A sentinel’s censure

The latest collection of P. Chidambaram’s articles is an indictment of India’s evolution as a liberal democracy

Written by Vikram S Mehta | Updated: March 6, 2017 12:04 am
 Chidambaram, Chidambaram's book Fearless in opposition, liberal democracy, dissent, liberty, Rohith Vemula, Kanahaiya Kumar, India news, Indian Express Illustration by C R Sasikumar

I was a panelist at a function in Mumbai recently to discuss P. Chidambaram’s latest book Fearless in Opposition: Power and Accountability. The book is a compilation of his weekly articles written in 2016 for this paper. It follows the compilation published in 2015 under the title Standing Guard: A Year in Opposition. Chidambaram was the lead speaker and there were two other panelists. The hall was overflowing and there were three former chief ministers of Maharashtra, all from the Congress, in the front row. I left the room dissatisfied with the thrust of the discussion.

I will explain the reasons for my dissatisfaction, but before that, let me say this book is a must read, even for those who read his weekly column regularly and have therefore “read” the book already. A bound copy of his articles read over a few hours rather than over 52 weeks brings into sharper focus the political, social and economic issues of significance during the past year and the thread that connects them. It also helps in understanding better the nature and complexity of governance. I should add that whilst Chidambaram pulls no punches in his criticism of the current government, his language is not polemical. His arguments are grounded on facts and driven by reason and logic. They are, therefore, compelling of reflection and debate.

I was disappointed because, I believe, we panelists lost an opportunity to press one of our more experienced and intellectually robust political leaders to reflect on the continuing relevance of our political and electoral system. We had this opportunity because Chidambaram had revealed, through the title of his books and the content of his articles, his deepening concerns about the widening chasm between the institutions of governance and the aspirations of the governed. The title words, “standing guard” and “fearless” suggest that Chidambaram saw (and sees) himself as not just a member of the “loyal opposition” in Parliament, but as a sentinel of the rights embedded in our Constitution .

The chapters, “If we kill dissent, we will kill liberty”; “My birth is my fatal accident “ and many others in a similar vein question the very content of our democracy. These are weighty captions for a person who has been in the vanguard of government for almost 30 years and must, therefore, bear, shared responsibility for the slippage in the quality of governance and institutions of government. So, my hope was that instead of engaging in an inevitably losing argument about the reasons for some of his decisions on taxes or in looking to score brownie points about his failure to deliver on promises made as home minister, the conversation would delve into the reasons for these concerns and in particular, his thoughts on how best to narrow the gap between, to quote him, “the majority in parliament and the majority of the people”. My hope was that we could push him to reflect on the continuing validity of our “first past the post Westminster style” electoral system which, to quote Amartya Sen, results in “not a majority winner but a plurality winner — a minority government that has secured the largest number of votes from amongst a number of candidates”.

My hope was belied and my disappointment compounded by the sense that neither Chidambaram, nor my fellow panelists shared my interest in engaging in such a discussion and there was greater interest in the past than the future.

In my view, Chidambaram ‘s book is an indictment of the nature of the evolution of our liberal democratic political system and the institutions undergirding it. This is not the conclusion I would necessarily have drawn after reading each article separately, over a year . For then, the charge of sedition against Kanhaiya Kumar for engaging in a debate in the precincts of his university or the lynching of Akhlaq for allegedly keeping beef in his home or the heart-rending accusation by Rohith Vemula in his suicide note that “my birth is my fatal accident” might well have been seen as misguided and tragic standalone events, reflecting less systemic weakness than local circumstances, of one-off consequence . But when these incidents involving a student, a Muslim and a Dalit are read one chapter after another, one cannot but conclude that there is something fundamentally amiss with our polity. The question has to be asked : Why, after 70 years of independence, is our society rent by such deep religious, caste, ethnic and class cleavages?

