What happened in Maharashtra should shame every Indian.
The craven and amoralistic grab of power in the dead of the night by the ruling party, and the meek surrender and acquiescence of the highest constitutional offices, will be a dark spot in India’s political history.
But one might ask how this is different from many such instances in the past.
The fundamental difference between the gross abuse of the constitution, especially witnessed under Indira Gandhi, and that is being seen under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah over the last five years, is that while the former was seen with anger and revulsion, the latter is adoringly termed as Chanakyaniti.
It is this shift in language and discourse that is the most dangerous for Indian democracy – every act of brazen challenge to the constitution is normalised and projected as brilliant political masterstrokes. It is why Amit Shah is eulogised by the mainstream television media.
Along with the normalisation of illegalities and the rampant use of money power to subvert democracy (the figures cited for the ‘purchase’ of MLAs in Karnataka and Maharashtra range from Rs 50 crore to Rs 100 crore), the BJP also resorts to shamefaced whataboutery to explain away the decimation of institutions in the present.
As the argument goes, “Indira Gandhi and the Congress did the same.”
But the BJP claims to be a “party with a difference” and Narendra Modi claims to be the crusader against corruption – he rose to power on the basis of the moral claim of “na khaoonga, na khaane doonga” (will not take bribes, nor let anyone do so).
The hollowness of this whataboutery can be easily exposed:
The Congress government imposed the Emergency in 1975. So, does it become legitimate to impose an Emergency now?
The Congress indulged in corruption. So, is it legitimate for the BJP indulge in corruption? But the Congress was voted out precisely because people felt that it was tainted by gross corruption, is it not?
At least a section of the people who voted for Modi thought that they were voting for something different from Congress. Then, how is it kosher for the BJP to organise a midnight constitutional coup and seek to align with what Modi called a “Naturally Corrupt Party”?”
How is it kosher that the crusade against corruption has only been restricted to opposition leaders? How is it that a Congress leader like Sukh Ram, convicted for corruption, is in the BJP now? How is it that scores of leaders charged with serious corruption charges like Mukul Roy, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Narayana Rane and others, have become clean after a “saffron wash” by joining the BJP?
More than the open disregard for constitutional proprieties, the blatant doublespeak of the BJP is grating. On the very day that the Maharashtra governor hurriedly swore in a BJP-NCP government in the early hours – without even ascertaining the signatures submitted by Ajit Pawar – this is what Modi said at the Conference of Governors: “As Chancellors of Universities, governors become sources of inspiration for our dynamic youth.” He then called upon governors to serve the poor “inspired by the principles outlined in our great constitution!”
Just two days after the midnight machinations to install a government without majority, and then “poach” opposition MLAs through money power and the threat of investigation agencies, Modi, while campaigning in Jharkhand, said that under the Congress and its allies, “governments were made through the back door. There were alliances of self-seekers who were driven by the lust for power.”
The double standards are simply staggering.
Listen to Amit Shah when he claims, “Shiv Sena has done the work of insulting the mandate of Maharashtra, not BJP.”
So where was this moral outrage when BJP insulted the people’s mandate in Bihar? After all, the JDU-Congress-RJD alliance won a huge majority, but the BJP formed the government with JDU when the latter walked out of the government.
Where was the moral outrage at ideologically contradictory post-poll coalitions when the BJP joined together with the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir after the elections, or formed governments in Manipur, Goa, and Meghalaya despite not being the party with the highest number of MLAs?
In Arunachal Pradesh, the Congress won the elections with a big majority in 2014, yet the BJP formed the government in 2016 after a series of the most amoralistic machinations – which even saw the suicide of a deposed chief minister – and where the number of BJP MLAs increased from 11 to 45!
In Manipur, the BJP won 21 seats in the 2017 elections, now it has 31. In Goa, the BJP won 13 seats in the 2017, now it has 27, with many Congress MLAs now BJP ministers.
The BJP under Modi is willing to accommodate every corrupt politician from any other party. It is willing to take every corrupt institutional practice practiced before to a new low.
So, Maharashtra is only the latest episode in the new dawn that was supposedly inaugurated in 2014. And the Maharashtra fiasco at forming a government by the most questionable means should dispel any illusions (that some people might still harbour) about Narendra Modi as a crusader against corruption.
That this has come not too long after BJP’s breaking of the Congress-JD(S) government in Karnataka just shows how deep the rot is in a party led by a leader who claims to be an ascetic and an exception in Indian politics.
