I yearn for the days when political giants spoke in measured tones, dialogues were bereft of angst, and opponents tried to understand and respect the other’s point of view. I yearn for the days when there was no fear of the taxman breathing down our necks on a daily basis and when institutions were sensitive to people’s concerns. I yearn for the day when I could live a life unhassled by the blood bath on television channels, and gory stories of rape and murder in print did not accompany our morning cups of tea.
I wonder when things will change. Ever since Arvind Kejriwal, on the shoulders of Anna Hazare, crossed the “Lakshman Rekha” by including vitriol and abuse in ordinary public discourse, there has been a qualitative change in the nature of interactions within civil society. In all walks of life, those seeking obedience from others are confident that those in power will be by their side: If you do not say “Jai Shri Ram”, for instance, you may be flogged or lynched. Society has become far more unstable in its dealings. Otherwise, Tabrez Ansari, who bled to death with a cracked skull, could have been saved. I also cannot imagine why a professional, aware of his injuries, opined that Tabrez died of a heart attack. Professionals, too, are perceived to have lost their moorings. The alacrity with which they support those responsible for violence because they happen to represent a particular mindset, has become the norm. If not, why would Pehlu Khan and Mohammad Akhlaq not get justice?
Why would the court, especially the highest court of the land which has a legacy of protecting the fundamental rights of ordinary citizens, curtail those rights with interim orders? When a leader of a political party, Sitaram Yechury, sought permission to go to Kashmir to enquire about the health of a party colleague, the permission came with a condition: That Yechury’s dialogue with his colleague will be limited to enquiring about his health and that he would, upon return, file an affidavit in the Supreme Court. It is difficult to discover the legal justification for such a judicial order. Perhaps, the SC believed that its power under Article 142 can be exercised suo-motu to curtail the most fundamental right of all rights — freedom of speech.
Clearly, societal norms have changed. The state is convinced that it can deal with its citizens in the manner that it wishes — no institution will stand in the way. The bureaucracy facilitates that process. Those charged with the responsibility to give independent advice convert themselves into instruments that will do the bidding of their political masters — at times they even feed these masters ideas to serve them politically. The chosen few in the bureaucracy have become choir boys of the political class. Yet, they are not alone in this.
Enforcers of the law, instead of discovering facts, manufacture them to implicate targeted political opponents. Those investigating crimes manoeuvre to humiliate. The expansive boundaries of the law are used for political advantage and one-upmanship. Collaborations with investigators is rampant. The result is that people are slowly but surely losing confidence in the justice delivery system.
The prime minister, in a public speech, is ecstatic that those who, he says, looted the country, are in the right place (jail). It is clear that the PM has no concern for the rule of law and happily endorses the actions of investigating agencies. He knows that a person, in our system of jurisprudence, is innocent till proven guilty. One wonders how the PM has reached the conclusion that a political opponent has looted the country, unless he has personal knowledge of it. Today, our political masters are emboldened to make statements holding others guilty even before any semblance of a chargesheet is filed in court. In the new jurisprudence model, that finds favour with this government, the accused is deemed to be guilty till he proves his innocence. In the good old days, the SC would have intervened and warned those making such statements.
The law has become an instrument of oppression — harsh penalties, impossible conditions for bail, a person getting prosecuted having to demonstrate that he is innocent and the court convinced of his offence before he is released on bail. Such processes of law have changed the equation between the citizens and the state.
The animal spirit of business has been subdued — it has been tamed by law enforcement agencies. Any public display of discomfiture with the government attracts the attention of the political class. The enforcement agencies, including the CBDT, then get into the act. The result is that business leaders become compliant and criticise the government in the muted environment of closed walls.
The difference between “normal” times and today lies in the rise of the muscleman. The muscleman triumphs when he makes pronouncements which are harbingers of change. The consequences of such pronouncements are not his concern. The muscleman on the ground kills because he demands obedience to his beliefs. The muscleman in the university targets faculties who disagree with the new norm. The muscleman in court tries to dictate to the judge: This is an era of musclemen and the rule of law has little value.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 19, 2019 under the title ‘Changing times’. The writer, a senior Congress leader, is a former Union minister.