Political Economy

A Test of Nationalism – Who Needs to be Afraid in Modi’s India?

The prime minister recently claimed that ‘dar accha hai’, but does this apply to those who misuse power as well?

Well-known bureaucrat Ashok Khemka has been transferred once again. Is it the 40th or the 50th time that he has been transferred in the last two decades?

His fault this time around was that he criticised the blatantly partisan law permitting construction in the Aravali Hills. The Supreme Court has stayed the law, terming it as misadventure on the part of the state. So, Khemka stands vindicated, but he has paid the price of speaking the truth.

The Haryana government faces ridicule first for getting such a legislation passed and then for transferring an officer who said what needed to be said.

Are Indian politicians not scared of the law or hurting the country’s long term interest? Khemka, in his interview, pointed to the desertification and scarcity of water that this move would bring about in the NCR with underground aquifers drying up, etc. This would happen not in a hundred years but within a decade.

Are our politicians so blinded by money power that they cannot even see the immediate future? They are neither scared of ridicule nor of hurting national interest.

Also read: Ashok Khemka Transferred Again – This Time Over ‘Development’ in Aravalli Hills

The prime minister, just the day before, in a conclave in Delhi, said ‘dar accha hai’ or ‘fear is good’. He specified all those who need to be afraid: terrorists need to fear the forces, the corrupt need to be afraid of the law, those who have run away from the country after committing fraud need to be afraid, etc.

These are understandable, since they involve the violation of the law of the land.

But did we hear him say that those in power currently need to be afraid of misuse of power? His statement appears to justify his actions over the last five year now that his party faces a tough national election in which he faces anti-incumbency and an opposition that is uniting against him.

The ruling dispensation has been using ‘dar’ against the opposition. The prime minister justified his slogan of ‘dar’ by arguing that the country has become strong and that has produced fear among the anti-nationals both inside and outside the country, resulting in a new environment of fear in the country and that is good.

This statement raises issues about the nature of governance in the country based on creating a climate of fear. While some wilfully violate laws, a majority does not.

The latter falls foul often due to the complexity of the laws and get criminalised. The Goods and Services Tax is a case in point. It is so complex and has seen hundreds of changes in the last 20 months so that even the experts are confused, not to talk of the average businessman.

Also read: Since Modi is India and India is Modi, Who Needs Elections?

The law defines what is legal or illegal but it changes often, so that what is illegal at one time becomes legal or the other way round without many realising that it has changed.

The Haryana government by passing the amendment to the Punjab Land Preservation Act 1900 was changing a law that was going to legalise the past illegality of the powerful and effectively enable the land mafia to make money by cutting down virgin forests for urban development.

All around Delhi, the powerful have constructed bungalows within the prohibited green belt – Sainik Farm is an example of this. Such instances embolden the land mafia to commit further illegality in the certainty that they would get it legalised in due course of time.

As circumstances change, a law that was needed at one point of time becomes unnecessary and it is taken off the statute books. For instance, prohibition has been withdrawn from most states of the country so that drinking has become legal. The age of getting a driving license has been lowered to 18 years. What is considered to be decency in dressing in public has changed.

Also read: Ashok Khemka, What Will You Find Next?

There is also the persisting day to day harassment of the public. Corruption is rampant in making spurious medicines, adulteration of food, violation of building bye-laws and so on. Instances of corruption in the police, judiciary and the bureaucracy crop up regularly.

But, the prime minister was not referring to such mundane matters – rather he was referring to corruption during the previous regimes. No doubt, there has been in the past widespread corruption in defence contracts with those in power making money. There has been corruption in the award of contracts for works like, roads or in allotment of natural resources or in government purchases. It is the misuse of power that seems to be at the heart of the matter.

The test of nationalism

All these violations of the law need to be checked but the worrying aspect is the prime minister’s reference to anti-nationals inside and outside the country.

Who are these and how are they to be identified? It is this issue that has vitiated the country’s democratic ethos in the recent past. Now a days, criticism of policies or differences in opinion with the rulers is often dubbed as anti-national. Are the corrupt opposition leaders the only anti-nationals or is every person who indulges in illegality (advertently or inadvertently) an anti-national?

Also read: Ground Report: Illegal Mining in Aravali Has Not Stopped Despite SC Ban

If the test of nationalism is blind support to the government, then the critics and the opposition become anti-national. But then can democracy survive, since by definition it must accommodate a variety of views? Often it turns out that the minority view was the more correct one in the long run. Take for instance the recent changes in the law regarding privacy and LGBT. The government’s or the majority view was not upheld by the Supreme Court.

So, a nationalist would be one who serves the long term interest of the nation and not one who manipulates policies for narrow gains in the short run? So, Khemka would be a nationalist while those harassing him with repeated transfers maybe called anti-nationals. Why has the prime minister left these people from his definition of who should be afraid?

In brief, rule of law cannot be selectively applied to those opposing government policies. Such ‘dar’ undermines democracy which cannot be good for the country. ‘Dar accha hai’ should largely apply to those in power who misuse their power. Those out of power cannot do so and their right to oppose should not be curtailed.

So, governance should be about instilling respect for the rule of law through democratic means rather than creating a climate of ‘dar’. In a climate of a fear, would the bureaucracy take decisions, would the soldier fight, should we tell the youth not to explore new frontiers and would investors invest?

Instead of this confused notion of ‘dar’, what we really need is accountability of India’s rulers.

Arun Kumar is Malcolm Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences. and author of `Ground Scorching Tax’. Penguin Random House.