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Former Union minister of law and justice, Ashwani Kumar, on the necessity of leaders to constantly reinvent themselves, his concerns about Aadhar, and why freedom is an unending frenzy in India.
What prompted you to write this book?
When I demitted my Rajya Sabha membership after 14 years, I wanted to discover for myself whether I have done justice to the public office I held — what have been my contributions in terms of the evolution of political thought in the country, what was my reaction to the transformative events in the last 14 years? This book is a serious reflection on the challenges that India faces in common with other liberal democracies across the world. These challenges have become more pronounced in the recent past because it is obvious that somewhere centres are ceasing to hold. And, we learn from history that when centres cease to hold, governments crumble and nations dissolve. The stability of nations is not linked to the stability of governments alone. It is a much wider and comprehensive concept that has something to do with the stability of societies. The republican charter of India promises a dignitarian democracy to billions of Indian people. The question I have posed in the book is, have we been able to anchor our politics in principles that will be promotive of the dignitarian goals of the Constitution? I am distressed to admit that we seem to be moving towards the extremes and have vacated the moderate centre that had so far ensured the stability of Indian society and had ensured balance in Indian politics.
Name: Hope in a Challenged Democracy: An Indian Narrative
Author: Ashwani Kumar
Publisher: Wisdom Tree
Price: Rs 895
Looking back on the UPA years, you have written that the decision to involve non-Parliamentarians in the drafting of the Lokpal Bill and the decision to depute senior ministers to receive yoga guru Ramdev at the airport dented the government’s image.
It did. It was a mistake to involve non-Parliamentarians in drafting the Lokpal legislation. In his speech titled ‘Grammar of Anarchy’, Dr BR Ambedkar had warned that in nations where there are constitutionally permissible means of protest, extra constitutional means of protest will lead to anarchy.
Was that the biggest mistake made by UPA II?
I would not like to pass a sweeping judgement on it. Events are a reaction to the realities of a given moment of time. At that point of time, it was probably considered the best way to appear to be responsive to the movement against corruption. But, I do think that that movement somehow caught the imagination of the people and we have somehow been unable to recover from it.
Liberal thought and ideas are under threat now. You have written about it. How should the opposition respond to this threat? Do you find the response adequate?
Without commenting on the adequacy or otherwise of the response, one thing I can tell you is that India and Indians have been fiercely mindful and protective of our freedoms. In 1977 the Congress, even under the dynamic leadership of Indira Gandhi, was thrown out of power on the question of the freedom of people. Freedom is an unending frenzy in India. The slightest encroachment of liberties and freedom of our people will certainly invite an adequate and proper response at the right time from the people. I sincerely hope strong leadership of a nation is not confused with a non-libertarian leadership.
What are the challenges faced by Indian democracy?
The challenges that Indian democracy faces goes way beyond individuals. We need, first and foremost, to reestablish the credibility of our political class and our political processes. We need to recognise that the kind of challenges that our nation faces merits a broad national consensus on key national issues which do not admit partisan perspectives. This is a challenge of leadership. The quality of our democracy will depend on the quality of our leadership and I believe the time has come when serious people should take to public affairs. And, for that to happen, all of us will have to together create the necessary climate where the finest citizens are enlisted for public service.
In the context of your resignation, you have written that the test of leadership is in doing what is right and not is expedient.
In one of my conversations with Sonia Gandhi, she told me that we can only win elections by doing what is right. And I see today that if we are losing elections, we have gone wrong somewhere. We need to introspect and correct ourselves. Sonia Gandhi was correctly espousing the Congress view but somewhere down the line, for all political parties, without exception, politics became the pursuit of power for its own sake. In the process, there are unprincipled compromises and that is why we see the triumph of expediency. So, this is a larger thought, not aimed at one individual or one party.
There is very little mention, or rather no revelations, about the pulls and pressures within the UPA government of which you were a part. And only a passing reference to your resignation.
It is not my political memoir. This book is intended to serve as a reflection of a serious politician who has taken to politics as an instrument of public service. There is a slight mention about my resignation. The principle that I have propounded is that calumny requires no proof. Our politics should move away from personal calumnisation to issues and resist the temptation of making reckless allegations against political opponents. Treating political opponents as enemies is not the best way forward for India’s democracy.
You have written that leaders need to continually renew their appeal by setting an inspirational example and establishing an emotional bond with the people.
Public memory is short. We have seen the rejection of leaders and emergence of leaders. We have seen their ascendancy as well as downfall. That establishes the point that people of India are no longer content with one or two icons or heroes. We have to renew our appeal constantly among a populace more conscious of their rights and more assertive about what it believes, and Indian democracy will need many many icons. The days of riding on the shoulders of any one icon will soon be over. It is going to be a temporary phenomenon.
A controversy is raging over Aadhar in the context of the right to privacy. Was there any serious discussion on this issue when the UPA was in power?
There was never any doubt in my mind that the Aadhar programme raised serious issues of privacy. This was brought to our notice by Rama Jois, who was a BJP member of the Rajya Sabha. I grappled with this issue on various occasions and expressed my concern on certain issues of privacy. But, what propelled me to write about this, and what appalled me, was the statement before the Supreme Court by the Attorney General, who stated that privacy is not a fundamental right of citizens. While Aadhar is an extraordinary instrument to ensure effective delivery of services and targeted subsidies to people who deserve it, it must take care of the privacy concerns of its citizens. I had, within the Planning Commission, raised this issue with the officials. I was concerned about this issue. I am still concerned about this issue.