By Dr. Prem Singh
The contemporaneity of present day politics in India, as far as both the government and the opposition is concerned, is characterized by an absence of any real difference of policy vision across the political spectrum. The trend actually has been of gradual diminishing of difference between various political parties.
Defection from one party to the other has become a matter of common occurrence because ideology no longer remains the pivot around which most political parties and leaders revolve. The occupancy of power has come to solely depend upon the victory in elections. Events around elections are informed by changing coalitions and leaders defecting from their parent political parties. This trend has attained such a level of normalcy that no eyebrows are raised on it. It is not without reason. At the time when the Congress implemented the New Economic Policies in 1991, the senior BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said that the Congress has now taken over the BJP’s task. Perhaps only then he had assessed that he could become the Prime Minister of the country in the near future. Otherwise it had been a general perception in the 80’s that Vajpayee, being associated with the RSS/Jana Sangh, could never become the Prime Minister of India despite his personal popularity. Vajpayee became prime minister of coalition governments – two times for a short term, and then for a full term. Now Narendra Modi is the prime minister of the country with BJP in absolute majority in the Lower House.
Since 1991, almost all mainstream political parties have acclimatized themselves in favour of New Economic Policies, a policy decision which was blatantly against the socialist ideology of country’s Constitution. As a result it has become an overt fact that corporate capitalism has been guiding the political parties and leaders of India for the last three decades. When the Directive Principles, as mentioned in the Constitution, were replaced by the dictates of the global institutions of the corporate capitalism such as World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, World Economic Forum etc. and domestic and foreign multinational companies/corporate houses, it became obvious that the basic values of the Constitution like socialism, secularism and democracy would face a crisis. We have almost lost socialism and secularism and do not even have a true regret for this loss/damage. Post 1991 generations in India were automatically habituated with this paradigm shift. The skeleton of democracy is still there. Until this skeleton will last, elections will continue to take place in the country.
In any country’s politics it would be considered a grave situation if the decision of a government or opposition relies solely on an immediate victory or defeat in the elections. Ideally a government or opposition should be tested on the basis of effective implementation of polices on the lines of the Constitutional principles and by better utilization and growth of the constitutional institutions. But political parties and leaders are not ready to commit to any ideology, regrettably not even to the ideology of the Constitution, other than the ideology of corporate capitalism. In such a situation voters are left with no real options. The Congress and the BJP are open advocates of neo-liberal policies which operate under the dicta of corporate capitalism. Apart from these two, the other big-small political parties, most intellectuals, civil society organizations and activists of the country also play their role in the realm of neo-liberal policies. The mainstream media is the product of this very milieu/environment and it incessantly serves the same to the people. Which is said to be the counterpart of the ‘godi media’, also appears to be working mostly within the purview of neo-liberalism. In the meantime, the icons of the Freedom Struggle are dragged into the cesspool of neo-liberalism by these leaders, on the other hand, apart from the dynastic political heirs, the new faces who come up in the power-politics, are marked by caste, religion and region.
Kishan Patnaik, in the 90s, had called this phenomenon the beginning of counter-revolution in India. Since the past two decades, the counter-revolution has matured. The maturity of counter-revolution is evidenced by the fact that some NGO activists, religious brokers, ex-government officials and professionals first create the anti-corruption agitation, and the country’s whole left-right intelligentsia and the media becomes united in its favor and propaganda. A new party of ‘aam admi‘emerged from the ‘ashes’ of the movement, which brings the RSS/BJP and the socialists/communists together! This is corporate capitalism’s own political party which now flexes its muscles to put the Congress on knees! In such a situation, it is almost impossible to make way for the politics that directly opposes corporate capitalism, which is the second name of neo-imperialism, through elections.
