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The new government, more than any other in recent memory, likes to project the idea of setting India on a new path, almost making a new tryst with destiny. It wants to replace pessimism with hope, defeatism with action and low expectations with high ambition. But there is one area where the republic really does need a cleaning of the cobwebs that the Nehruvian consensus has bequeathed to us: the domain of liberty.
Narendra Modi made “minimum government, maximum governance” the centrepiece of his campaign. He has said that he reposes trust in crores of ordinary Indians. And he has reiterated that he wants an Indian state where every individual feels secure. There is one area where he can come good on all these commitments in one stroke: the area of civil liberties. The one great failing of the Nehruvian consensus, beginning with its advocacy of laws on sedition, through the first amendment and now through regulation of social media, was this. It crafted a whole series of laws that are handy tools for suppressing civil liberties. They may have been used sporadically but their very existence damaged our democracy.
These laws were premised on imagining Indian citizens in a certain way. Indian citizens were not capable of handling liberty, they were prone to violent excess that required their speech to be restricted, they were thin-skinned and would take offence at almost anything. India’s citizens could not be trusted to handle liberty, so the paternalistic state needed to step in. These powers in turn, created a whole train of abuses in our system that all political parties have connived in. The Nehruvian consensus was this: The state is virtuous, the citizen infirm. Therefore, empower the state at the expense of the citizen. If Modi is serious about “minimum government” in the sense of the term that matters most, he would do well to concentrate on the state of our civil liberties. The Nehruvian state, in this domain, had become, “maximum arbitrariness, minimum freedom”. Can creating the republic anew reverse this presumption, towards “maximum freedom, minimum arbitrariness”?
Just think of the appalling number of bad laws abridging liberty that the Congress has bequeathed to us. If the BJP misuses them, the Congress will have set the precedent. Why do we still have sedition laws in the books, routinely used to suppress social protest and dissent? Why have the restrictions on speech enacted by the first amendment been so widely used? Ironically, on these two issues, the BJP actually has an intellectual inheritance to claim: K.M. Munshi and Syama Prasad Mookerjee were the two most articulate critics of some of these draconian provisions. It is a pity that the BJP forgot its own continued…