Similarly, I would have hesitated to infer from individual chapters that our institutions of governance have corroded. But when the chapters referencing the functioning of our judiciary, parliament and executive are read together and facts and statements, such as there are only 12 judges per every million people in India, there is a backlog of 5,94,68 cases in the Supreme Court (February 2106) and 4,153,957 in the High Courts ( December 2104), the bureaucracy operates in fear of the various vigilance commissions and the police are “lawless law enforcers”, are pulled together into one seamless critique, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion. It is certainly not my case that Chidambaram is responsible for this reality. Equally, Chidambaram cannot make the case that this is the consequence of two years of the Narendra Modi government.

Few will challenge the Churchillian comment that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest. Chidambaram’s book reinforces this point but suggests implicitly that democratic ideals may be difficult to realise under our current “first past the post “ electoral system. This because it encourages identity politics and “minorityism”. And it offers no mechanism for redress of public grievances between elections . As such, governments are elected “by “the people but governance is not “of “or”for” the people. Chidambaram may not agree with my interpretation but I was certainly hoping the panel would get him to reflect on the need and practicality of an alternative electoral narrative.

The writer is chairman, Brookings India, and senior fellow, Brookings Institution

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First Published on: March 6, 2017 12:02 am
  1. J
    Javed Ansari
    Mar 6, 2017 at 11:49 am
    I think after 10 years of disastrous performance during UPA, few people take Chidambafam seriously anymore. He is a total waste.
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    1. R
      Rajat
      Mar 6, 2017 at 12:36 pm
      A tight slap on the face of chiddu, the hypocrite.
      Reply
      1. K
        K SHESHU
        Mar 6, 2017 at 2:28 pm
        He expressed ' his' point of view
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        1. Z
          zizek
          Mar 6, 2017 at 5:41 am
          I don't know how you read so much between the lines from his book. Let me tell you: he doesn't care about democracy, development etc.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;The kind of praises you are attributing to him are, I am sure, he himself had not thought of while writing those opinions. His only concern is how to berate the BJP govt. by the little intellect -- which is truly an exception in our political system -- he has got and how to win the heart of her boss, Sonia Mummy hi.
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          1. A
            ak dev
            Mar 6, 2017 at 3:01 am
            Author's statement That Chidambaram cannot make the case that this is the consequence of two years of the Narendra Modi government is an wrong umption. The reality is that Chidambaram deliberately writes to make the case that all ills are due to the consequence of the Narendra Modi government. Even a fool understands that Congress has been working on the strategy to depict that Modi is destroying liberty and democracy that Congress has built for past 7 decades. Though similar incidents have happened more in Congress rule but Chidambaram will mention only the ones that have happened during Modi's rule. It's a deliberate deception by a dishonest and corrupt Congress politician.
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            1. C
              Casteless
              Mar 6, 2017 at 4:31 pm
              Any one who reads too much into Chidambaram's writings needs his head examined.
              Reply
              1. R
                Ramaswamy
                Mar 6, 2017 at 11:46 pm
                PC is a suave villain of Indian politics.There are others. but no one can beat the villainy he does to the people of this country.
                Reply
                1. C
                  Capt.Noble Pereira
                  Mar 6, 2017 at 12:26 pm
                  Is he a clean politician? Tried hard to get his son in politics. Wife involved in ambulance company corruptiongt; Now guarding the country and fearless! Fearless against what? This is really democrazy of India for the rich and powerful.
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                  1. G
                    Gerry
                    Mar 7, 2017 at 10:16 am
                    Thank God for P Chidambaran. He provides a contrast medium,
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                    1. R
                      Rajendran Cauvathur
                      Mar 6, 2017 at 1:35 am
                      Sentinel??? The biggest enemy facing India is the corruption and poor and rich divide. The guy who looted this country is calling himself a sentinel. He is a sentinel of the dynasty and his son who has amed mive wealth fraudulently
                      Reply
                      1. R
                        Rangarao Duggirala
                        Mar 6, 2017 at 4:21 am
                        No use whipping up the dead horses! Keep on replacing the dead ones with a new young and vibrant ones even if it calls for mid-term polls.
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                        1. E
                          enoughsaid
                          Mar 6, 2017 at 3:34 am
                          aahhahaha, you scratch my back, I scratch yours. This is how leftists promote each other. If you really think PC's articles are based on facts then you have not read them at all. Enough said