But in spite of this reality seeped in pessimism, the election remains the only basis where the positive avenues for change can be explored. For this purpose, I wrote an essay titled ‘Lok Sabha Elections 2019: A Perspective for Opposition Unity’ in June last year. In view of the formation of a formidable coalition of the opposition, the essay was written in some detail. In Hindi, it was published in the hastakshep.com and in English in the ‘Counter Current’, ‘Mainstream Weekly’, ‘Janata Weekly’ and in some other online and printed journals. While presenting the multi-dimensional role of elections in our democracy, mainly four suggestions were made in the essay : A national coalition, apart from BJP and Congress, comprising third force political parties and the Left parties should be formed under the name of National Front for Social Justice; One of the leaders of the opposition parties should lead that coalition at the national level; the Congress should support the National Front government, if formed, for five years from outside; and intellectuals of the country should play a proactive role in the formation, realization and success of the National Front. These four things could not be materialized. The Lok Sabha elections have been announced and the first phase voting will be held on 11 April 2019. In this case, the writing of the second part of the essay may not be justified. But in the context of the miscellaneous election-alliances and the strategies chalked out by the opposition, a little discussion can be followed.
It is clear that neither the proposed ‘National Front for Social Judicial’ nor the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) exists in the field to fight the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Phrases like Maha Gathbandhan are heard, but in comparison to the NDA, the opposition, including the Congress, has formed only state-wise miscellaneous alliances. Whatever the strength and limitations of these alliances in the elections, speculations have started arising regarding their credibility and stability post the elections. It is believed that whatever the miscellaneous alliances have come into existence, their character is unreliable and will not endure. Some parties/leaders involved in these alliances may align with the NDA in the event of BJP’s edge in the elections. Modi, who runs an alliance of around 35 parties, calls opposition alliances – ‘Mahamilavata‘! The Congress also accuses the alliances other than its own, of creating a situation of instability.
However the situation could have been altogether different from the present one. The recent assembly elections of five states were termed as the semi-finals to the Lok Sabhaelections. In those elections, the Congress formed governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh by defeating the BJP. It can be noted that this victory of the Congress happened due to the peasants’ agitation. On 5 June 2017, six farmers were killed in police firing in Mandsaur town of Madhya Pradesh. The incident triggered a spontaneous peasants’ agitation in the state. All India Kisan Sangharsh Samiti was formed to organize the movement. Aligning with the ongoing peasant movements in other states including Maharashtra, the movement triggered from Mandsaur incident, reached Delhi. The Congress did not have any role in that movement. But it reaped the benefits and won the election in three states.
After the BJP’s defeat in five states, it should have been obvious for the opposition to effectively sustain and maintain the movement till the Lok Sabha elections by linking the upsurge of the peasants’ movement with the labour movement, student-youth movement and the movement of the small traders. The truth of the Modi government’s anti-farmer-labourer-youth-small traders policies should have been constantly kept alive in the public domain. With this, the solid issues such as the decision of demonetization that broke the backbone of country’s economy, unprecedented inflation and unemployment, failure of law and order, loot by the monopoly houses, aiding economic offenders to flee the country, scam in the Rafale deal, selling of the public assets-institutions-units to the private hands, destroying the constitutional and democratic institutions should have been issues of persistent discussions. If this would have happened the BJP and Modi would have found it difficult to bounce back riding on emotional issues. But the opposition could not prepare its own pitch. They mostly played on Modi’s pitch. The Congress decided to legitimize RSS/BJP’s communal politics by deciding to itself do the politics of the caste and religion.
The opposition did not show maturity as far as the Lok Sabha elections are concerned. The communal fascism is at its peak in Modi-Shah rule; Amit Shah has declared that they are there to hold on power for the next 50 years. And after this Lok Sabha election, there will never be elections in the country as one of the BJP leaders has threatened. The possibility of no further election can arise only when the people of the country get totally disillusioned with the electoral process. Today’s RSS/BJP will like it to happen and will not leave any stone unturned in that direction. Therefore, preserving the sanctity and dignity of the election process becomes the sole responsibility of the opposition. But it seems that most of the opposition, including the Congress, has decided to demolish whatever dignity of elections is remained instead of taking the task seriously. The practice of procurement of tickets and launching of candidates from criminals to celebrities in the elections is going on rampantly. This whole corrupt practice is not hidden from the watchful eyes of the public. Of course, the opposition is not concerned about breaking the confidence of the public in the election process.
