External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar speaking in the Rajya Sabha on recent foreign policy achievements resented being disturbed by Opposition sloganeering. He berated “partisan politics” and advised that foreign policy was one area where “we must work together. If there is a dispute in the country, we should keep India’s image united outside the country”.
While he was correct in restating the pre-Modi political consensus on political conduct, he seemed to forget that at umpteen diaspora events in Australia, US, UK etc Prime Minister Modi used meetings of expatriates, mostly citizens of those nations, to choose the partisanship of an election rally in India, painting past governments and present opposition with the same brush, alleging corruption and malgovernance. Months before the next Lok Sabha election the opposition can hardly be interested in the minister’s itemisation of visits abroad and claimed achievements. The focus of the nation has turned inwards to issues that the union government appears unwilling to address.
Interestingly there is an eerie similarity between the woes of the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh in 2013, before the 2014 election. The Nirbhaya gang rape and murder occurred on 16 December 2012. Similarly the alleged coal-scam report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) was tabled in mid-2012. Both these issues created an uproar as 2013 opened. The rest, as they say, is history.
BJP now faces similar twin controversies. The female wrestlers, of international fame, have been agitating over sexual abuse by the head of the wrestling federation Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. The issue was handled with kid gloves, ensuring that the powerful politician was not taken into police custody. The Indian police are normally quick to use custodial interrogation even in less serious matters.
A similar issue, if anything even more serious, is the surfacing of a viral video that depicts the disrobing and sexual molestation of two women belonging to a specific tribal group in Manipur. What shocked the nation was that the event occurred weeks ago and despite a First Information Report no attempt was made to apprehend the culprits. The unwillingness of the BJP national leadership to hold their party’s chief minister in the state responsible has created a protracted standoff. The Opposition is correctly demanding that both convention and morality require the prime minister to speak on the matter on the floor of the house and not outside.
The second matter is the accountability of the government. While no charge of corruption was ever levelled against former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the allegations against his government proved lethal electorally. Similarly, although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not an iota of doubt against his integrity, the sum total of economic management has seen consolidation of economic power in a few hands at the top. Gautam Adani has mostly shaken off charges levelled by Hindenburg. However, despite his counter charges he has not sued that company in the US for damages or criminal prosecution, leaving the issue unsettled. Similarly the allegations about malfeasance in the Rafale deal has lingered. A French magistrate sought information from India on the eve of the prime minister's visit to France as chief guest at July 14 celebrations. To what extent it robs the BJP of its constant refrain of being the paragon of accountable governance coming months will tell.
However the focus keeps reverting to the state of Indian democracy. German novelist Thomas Mann wrote in 1938, as German democracy came under stress with the rise of Adolf Hitler, that the biggest mistake people make in functioning democracies is “self forgetfulness”. Democracy cannot be taken for granted, he added. So the institutions need nurturing and preserving. As indeed the conventions that supplement the written constitution.
Martin Wolf in a recent book The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism examines the break of relationship between capitalism and liberal democracy. The commitment of governments to “shared prosperity” has weakened, especially in the US. Deregulation and globalisation have favoured the rich in the capitalist nations and manufacturing giants like China globally. The resulting gloom and doom for the middle and working classes has allowed right-wing populism to flourish in developed nations and degrade liberal democracy.
In India the left-of-centre Congress policies with a sprinkling of economic liberalism was exemplified by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being saddled in UPA II with a 1980s-attuned Pranab Mukherjee as finance minister. This was Sonia Gandhi’s compromise solution. But that model got marred by corruption charges, enabling the rise of Narendra Modi marketing his pro-business Gujarat model. Success followed — but 10 years later, so may retribution.
The collapse of the Manipur model of Hindutva in a tribal environment raises questions about BJP’s good governance. It also traces the limits of majoritarianism. Combined with other controversies BJP looks stymied. Time is running out and mere jibes at opposition or its new INDIA alliance may not work. India needs to restore Constitutionalism and institutional integrity. The coming state and then the Lok Sabha elections will determine the path of liberal democracy in the world’s most populous nation.
KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs