It is deeply disappointing that no one has taken Prime Minister Narendra Modi to task for his entirely self-serving assertion that he need not apologize for the corporate company he keeps because his neeyat was saaf. This is pure, 24-carat humbug. The opposition has for too long allowed him to get away with this kind of moral ostentation. It is about time an end was put to the prime minister’s moral preening.
The interesting part is that while politicians hesitate, ordinary citizens have, in their own way, asserted that they are no longer willing to give this kind of moral licence to this government. Democratic voices have already been raised all over the land against the government.
The Modi government has been made to retreat on its dubious project of creating a social media hub; the idea is anchored in absolutist impulses, the kind of thinking that can be discerned in the UIDAI hierarchy. The middle classes are no longer inclined to trust the government just because there is a prime minister with a ‘saaf niyat’.
Notably, the bureaucracy has already forced the arrogant political leadership to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act in the babus’ favour. It was the bureaucracy that was paying a price for the political leadership’s moral grandstanding; except for a handful of ‘believers’, most of them have been virtually on a kind of silent, pen-down strike, resulting in a massive administrative paralysis throughout the country. The political leaders can dance as much as they like to the tune of the ‘saaf niyat’ number, but the senior bureaucrats would have none of the sweeping suspicion embedded in the PCA. The senior bureaucrats who see the bumbling and fumbling mantris on a daily basis are not prepared to carry the can for them.
Citizens as bank customers have forced the dropping of the Financial Restoration and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill, with its controversial ‘bail-in’ clause. This was nothing but a massive vote of no-confidence in the government’s intentions to take prudent care of the depositors’ money. After the totally whimsical demonetisation exercise, there is a deep-rooted suspicion of the prime minister’s presumed decisiveness in the management of economy; it is now seen as dangerous and fraught with risk for the average bank depositor; the financial community has, at last, realised that we need institutional and legal restraints on capricious rulers, however ‘saaf’ their ‘neeyat’.
And, then, we have the government having to give in to the Supreme Court Collegium on Justice K.M. Joseph. It can be confidently predicted that it would no longer be possible to hold back elevation of Justice Ranjan Gogoi as the next Chief Justice of India. The judiciary is too mindful of its institutional role, and it can be relied upon not to provide any political comfort to the Modi regime.
As the country moves towards a general election, it is about time the principles and practices of democratic contestation were vigorously put to good use against a deeply flawed regime. All that is needed is to remind one and all that the Modi-Amit Shah establishment is not a collection of saints; it consists mostly of a bunch of the ruthless power operatives. The BJP political elite is enamoured of the same dubious virtues and vices as the non-BJP crowd. If anything, the BJP has initiated itself into all the rituals of sycophancy that it once used to decry in the Congress party, just as it has started a subscription to all the bad political habits that flow from the relentless pursuit of power.
In any case, after four years, the limits and pretensions of its leadership have finally caught up with the manufactured image of a man working selflessly and dedicatedly for the glory of ‘Mother India’. Except for a handful of television channels, the country has seen through the con game.
During the recent no-confidence debate in the Lok Sabha, Modi for the first time found himself having to submit to the rites of democratic accountability. But the prime minister dared question the opposition’s constitutional prerogative to move the motion. His assertion was that this no-confidence debate, so basic to the parliamentary arrangement, was intended to create instability in the country. This totally untenable argument was of a piece with the regime’s presumptuousness; it has been allowed to get away with equating its political calculations and cunning with the nation’s sovereign interests. It is time this bluff was called.
The opposition leaders and voices need to be reminded that it is their constitutional responsibility and duty to ensure that the rulers know that they have to work within the constitutional framework. And it ought to be underlined that no government enjoys immunity from questioning or criticism. The constitution certainly does not privilege the self-styled ‘kaamdaris’ over the so-called ‘naamdaris’. Nor does the constitution countenance a kingdom of absolutism and authoritarianism.
With the airwaves flooded with interminable malice towards the opposition, the Modi government is entitled to believe in its political infallibility. However, the country’s democratic voices have every reason to refuse to be overawed, browbeaten. Such a refusal is at the very core of our democracy’s vibrancy and a key to our constitution’s robustness. The opposition’s most acceptable and minimal role is not, as Tony Judt would put it, “to fall in the trap of apathy.”
It is legitimate for them to make the case that the Modi government has ill-served the republic, as well as to educate the citizens that the country would be better off with a simple return to constitutional values, republican virtues and democratic sensibilities. Once the opposition displays gumption and conviction, other institutional arrangements of restraints would kick in.
Above all, in the run-up to the next Lok Sabha poll, it is incumbent upon democratic voices and institutions to puncture the prime minister’s claims to political integrity. It is time to strip off him that moral arrogance.
Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi. He was, until recently, editor-in-chief of The Tribune.