It should not be forgotten that the CBI closed cases against the Bellary Brothers just before the Karnataka elections for mining scams valued at Rs 16, 500 crore. That’s just one more example of why Modi’s entire moral discourse on corruption, especially on demonetisation, is a complete masterclass in skullduggery.
Yet, what is curious and shocking is that in the last five years, Modi seems to be in some kind of a glass case, insulated from everything that the BJP or Amit Shah does. It is like the most powerful person, the single-man army of the BJP, has no moral or ethical responsibility for whatever his party does. It is this mass-marketed halo which has been shattered with Maharashtra. After all, Modi was the one who informed the world about the new government in Maharashtra with a tweet congratulating Ajit Pawar.
Congratulations to @Dev_Fadnavis Ji and @AjitPawarSpeaks Ji on taking oath as the CM and Deputy CM of Maharashtra respectively. I am confident they will work diligently for the bright future of Maharashtra.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 23, 2019
And the constant references to the political ills of the past under various non-BJP regimes to justify one’s own actions is so ridden with contradictions. A leader who is promising to make India a $5 trillion economy and a superpower in the immediate future has no moral dilemmas about continuing political practices that are actually part of tin-pot dictatorships or fledgling democracies.
The Emergency, for example, was imposed in India when in the world there were merely 38 democracies, while there were 118 autocracies – as of the end of 2017, 96 out of 167 countries with populations of at least 500,000 were democracies of some kind, and only 21 were autocracies.
Further, the standards of democracy have substantially changed since 1975. The most powerful person in the world, the president of the United States, is facing impeachment charges; Benjamin Netanyahu became the first sitting prime minister in Israel to be indicted for corruption, and there is a global wave of protests for deepening democracy across various nations. Even the Pakistan Supreme Court, astoundingly, ruled against the three-year extension given to the army chief of the country.
Yet, in Maharashtra, the murder of democracy is justified by a drawing a false moral equivalence of Shiv Sena joining with Congress-NCP. Now, the Shiv Sena is a fascistic party; there should not be any doubts about this. And the Congress should not have delusions about defeating the bigger fascistic project in India through post-poll coalitions bereft of ideology. Nevertheless, the Shiv Sena forging an alliance with Congress-NCP after elections on the basis of a common minimum programme (with secularism included in it) is not the same as the constitutional abuse of the offices of the President and the Governor, and installing a government through illegalities.
Even after Maharashtra, Modi and company, the self-proclaimed guardians of Indian democracy, are completely silent on what ails India’s political institutions. If the Governor’s position is being abused, the logical corollary would be to think of ways to improve its autonomy instead of the justification, “you abused it in the past, and we will continue to abuse it in the future”. Democracy is about solidifying the legal institutional frameworks, not justifying its breaking by referring to all kinds of illegal activities of the past.
Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was a dark period precisely because there are democratic standards and the Constitution to measure it against. And that was a gross violation. But even the Emergency could be justified by its supporters by any number of reasons like might is right, that there is no morality in politics, or that it was needed as there was a threat to India’s security. And Indira Gandhi did indeed justify it:
“We felt that the country has developed a disease and, if is to be cured soon, it has to be given a dose of medicine, even if it is a bitter dose.”
This has an uncanny resemblance to the present discourse launched by Modi that nationalism and national security can justify the administration of any number of bitter doses of medicines. After all, corrupt and illegal moves like the Maharashtra power grab are necessary for the larger national interest of the BJP remaining in power, and “minor” moral and legal compromises are required for upholding the larger Dharma.
If India’s ruling parties use the past as template, and keep repeating what the others did, democracy is destined to be doomed. Is it not time to build a national consensus about the absolutely shameful practice of herding and caging MLAs in hotels and resorts after each elections?
Yet, we can be rest assured that the ruling party, which, to its supporters, has shown “strength and courage” in revoking Article 370, implementing the National Register of Citizens, and introducing the Citizenship Amendment Bill, will not move a finger when it comes to cleaning up a corrupt and compromised political structure.
After all, is this not the same party which took five years to institute a (terribly weak) Lokpal (of which we have not heard a single word since its inception), and is neck deep in the morass of political and election funding – the fount of political corruption in India?
How far have we travelled from May 2019, when Narendra Modi was seeking a re-election with his ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ campaign. It’s time to wake up and realise that Indian democracy is under much bigger threat than ever before under the very same ‘chowkidar’ who is supposedly protecting it.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University and tweets @nmannathukkaren.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Kochi Post under the title ‘When the Chowkidar stole Democracy.’