Let consider the role of intellectuals in this regard. The essay mentioned above ends with these lines: “The intellectuals and activists of the country, who are worried about the basic values of the Constitution – socialism, secularism and democracy – and the erosion of constitutional institutions, should play a positive role in the formation and acceptance of the National Front. In India, leaders have often inspired intellectuals and artists. Now it is a turn of the intellectuals, artists and conscious representatives of the civil society to extend their guidance and co-operation to the leaders in the times of crisis.” In spite of being the most vocal opponents of fascism, the intellectuals could not play a meaningful role in the direction of opposition unity. They are more interested in securing benefits in the non-BJP governments, but do not want to criticize the leaders in the interest of socialism, secularism and democracy. In common parlance, the (mis)use of religion for politics is called communalism. Such intellectuals have gone to the extent of describing and praising Rahul Gandhi’s politics of religion and brahmanatva to be different from the RSS/BJP. They even shamelessly argued that Rahul Gandhi’s politics of religion is good for the country. The remaining intellectuals found it prudent (for their self-interests) to observe silence on this matter. This is one example. Actually, the RSS/BJP’s Hindu-Rashtra is envisioned in the thieves’ market of secularism!
In conclusion, it can be said that in the present Lok Sabha elections there is ample discontent in the people against the Modi government, but even the opposition and the intellectual have grossly failed in fulfilling their responsibilities. Whatever the case, elections, like politics, are also a game of possibilities. It would be interesting to see if in spite of all the constraints of the corporate-communal nexus and media’s support to it, voters overthrow the existing anti-constitutional government. It may also happen that the fruits of defeat of the government are reaped by the third force, and not the Congress. In such a situation, the leaders of the third force should seriously consider their historic role in handling the country’s power for the next five years. If it doesn’t become a reality this time, then strong attempts towards its realization should be made for the Lok Sabha elections of 2024.
Being fair and transparent
By Navin B. Chawla
Two phases of the 2019 general election have been completed. Polling has finished in 186 out of 543 parliamentary constituencies. Polling in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, has been cancelled for corrupt practices. Five phases still remain till counting is comprehensively undertaken for all the seven phases of the election, on May 23. The reason to complete all the phases is that the result of any one phase should not influence the choices that electors may make.
Having served the Election Commission of India (EC) for five-and-a-half years during which I conducted the 2009 general election, I have an insider’s view, but of course am not privy to the inputs that the EC has and on which its decisions are made.
As I have argued in my recent book, Every Vote Counts, several negative features of our electoral scene have worsened. Since the Model Code of Conduct came into effect, in just the first two phases this time, money power has so reared its ugly head that seizures made of unaccounted cash, liquor, bullion and drugs amounting to ₹2,600 crore have already surpassed the entire seizures made in the nine phases of the general election in 2014. Most depressingly, this includes huge hauls of drugs, the vast majority smuggled into Gujarat. Uttar Pradesh is awash with liquor. Tamil Nadu has seen the largest seizures of illicit cash —over ₹514 crore.
These vast sums intended to bribe or influence voters prove several things. The first is that these sums almost certainly represent only a fraction of current illegal spending, a tip of the iceberg as it were. They have been detected by the EC’s machinery acting on the basis of tip-offs, or else by the vigilance of electoral officials in the States. Unfortunately, the bulk of illegal tranches of money, liquor or freebies would have reached their destination. Second, political players have refined their methods in being many steps ahead of the EC’s observers and their vigilance teams by moving their funds to their destinations even before the elections are announced.
Does this not make a mockery of the statutory limit of ₹70 lakh that each Lok Sabha candidate has as his poll expenditure limit?
