Announcing the Quiet Death of New India

A billion sound bites and a million comments have overwhelmed our capacity to discern, and that is why we have failed to notice the un-mourned passing away of a pretentious new political order.  

A brazen and brutal election campaign has come to an end in Karnataka. A state-level election became much more than a sum total of local grievances and regional resentments because Prime Minister Narendra Modi, once again, chose to stake his prestige and persona in Karnataka in a most unedifying manner, and also because the New Delhi-based media gave his every single utterance an outsized significance.

Whatever be the final tally on May 15, and irrespective of who finally gets to form the government in Bengaluru, the net result of the Karnataka exercise is a quiet burial for “New India”.  In an otherwise bruising and cantankerous campaign, two quiet notes – both grave institutional afflictions – went mostly unnoticed.

First, very little attention has been  paid to a wilful defiance by the Centre of the Supreme Court in the matter of framing the Cauvery management scheme.

Perhaps this is first time since 1950 that a Central government had so brazenly and cheerfully cocked a snook at the judiciary. It needs be recalled that only a few weeks ago, the prophet of a New India was sending the NRI crowds in London into rapture with his claim that he was least bothered by “2019” because he was too immersed in solving Mother India’s problems; but a few weeks later, back in New Delhi, the attorney general himself, a constitutional functionary, blandly informs the Supreme Court that its orders could not be complied with because the prime minister and other ministers were too preoccupied with the Karnataka elections. Never before have electoral calculations and conveniences been cited as reasons for defying the apex court. Never before had any government of the day so brazenly prioritised its political compulsions over its obligations to comply with the apex court’s directive.

Juxtapose the court’s conspicuous failure to extract compliance from the prime minister and his cabinet with the dedication and determination of assistant town planner Shail Bala Sharma in Himachal Pradesh. This lowly servant of the Indian state gets killed by the land mafia in Kasauli because she insisted that a Supreme Court order had to be obeyed and enforced, whereas the attorney general simply invites their lordships to acquiesce in the politicians’ predilections. All that the court could do was to content itself with bemoaning helplessly the executive’s derisive, dismissive attitude as “sheer contempt”. That’s it.

And if this institutional lapse was not damaging enough to the letter and spirit of our constitutional arrangements, the prime minister inflicted a second injury with his poisonous attempt to induct the armed forces into an electoral battle.

It is not illegitimate for an elected ruler in a democracy to try to win over the electorate’s affection after a military triumph. Margaret Thatcher made considerable political hoo-ha over the Falklands War; Atal Bihari Vajpayee got for himself a second term after the Kargil conflict; Modi copiously used the “surgical strikes” during the Uttar Pradesh assembly battle.

Yet it is entirely unacceptable that a prime minister should seek to co-opt the army into his partisan political corner. His contention that the Congress was disrespectful towards the army’s “legends” was as irresponsible as it was dangerous.

Rather than split hairs on whether the prime minister got his facts wrong, the implications of this brazen politicisation of the military ought to shake up all those who believe that the armed forces should remain a secular, democratic institution, operating within the four walls of the constitution.

As it is, there has been considerable dismay that the incumbent army chief has been making ill-advised forays into the civilian leadership’s policy domain; now, the circle is complete with the prime minister himself injecting the army as an institution into an electoral battle.

These two liberties with institutional etiquette are not inconsequential. And if we combine these two inflictions with the low-level campaign of vilification and recrimination by the prime minister, the profile that presents itself is of a regime obsessively committed to an amoral, unethical pursuit of power at all costs.

Yet the admirers and apologists of New India shrug their shoulders as if to say, “This is Modi for you.” There is a distinct sense of resignation; a weary acceptance, and a certain winking at crossing of so many lines of good taste; and what is worse is a new willingness to tut-tut, “Oh, well, politicians will be politicians.”

Yet New India was a promise of a clean, efficient and impartial governing arrangement. We were told that Indian democracy had been infused with a nobility and higher purpose. The prime minister’s Karnataka show simply ended up mocking all these pretensions. After all, irrespective of the opposition’s tactics and tricks, a prime minister has the inescapable obligation to be a trustworthy leader. Modi failed to live up to that expectation.

This failure has hastened the demise of New India. All said and done, New India was a promise of a marked departure from the old, sordid preoccupation with coming to (and remaining in) power by hook or crook; we were invited to believe in the banishment of criminals and the corrupt from the arena of political respectability; it was insisted that in New Delhi the new rulers were animated only by a new purposefulness, an uplifting disinterestedness and a selfless concern for Mother India. All these pretensions have crashed gloriously under the weight of insincerity.

As a matter of fact, rumours of the imminent death of New India were first heard in the Gujarat elections. We were rather surprised that a prime minister could stoop so low as to accuse his predecessor of colluding with Pakistan; we all thought it was a bit unfair, a bit below the belt. If we were disconcerted, we preferred to believe that this practised sordidness was a passing phase. Karnataka has now robbed us of all scope for any ambiguity.

In Karnataka, only a very perfunctory worship was offered at the “vikas” totem. Instead of concerns and visions of  a “New India”, we were dragged back to the Old India of 1999 and Sonia Gandhi and her foreign origin. And then, just when we were assured that the polity had definitely been nudged into a post-Vajpayee, post-Advani era, all political parties in Jammu and Kashmir, including the BJP, want to resuscitate a few Vajpayean principles of statecraft. Some obituary notice, this, for New India.

Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi. He was, until recently, editor-in-chief of The Tribune.