We who grew up as Independence approached, midnight’s witnesses, though it is axiomatic that India would quickly rise as a great power — the country’s size, strategic situation, great civilsational strengths, the talents of our people, all making us stable and prosperous at home, respected and influential abroad, a major force in the shaping of a new, equitable world order. Whatever our achievements, that hasn’t happened. Completing 90, my uppermost thoughts are: Why?
Is the answer in another question: Why did we lose our independence in the first place? No superior force invaded us that time, a few adventurers from oceans away outwitted us — even in intrigue. Instead of blaming conquerors for conquering us, should we not examine where we went wrong? It’s a very different world now — not least, because nobody wants to conquer us. But other threats to national integrity keep increasing, while we lapse as of old. The most decisive weakness remains most ignored: We refused to change with the times, did not learn from new learning and refused to use improved ways to improve ours. We fell to better organisation, better technology and techniques, to sheer professionalism. We keep resisting, if not rejecting, them.
Innately gifted to excel in all these ways, we seemed initially to have learned. Our colonial exploiters brought us the greatest legacy of the Enlightenment — the primacy of reason. They were not more honest, hard-working, decent, or otherwise virtuous or able. They just contrived an aura of impartial, objective and dutiful efficiency; justified or not, that established norms of performance, which appeared to remain. Our subsequent failures, errors, deficiencies are too obvious and numerous to recount, but all stem from discarding those norms. We reverted to nature: Personal is everything, nothing, nobody else matters —or even exists. Personal faults, from sloppiness to greed, have become norms.
It all started on day one. Each leader attracted servitors. We got the court of Sardar Patel, of Maulana Azad, BabusRajendra Prasad or Jagjivan Ram, and of course, the great court of Panditji; not that they necessarily sought such personal agencies, it was just our way. So too was the circumvention/abandonment of rules. For example, officials had to rotate between Delhi and their states. But no, transferred even to a prize post, as chief secretary of a major state, this gentleman refused to leave Delhi — and succeeded. Little things, but we end up having people’s representatives with no respect for people, behaving like lords while supposed public servants behave like personal servants, more-or-less willingly. Not one institution functions as it should, not one instrument of state. Standards in the private sector are hardly better. Everyone know this, but so what?
It’s not just us: Norms are undermined everywhere as electorates change, destructive and ugly forces grow stronger and particular groups seek total dominance for their ideas and ambitions. The “world’s oldest democracy” manifests the most appalling trends; Europe’s once best exemplars barely fend off comparable pressures. All governments find themselves unable to cope with the complexity of peoples’ problems and aspirations. Democracies suffer the added problem that the system itself — the processes and ideals of democracy —are losing both effectiveness and appeal. Where democracy is fragile, needing careful tending, such trends are more worrying.
Democracy depends on reason, debates between opinions based on reflection, mutual civility. But more and more people now despise reasoned argument — they demonstrate in legislatures or outside them, take violently to the streets. The only “solution” commonly urged is for “strong” government, despite the inevitable risk of its corruption into mindless tyranny, even worse than today’s inane shouting matches. Yeats ( paraphrased) looms : “ When nations are empty up there at the top/When order is weakened and faction is strong/What when there’s nothing left there at the top?/Where be the Captains to govern mankind?”
“To govern is to choose,” said the then French premier, Pierre Mendes-France, in 1953. It is also to deliver. When it comes to us, the whole apparatus of governance — the policy-making and implementation machinery — is simply unable to function seriously. The considerations that go into the decision-making, that shapes people’s lives, no longer address the issues involved. It’s all about what’s in it for me clothed in what’s in it for us — our particular caste, religious or regional group. Such inappropriate purposes are accompanied by inappropriate thinking. We talk about strategic autonomy. How is that conceivable if you can’t produce your basic weapons? The world’s largest arms importer denies its forces vital equipment because nobody decides on that matter, or decides wrongly, or because prejudice, or exclusive advantage, prevails over a rational balancing of objective pros and cons. Worst of all, this is due to sheer ignorance — the inability to understand what really matters.
Nothing illustrates what holds us back more tellingly than what we have done to Delhi. People are supposed to take pride in their nation’s capital and work to make it more vibrant, attractive, exemplary. Has one street come up which is a pleasure to walk? How many buildings are worth looking at? If aesthetics are too “elitist” a criterion, consider our telephone connectivity, potholed roads and the law-and-order conditions that make us the “rape capital”. All this is where the entire government resides. Our traffic is a nightmare because we people are ultimately to blame: Spreading six-abreast on two lanes, sneaking ahead in left- lane to turn right, blithely occupying no-parking zones, street vendors block already-narrow arteries and religious institutions encroach over pavements (though official-political wrongdoing is more deplorable). These are all correctible offences, but then those who could correct them prefer other considerations to public good.
The section in society I am from has failed to produce ideas or programmes that find resonance with today’s electorate. We are irrelevant but that way of thinking is nevertheless essential. No society ever developed without the leadership of elites. Obsessed with egalitarianism (though failing to practise it), we confuse elitism, which is self-serving and unacceptable, with elites or the leadership element in society that competes to set national agendas and norms. People at the top of every heap don’t constitute a national elite. Couple that deficiency with a historic inability to use state power for state (as distinct from personal) purposes, and welcome to the Third World.
“Old men regret.” This may sound like a pointless lament, while my not undistinguished ancestry, quality education and classy profession would today doubtless dump me among the despised elite. But is anyone, elitist or populist, addressing today’s real needs? India faces more dangerous challenges than it is even aware of. I fear it ignores even more dangerously its greatest problem — neither the concepts nor the mechanisms for serving our needs are capable of doing so. Above all, we need to think differently. Mohammed Iqbal’s warning applies: “Na samjhogetho mitt jaoge, Hindustan walo, tumharidaastanbhinarahegidaastaonmein” ( roughly translated: If you fail to understand, Indians, you will be erased, even your history will not remain part of history). Having served in the country’s three most demanding international assignments, Pakistan (twice), China and the US, and most instructively for four years in Sikkim, leading to its merger, I venture to claim I know something of what I am talking about. I wish I knew what to do about it. I can only say, damn it, surely it can still be done. Will somebody say how?
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.