As a country we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. When every rule in the book is being broken, when there is no transparency on how political parties collect or spend their funds, when limits of candidate spending are exceeded in every single case, then the time has come to debate whether we need to re-examine our rule book. In order to supervise the matches in play, the EC has had to deploy over 2,000 Central observers for the entire duration, drawing them out from their ministries and departments at the cost of their normal work at the Centre and in the States. Thousands of vigilance squads are set up and must act on the information they receive, which is why the current level of seizures have already made this India’s most expensive general election yet. An intelligent guess may lead us to a final tally of spending in excess of ₹50,000 crore, the bulk of which is made up of illicit funding and spending.
It is by now clear as daylight that electoral bonds, far from enabling a legitimate and transparent means of political funding, have proved to be the reverse. The EC, in its own affidavit before the Supreme Court, has admitted as much. The Supreme Court’s order has made sure that full disclosure, albeit to the EC, has already effectively killed further funding along this route. Nothing is a better disinfectant for camouflaged funding than sunlight itself.
With my experience this compels me to say that any serious reform with regard to funding must come from the EC itself, for it is very unlikely that any government will take an initiative in this direction. The EC must take stock after this election is over. It should convene a conference of all stakeholders, including of course all recognised political parties, both Central and State. But this should not be exclusively confined to them, for they will tend to support the status quo or they will be unable to reach consensus. The list of stakeholders must also include the best constitutional and legal minds in our country.
In my book I have also raised the twin problem of candidates fielded with criminal antecedents. The 16th Lok Sabha that has now passed into history, saw almost 30% of its members declaring, in their compulsory self-sworn affidavits, the list of criminal cases registered against them. They are also legally obliged to declare their wealth and their educational qualifications. This is the result of two vital orders passed by the Supreme Court in 2002-2003, the result of a battle that the Association for Democratic Reforms fought tenaciously. Unfortunately, in the first phase of this election, 12% of the candidates perforce declared that they had heinous cases pending, while in the second phase the figure was 11%. It may be noted that these cases include murder, attempt to murder, dacoity, kidnapping and rape. Have we forgotten Nirbhaya and 2012 already?
The matter of the Model Code of Conduct and its administration by the EC has been the most frequently reported single issue in this election. For those of a certain generation, the 10th Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), T.N. Seshan — he once famously declared that “he ate politicians for breakfast” — was the man who made the country sit up and take note when he decided to level the playing field as never before. There is little doubt that he reminded the EC that it had powers inherently enshrined in Article 324 of the Constitution — powers so great that there is arguably no other electoral management body with similar powers.
I learned this during my years as Election Commissioner, and these are the powers I exercised during the course of the 15th general election in 2009; I was successfully able to confront three Congress-ruled State governments and one Congress ally too. One of them even convened a special press conference to declare that his government would move the Supreme Court against the EC’s “arbitrariness”, but I personally had no doubt about its outcome. As it happened, he chose not to in the end.
The point I seek to make, by virtue of my own experience, is that the powers of the EC are so enormous and so all-encompassing that they exceed the powers of the executive in all election-related issues during the course of the election period. Of course, these must be exercised judiciously, fairly and equitably, not least because every decision is analysed in every “adda”, every home, every street corner and every “dhaba” across the country, where the EC’s decisions must be seen to be fair and transparent. During the years precedent to becoming CEC, I was fortunate that Mr. Seshan advised me whenever I called on him. As a result I never felt any need to make reference to government or court, once the process was under way.
If there is anything for me to applaud thus far in this election, it is the decision made by two political parties which have selected over 33% women candidates — Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (41% for 42 Lok Sabha seats) and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (33% for 21 Lok Sabha seats). After years of patriarchy or at best lip service, these parties have taken a vital step towards empowering women politically.
Why Imran bats for Modi
By Ayesha Siddiqa |
It seems that people from very odd quarters — such as Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan — want Narendra Modi to win the upcoming elections. Khan’s recent comments, in which he desired victory for his counterpart as good for the future of a peace initiative, may be driven by pragmatic reasons, but it indicates the separation that exists between the two countries. Following comments by the Opposition and in segments of the social media, the federal information minister intervened and pretended that Khan, who can often open his mouth before engaging his brain, was misunderstood.
