As only retired or serving officials have been appointed to the Election Commission of India (EC), it is no surprise that the EC would like electoral contests in India to have all the excitement of an old age home. Every few years, all of India witnesses the absurdity of much of the machinery of government getting paralysed during an election cycle, because of the EC decree that “policy initiatives” should not be announced during that period, or else, these could “influence the voter”. Through such an undemocratic order by the EC, the period when the government of the day has the most incentive to come up with socially desirable policies, instead becomes a time when such measures are absent. If only some of the teeming nests of economists within the portals of the state or academe come up with credible figures of the loss sustained by the economy because of the EC-created hiatus in policy during an election cycle!
Each election, a “Model Code of Conduct” comes into force, which enjoins every contestant to pretend as though his or her rivals in a specific contest were saints, and hence undeserving of the astringent wordage that is a staple of such contests in maturer democracies. If only the EC were comprised of at least some who have actually experienced what an election is (rather than allow such contests to be guided entirely by individuals trained by the colonial culture of our civil service to sniff at such an excess). Together with such contra-democratic laws as those relating to “criminal” defamation, as well as the trigger-happy manner in which the law and order machinery responds to even to complaints of “hate speech” delivered on a postcard, it is risky for a citizen to venture into the verbal sallies that are seen every day in the US. For example, Donald Trump, were he a citizen of this country, would by now have been locked up under some statute or the other limiting freedom of expression, presumably the reason why so many in the Republican Party have a soft corner for India.
The past weeks have seen a high decibel rant against those held guilty of “intolerance” i.e., the making of comments not in conformity with the Swiss Young Ladies Finishing School model enjoined on us by the Election Commission and indeed by the entire majestic edifice of law and its administration, which in India has adopted a “yuga” concept of time, in which the final disposal of a court matter is regarded as having taken a mere flash of time when it takes a couple of decades to get decided rather than half a century. Of course, thus far there does not seem to have been even a “back of the envelope” calculation made of the economic — and indeed human — cost of such delays in a system where the core motto is (or ought to be) “justice delayed is justice denied”. Not only is there a profusion of stay orders across a wide spectrum of cases, but courts have shown a willingness to take all sorts of cases and devote considerable time to each, not to mention the frequency with which appeals get accepted by higher courts. Hopefully, Chief Justice T.S. Thakur, who has a stellar reputation as a jurist, will, during his term, ensure that steps be taken to limit both judicial stays and appeals, by ensuring that these have to leap over a much higher bar for acceptance than is the case at present.
It is obvious that several of the self-proclaimed “saints” and “yogis” in politics today relieve themselves of language that even in the gutter would seem particularly malodorous. However, they have been committing such a desecration of decency for many years, exactly as their rivals across the political spectrum have. The response of those who claim to be liberal has been to shut off any verbal or other contact with those whose opinions do not conform in their entirety to the Nehruvian copybook, and for some of them to threaten to leave the country, presumably for those countries whose institutions have registered a significant growth in tracts seeking to prove that the India of today is an identical copy of Nazi Germany, and that “Fringe Hindus” represent a much bigger threat to international security than Abubakr al Baghdadi’s followers. Adolf Hitler must be whirring in the afterlife on being compared to the pathetic procession of (self-anointed) “sadhus” and “sadhvis”, whose mixture of the ritualistic rigidity of Wahhabism and the straitlaced social view of Victorian society is considered by them (and it would appear, much of the commentariat and media) as representing Hinduism.
To defeat such a misperception, Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to ensure that greater levels of transparency be brought into the functioning of government through a revamp of the RTI as well as the abolition of the secrecy concerning the records of the state that has thus far denied the people of India a correct understanding of their history. Instead of following the same regressive and secretive path trod by the UPA, the NDA needs to do away with the curbs on freedom of speech introduced by Jawaharlal Nehru soon after Sardar Patel passed away. This, rather than sallies by spokespersons in television studios, would be the best response to those who have grown up in a culture of hatred for those who refuse to accept the “Nehruvian consensus” on society, politics and economics in a country which is still enveloped in the accoutrements of the colonial system preserved by a man who his admirers claim brought democracy to India.
This columnist believes both in liberal values as well as in secularism. Both Arundhati Roy or Anand Patwardhan — who are each brilliant and passionate about their beliefs — have the right to the views they express, even as those who use abusive language towards them mock the culture of our society much more than some sex-obsessed “scholars of religion” on the US East Coast do. But by the same token, those with views different from such thinkers also have the right to be heard and to be debated. Hopefully, over the coming months, the commentariat in a country which seems for too long to be regressing rather than progressing in its attitudes towards freedom of expression will no longer believe that those who oppose (any form of ) consensus deserve to be condemned rather than heard.