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                          1. G
                            Gopi Maliwal
                            Mar 6, 2017 at 5:56 am
                            PC should be last person to wallow about judicial delay when we look at the fate of the peion in HC against his election. Or his equally fake laments about freedom when one looks at his role in efforts to muzzle the press during the Rajiv hi Raj or tricks to trip social media during UPA2. lt;br/gt;Verily, the case of Satan nosily quoting the scriptures!
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                            1. S
                              SATISH
                              Mar 6, 2017 at 3:55 am
                              Chidambaram is a jobless politician now hence he has been writing blogs after blogs, books on governance,Fearless in Opposition etc etc. obviously pointing all issues directed at MODI. Somebody should ask him why he didn't had these deep thoughts when UPA was in power and his stupid policies lead to deadlock situation, why there was so much scam, where was the governance? Now, these stupid SCAMGRESS party PPL have all the time in the universe to preach about good things. PPL of india realized that keeping this SCAMGRESS out of power for more years is better for the country.
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                              1. I
                                imti
                                Mar 6, 2017 at 12:28 am
                                "sentinel of the rights embedded in our Consution" is absurd as he and his family looted the poor and enabled his boss Sonia to am huge illegal wealth and also enabled the loot to be laundered. Ofcourse he is against present govt as real chidu and his marvelous art of ML is to come out into public.
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                                1. V
                                  Vensuslaus Jesudason
                                  Mar 6, 2017 at 2:52 pm
                                  Like many, I find Mr. P. Chidambaram's articles to be eminently readable and enlightening. In the past year, he mostly essed the performance of the central government, indicated grey areas and advocated correctives. His opinions have never been indictment of India's evolution as a liberal democracy, as alleged by the author. On the other hand, he enabled that process. Despite being busy, he keeps expressing his opinions fearlessly. We should be grateful to him for that. Mr. Chidambaram is a true democrat, eminent parliamentarian, insution builder and an excellent administrator. He is the best aspirant for the position of prime minister.
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                                  1. K
                                    KK Jha
                                    Mar 6, 2017 at 3:42 pm
                                    Chitambram is cleaver and cunny politician. He is managing space even during unemployment but his articles shows his frustration of not being a part of power.
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                                      Ananth
                                      Mar 6, 2017 at 1:43 pm
                                      IE excels in an art to allocate space for some biased columnists spewing out their usual stand without any alternative or worthwhile suggestions to correct the situation or an anomaly about which the article would have addressed. Similarly a lot of space about stan too is occupied when the contents of those articles have absolutely no use or relevance for us Indians. Not only Chidambaram's articles are not worth a dekho leave apart reading it now we have someone else writing about those articles. He too has no suggestion as to what alternative electoral system he is suggesting. Whereas articles of columnists like Gulati or Damodaran and such people are so interesting and engrossing because of their clear theme, content and future road maps. Let the political articles too follow such pattern to enable us to learn more.
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                                      1. M
                                        Murthy
                                        Mar 6, 2017 at 2:18 am
                                        For the People of Tamil Nadu, mention of P.Chidambaram, brings up several ociated thoughts: Indian Bank, its Chairman Gopalakrishnan, may be still in jail, all alone without his co-conspirators, 2-G auction-that-was-not an auction, Vasan Eye Care, his friends in the Indian English language Media.. This author has blind spots, he should ask to Subramniam Swamy's and Gurumurthy's proofs in relation to PC's son Karthik....Read some issues of NewIndian Express....
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                                        1. L
                                          Legal
                                          Mar 6, 2017 at 12:49 am
                                          Nobody else but the looter C-*hidu can read his nonsense collections called book. lt;br/gt;-lt;br/gt;Shortly he will be sent to the Government Guest house as an accomplice of Sasikalalt;br/gt;-lt;br/gt;It's in those boredom days when he's nothing else to do, he should read his own nonsense
                                          Reply
                                          1. L
                                            Legal
                                            Mar 6, 2017 at 1:45 pm
                                            Who holds M-an*mohan scoundrel or any UPA th-ief in high esteem?lt;br/gt;-lt;br/gt;If this Chi*du Chor visits his consuency, he will beaten with chappalslt;br/gt;-
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