Intriguingly, despite India being the most significant country in the neighbourhood, its election outcomes have marginal impact on the region. Khan’s statement, in fact, indicates that disconnectedness in which the head of the government of a neighbouring state refused to measure the implications beyond tactical effect. It seems a right-wing government in India does not matter to Pakistan. Or, perhaps, a Modi-led right-wing government is a wish come true for the ideological right-wing in Pakistan. For the first time since 1947, people do not have to convince each other of how right Muhammad Ali Jinnah was in creating Pakistan: Not that Pakistan was ever designed for all Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, but it now sees its formula for ideological nationalism justified in the face of rising religious-ideological nationalism next door in India. I have lived through the times when Pakistan’s intelligentsia was confused in the face of Indian secularism and democracy. Despite having their own country, there would be an internal conversation about the Indian experiment being better. The last four to five years has brought about a change in that thinking.
The BJP leadership of the last five years cannot be held entirely responsible for all the political and sociological change. If anything, the last four years have helped expose the true colours of the rising Indian middle-class that does not necessarily think very differently from the Hindutva supporter on certain issues. There is no sign that the Congress under Rahul Gandhi would have the gumption to change the course of society. Hearing the young Congress leader speak at a university in London, he did not seem to possess the temerity to deviate markedly from the ideological path that the BJP has chosen for India. However, there is an opinion in Pakistan that a Congress-led government, or any dispensation other than the present formulation, may be more cautious in how it approaches issues in the region.
Meanwhile, the general sense is that with Modi at the helm of affairs, war and conflict will mark the tone of relations between the two countries. However, this would be beneficial for Pakistan’s nationalist project that gets strengthened with every news of mob lynching of Muslims and other minorities, from India. This is not to argue that the state of minorities in Pakistan is any better: But New Delhi no longer represents a secular ideal. For Islamabad, a non-secular India is easier to contest.
The only limitation that Pakistan faces in fighting a BJP-led India is its own internal problems, like the dearth of financial resources, and not the intent. This also means that conflict cannot remain the only shrill refrain: A resolution would have to be negotiated for which the establishment in Rawalpindi prefers a BJP-governed India. Khan’s statement basically means that he, and others who share his thinking, believe that a strong right-wing government is the only credible element with which Pakistan could settle its matters. The question then is, what happened after the Lahore declaration? Wasn’t it a BJP-government that was willing to talk peace? Or, what happened to the peace initiative between the A B Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf governments?
Seen purely from the Pakistani establishment’s perspective, Kargil happened because the military wanted an equaliser at a time when the political government had not taken it into confidence. As far as the breakdown of talks at Agra are concerned, the right-wing in India was divided at the time and the segment represented by L K Advani did not want peace. For Rawalpindi, Modi represents a neat synthesis of India’s right-wing. Hence, the negotiations would be more comprehensive than ever before. The only problem, however, remains that how does one predict Pakistan’s deep state — whose contours, today, are even more difficult to define.
This understanding goes hand in hand with the thinking that the pragmatism of the Hindu right-wing would not stop Delhi from talking to Pakistan despite the latter’s habitual U-turn from peace initiatives. While the emphasis following most track-II dialogues, particularly after a bilateral crisis, is on the Indian members of the group to apprise their counterparts of the anger in India, the Pakistani side has always maintained that it is possible to pick up the conversation thread from where it was dropped. A decade into this behaviour, there is barely anyone on Pakistan’s side with the capacity to remind their own the highly problematic nature of this approach.
Not unlike today’s India, the cost of dissent in Pakistan is very high. There is little traction in the corridors of power towards an alternative approach to resolving the conflict. The deep state in Pakistan — which is not necessarily the entire military, but is symbolised by it — has gained excessive control of all discussions and dialogue. There is also the confidence that international and regional geopolitics allows Rawalpindi the opportunity to continue with its old approach. Money matters are critical, but it will not force a course correction unless Pakistan reaches a breaking point.
