In New India, Can the Prime Minister Never Be Criticised?

With FIRs being registered against those who put up a poster critical of Narendra Modi, it appears the citizen does not have the fundamental right to express an unfavourable opinion of the government and the prime minister.

Some seventeen or so first information reports (FIRs) have been lodged by the Delhi Police against some jobless youths and daily wagers for putting up posters in Kalyanpuri in east Delhi. The poster asked the question of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as to why he had chosen to export vaccines needed by our own young people.

By no stretch of the public imagination may that text be construed as personally scurrilous or defamatory. The question explicitly pertains to a matter of administrative policy.

The ordinary citizen, especially now under an unprecedented national trauma, may be excused for wondering whether the government of the day must remain above public lament, however apocalyptic in lives lost for lack of oxygen.

If it is the case that, inter-alia, the government has come to mean the prime minister, it is for the reason that he is perceived to be in charge of everything, including the certification of the vaccine-taken hospital paper; that he never holds a press briefing while his cabinet remains a shadow-without-substance makes it all the more inevitable that common perceptions circulate as the presiding fact of India’s current executive culture.

This was not always so. A fact tellingly expressed in a recent editorial of the Saamana, organ of the Shiv Sena, the ruling BJP’s old and staunch ally at one time, who have consistently prided themselves for having taken a frontal part in the demolition of the erstwhile Babri mosque.

That editorial states that the country is running on “systems” created by Jawaharlal Nehru; and then goes on to name pretty much all former prime ministers from the Congress Party.

However cheeky the motivation of the text may have been, the comment remains historically pregnant, and it will be well for us to understand fully what things may have been involved in the “systems” the Sena organ speaks of.

For now, one aspect may be foregrounded: a willingness, however painful, to listen to opinion contrary to the official one, and to resist the tempatation to turn the prime minsiter’s post into a royalty beyond reproach, nowhere more piquantly expressed than in an anonymous article that appeared in the Modern Review of Calcutta in 1937, titled “We Want No Caesars.” That article, it turned out, was written by Nehru berating his own dictatorial tendencies.

We also recall that Nehru used often to call in the legendary cartoonist, Shankar, and admonish him “never to spare me”.

Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: IISG/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Come 2012, and posters acidly critical of the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, were put up, as the BJP went to town on the so-called 2G scam (it was to transpire that the CBI ‘failed miserably‘ in proving the charges and acquittals followed dime a dozen).

Manmohan Singh was featured on a Time magazine cover as “The Underachiever”.

(It is germane to recall that, notwithstanding the critique of neo-liberal economics that we socialists voiced as the then United People’s Alliance under his leadership chose to embrace, following the Washington Consensus of 1990, between 2004 when the UPA came to power and 2014 when it lost power, the Indian economy grew nearly fourfold in absolute dollars numbers. Underachievement?)

It would be interesting to know how that growth of the GDP in absolute dollar numbers has grown from 2014 to date. All we have heard for the last seven years is how India is getting to be a $5 trillion economy—travelling in rhetoric but hardly arriving anywhere near.

Much as the Congress Party protested against that anti-prime minister campaign, one does not recall that any punitive executive actions were initiated, or FIRs lodged.

Criticism from within

The high-handed action taken against the jobless and the wage earners who put up the poster questioning Modi is made particularly a matter of wonderment in the light of the fact that criticisms of the government and of the prime minister have been forthcoming from within the “nationalist” camp.

To cite just a few instances: Anupam Kher, the doyen of actors and an ever-vocal supporter of the BJP and Modi has come forward to say that the government of the day is accountable for the tragedy that now besets the people of India, and that the time for image-building is not now.

Pretty drastic wouldn’t you say, coming from him.

Or, take the case of the academic, Makarand Paranjpe, who holds that India is not a secular country but one based on Dharma, and that a “civilisational” make-over of the nation has been overdue, has in an article in Hindustan Times remarked that Modi’s image has taken a beating; and then gone on to speak of the hubris and cloistered self-image of invincibility of Modi as some cause for this occurrence.

To top it all, Mohan Bhagwat, no less, has found it necessary to make his criticism known, remarking on the failure of the government (in Hindi, shasan, prashasan which surely include Mr Modi) to take heed of the warnings that were coming from the scientific community.

Surely, after such knowledge, what forgiveness.

And yet, it is much to be doubted that these internal criticisms of the government and the prime minister will yield either peremptory FIRs or instant arrests.

Posters that read “Modiji humare bachhon ki vaccine videsh kyun bhej diya (PM why did you send vaccines meant for our children to foreign countries)” were pasted in several parts of the city. Photo: Twitter


Given these very contradictory circumstances, does the citizen not have the right to be told, perhaps by the judicial system, whether or not she has a fundamental right to express an unfavourable opinion of the government and the prime minister, provided of course such criticism is not defamatory or patently scurrilous. For example, it would be a below-the-belt thing to put up a poster questioning whether the prime minister’s inordinately long beard goes well with his post as prime minister—a matter entirely of his own choice as a free citizen, before anything else. But nobody has made such observations, as indeed they must not be made.

It may be remarked, all the same, that Modi has been a master of the snide himself; for a sample, his jibe on the floor of the Rajya Sabha against Manmohan Singh would not have been forgotten. Modi speculated that Manmohan Singh most likely wears a raincoat to his bath, remaining untainted by any corruption.

The impugned poster only poses an agonised question on why the vaccines were exported. It is another matter that we now know there was no expansive spiritual munificence was involved in those exports but a purely legal obligation under the international regime of intellectual property rights. Which, does, of course, raise the other question – one that sections of the media have been raising – why was that transaction projected as evidence of India’s great humanitarian culture as ordained, presumably, in the Geeta, as the prime minister told the nation on public television.

A heartening answer to the question that now distresses the public mind vis a vis the misuse of state power against the least expression of criticism may have come from the retired chief justice of the Allahabad high court in a ranging interaction with the Indian Express.

Justice Mathur, it will be recalled, had quashed NSA charges in many cases in Uttar Pradesh, as well as ruled against the “name and shame” measures adopted by the UP government against citizens who had protested the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Justice Mathur has minced no words about how citizens have come to be harassed and deprived of their fundamental right of free expression, both by state agencies and vigilante groups who work in tandem with them.

He has further underscored how “a majoritarian” mindset has come to rule even in such matters as appointments to the judiciary, remarking how, not the judiciary but the government shies away from appointing any person, however deserving, from a minority community to such appointments.

Thank you, Justice Mathur.

When the Constitution Commission in the US decided to include the right of Congress to impeach the president, it was done to obviate the possibility of the political system returning to a new monarchy.

Time that the largest democracy, as of this day, learnt some lessons.