensures that the interests of wider sections are taken into account in any decision-making process.

(Courtesy: Secular Perspective)

Irfan Engineer is the Director, Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism.

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