The Violent Misuse of a Sacred Symbol
By Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee
A friend had pointed it out to me, in an Arya Samaj Mandir. It was more than a decade ago, when a roommate in JNU, who hailed from Haryana, was entering into an inter-caste marriage with his long-time, Bengali girlfriend. The wedding was taking place against the wishes of their respective parents. There were only friends from the university, who were present to take part in the couple’s happiness. Such is the price of love, in a society where the celebration of “family values” and “religious values” have for generations, meant the celebration of patriarchy, caste interest, and economic interests. It inevitably meant the refusal to accept, the free laws of love. We were in the middle of the short ceremony when my friend drew my attention to a poetic line written on the wall: “Om means a thousand things. One of them is, welcome to the abode of the gods.”
Growing up in a Hindu household, I was of course aware of the symbol. It used to be drawn in red, on small urns made of copper, and placed before a deity. On the urn, Dūrvā (or Darbha, or Kusha) grass would be dipped in water. The Dūrvā grass comprises of three blades, which symbolises the sacred trinity for Hindus. Om, I slowly learnt, was considered the primordial sound, the sacred syllable, that would precede all chanting. The word has been associated with cosmic significance in the Aitareya Brahmana of the Rig Veda, as something that connects the liberated human spirit with the universe, as “essence of breath, life, everything that exists”.
It shook me from inside, to see the photograph of the Om symbol, being violently engraved on the back of a man I learnt is Nabbir, an undertrial Muslim prisoner in Tihar jail. Nabbir was forcibly marked and denied food for two days on April 12, allegedly by the jail superintendent. This is not just a terrible incident, but marks of a sickness that can quickly, if unchecked and not punished by law, spread into a fascist method of torture and humiliation. This is a bizarre act of classifying a non-Hindu victim.
It is necessary to pay attention to what is taking place in this incident. A language of horror is being established through this act of power. By engraving the symbol, the Muslim prisoner’s body was robbed of its sovereignty. Sovereignty here is political in the religious sense. The invisible presence of the sacred exists in the prisoner’s body. The marking of the Hindu symbol on his back, is a violation of the prisoner’s sacred world, where the meaning of sacred becomes territorial. The body is no longer the body of a man who can exist within his ‘human rights’, despite his lack of political rights as a prisoner.
What is ‘human’ within the man’s belief system is intrinsically his ability to exist as a man who belongs to a god. It is a spiritual relationship that belongs to the realm of another law, where governmental power is marked off, and ideally has no control over. What has occurred in this case is precisely this ‘human’ breach between governmental power and sacred power. The superintendent did not limit himself to the task of holding juridical authority over his prisoner. That limit was overcome by a violent superimposition of another authority (or power) that the superintendent had no right to use over the prisoner.
The act of marking a Muslim prisoner’s back with a Hindu symbol is not a sacred but a territorial act, where the mis/use of power involves marking someone with sacred symbols as proof of dominance. The act of marking the prisoner’s shoulder with the sacred symbol that does not belong to the world he inhabits within, is to humiliate his inner sense of sacredness by deliberating implanting an alien symbol on his body. That symbol is also torn from its own sacred universe, and made to symbolise something territorial.
In the Tihar jail incident, everything is reduced to the trembling of a body, where the sacred is turned into a mark of horror. It is a space where everything corresponds to nothing, where symbols are reduced to bones, where the holy is reduced to what in the Book of Revelation (13: 16-17) is called “the mark… of the beast”. The “essence of breath, life and everything that exists”, what is symbolic of Om, is violently taken away from the prisoner. He is left to breathe, and live, only his humiliation.
Whether you believe or not in the human soul, we can name the soul as an invisible entity that remains in correspondence with something unnamable. It is this soul that all forms of barbaric power want to control and humiliate, in order to reduce the human to a nonhuman status. Even in the Germany of 1938, Jewish prisoners were marked by a yellow star, which was a perverted form of the Jewish Star of David. When history repeats itself, it is not just as tragic or farce, but sometimes pure horror.