There seemed to be some unconscious, almost Freudian, connect between two important political events this week. Amit Shah got elevated as Bharatiya Janata Party president for a second (and full term) and gave an interview to the Hindustan Times in which he suggested that Narendra Modi had acquired pole position in Indian politics, much like Indira Gandhi had in the 1970s. “It was Indira versus the rest then. Now it is Modi versus the rest”, he claimed. Even as Amit Shah was making this claim, the Centre abruptly decided to dismiss the Congress-led Arunachal Pradesh government without so much as waiting for the Supreme Court, which was already seized of the matter, to judge whether Article 356 of the constitution could be applied or not.
Shah describing Modi as some latter day avatar of Indira Gandhi – followed instantly by the highly controversial dismissal of the Arunachal government amidst the opposition crying “murder of democracy” – was indeed a throwback to another era of centralised Indian polity marked by a distinct streak of authoritarianism.
It is important to recall that Article 356 was used over 30 times from the late 1960s to early 1980s and except for the brief interregnum of 3 years when the Janata party came to power after the Emergency, it was Indira Gandhi who was responsible each time. It is not surprising that India’s polity matured greatly after the near permanent arrival of the coalition era in the late 1980s. Relative to the Indira Gandhi era, there has been a sharp decline in the incidence of the abuse of Article 356. The growing political maturity which evolved in the coalition era was accompanied by the Supreme Court also tightening the scope of the use of Art 356 to dismiss a duly elected government, starting with the S.R. Bommai case in 1994. These were no mean achievements in the direction of strengthening the federal spirit of the constitution.
However, these immense achievements stand threatened with the way the current regime has sought to dismiss the Arunachal government. The manner in which the Governor tried to advance the assembly session by a month and held it in a banquet hall reeks of New Delhi-directed arbitrariness. Where was the hurry to sack the elected CM and Speaker? The President showed the instinct to ask this key question. The Supreme Court may ask the same.
There is political cynicism written all over the hurried cabinet decision which clearly sought to pre-empt the Supreme Court, which was looking into the matter. On the face of it, the Modi government’s action just does not pass the basic smell test which determines its commitment to strengthening India’s federal polity.
At one level, Amit Shah likening Modi to Indira Gandhi only shows the utterly flawed imagination of the BJP, which is harking back to an era which can only be repeated as a farce in today’s context. Other pet themes of Indira Gandhi, whose use-by-date is long over, are also sought to be replayed by the Modi-Shah duo – ‘threat to national security’ and the ‘foreign hand’. The Arunachal governor’s report to President Pranab Mukherjee raises the spectre of national security being compromised in the state which borders China. Political stability is of utmost importance in a state which is the subject of a territorial dispute with China, so goes the argument.
It appears this is a new ploy the BJP may adopt in the future to destabilise elected governments in the north-eastern states which have international borders. Apart from Assam, this strategy could include other states too. Remember the manner in which the NSA personally rushed to West Bengal in December 2014 to coordinate a secret operation against alleged terrorists from Bangladesh hiding in some remote mud house close to the international border? Finally, a big empty mud house was all they discovered but before that, stories had been leaked to the media about the possible links between Trinamool Congress and the alleged terror networks.
After that day, Mamata Banerjee decided not to trust the Modi-Amit Shah duo. Actually, Amit Shah is not even subtle in the way he pitches the 56-inch national security plank of Modi’s. In a Bihar election meeting, Shah tried to persuade the Bihar voter that the BJP is a natural custodian of the national security issue. He made out an extreme case of this idea by suggesting the defeat of the BJP would be celebrated in Pakistan. I am sure before making such an utterly naive pitch he would have consulted Modi. Finally, the duo got a sobering reply from the electorate.
But the duo, it seems, wants to persist with the ingredients of politics which Indira Gandhi had not so successfully employed in her time. Significantly, Modi began in June 2014 with two slogans. One, he promised a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’. And second, he made a commitment to strengthening relations with non-Congress opposition CMs in the true spirit of fostering federalism. Modi and Amit Shah are losing out on both fronts. The Congress is slowly coming back to life after the most humiliating defeat in its electoral history. The non-Congress opposition CMs have developed permanent distrust of the Modi-Shah combine. The rest, of course, don’t seem to matter in the BJP. So we may witness more pandemonium in the budget session of Parliament with the Congress and regional parties protesting the dismissal of Arunachal government. Needless to say the Rajya Sabha will block the decision to impose President’s rule. NSA Doval may be ready with some super-intelligence report on the grave security threat. But the opposition will not be convinced by such pseudo-patriotism.