Monday, Jan 30, 2023

Modi, moment, constitution

He must spell out what he thinks of the nature of state, what it should be

Modi has the clear advantage, right now, of the label of “the man can do no wrong”, or perhaps more correctly, “ the man whose wrong is right”. Modi has the clear advantage, right now, of the label of “the man can do no wrong”, or perhaps more correctly, “ the man whose wrong is right”.

It is quite evident that the Indian electorate wants to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi a chance to fulfil the promises he has made and immense expectations he has created. He has the clear advantage, right now, of the label of “the man can do no wrong”, or perhaps more correctly, “ the man whose wrong is right”. Admittedly, four months in office is too little to pass conclusive judgement, but it is long enough to notice the spots on the skin. He and Amit Shah certainly have an obsession over making Bharat “Congress mukt”, although they have not explained what exactly that means. Is India to have no traces of the Congress left or are they determined to wipe out the party that has ruled for decades, as recently as four months ago? If they have some familiarity with history, they might recall that such things do not happen because someone wants them to happen, and even though their party has come very close to showing signs of visible disappearance, much of what is called the Sangh Parivar thrived during their worst days. Two seats in Parliament, but the Sanghi mindset survived.

The impressive victories of the BJP have popularly been attributed to the changing India and the aspirational generation. It might make more sense to see this as an indication of democracy maturing in our country, with people outgrowing their infant attachments and inclined to explore options and opportunities. Hard as it might be for us in the Congress, both to understand and bear it, objectively, it cannot by itself be detrimental to the polity. Indeed, the logical forward movement along the path of maturity would be the ultimate defeat of Modi at the end of the present term of five years, stamping a coming of age for Indian democracy. He may think, and some friends and foes of the Congress might too easily and credulously believe, that the present dispensation is for a decade. But that is wishful thinking. Administering Gujarat was like working in controlled laboratory conditions that cannot be replicated in the entire country, no matter that Maharashtra and Haryana have fallen to the domino effect. We are too complex a country and our challenges are too complicated to be susceptible to simplistic solutions.

“Development” and “governance” is the mantra Modi and his party spokespersons incessantly mouth on television screens and at public functions. There is just a credulous assumption that all of that was proved in Gujarat, although experts who study the state closely tell another tale entirely. No one can seriously question the two objectives but it is important that the government and the ruling party tell the country what those entail. “Less government and greater governance” perhaps speaks of a libertarian society, as opposed to a liberal society. People who have not studied political philosophy do not easily spot the difference. Libertarians believe in the “greatest good of the greatest number”, while liberals seek a social order where “the individual is entitled to equal respect and concern”. Majoritarian excess is more likely in a libertarian set up than in a liberal society. It is for that reason that the fundamental rights guaranteed in a constitution place a breakwater to check the “winner takes all” attitude of an elected majority. In our Constitution, as it has been explained and amplified by the Supreme Court, not only have the fundamental rights been given substance that the mere text did not reflect, but they have also been creatively interpreted and interwoven with the Directive Principles of State Policy. The latter were not intended to be enforceable in a court of law but were to guide policymaking. But since the famous Minerva Mills case, they have become intrinsic to fundamental rights in a profound manner that obviates any real conflict of society versus individual, majority versus minority.

There is an essential unity of content and approach in any true philosophy, be it pure philosophy or political philosophy. One should not be misled by aberrations in the application of philosophical positions that can creep in, despite best efforts at fidelity. So, on the assumption that the BJP has a philosophy rather than just a programme and there is an important element of what is called Hindutva in it, the party should tell us what that means, more so because it rightly claims to have been endorsed by the youth of India. The famous Hindutva judgment of Chief Justice J.S. Verma described it as a way of life. But the fact remains that a way of life, no matter how cherished, cannot indefinitely and comprehensively control the attitudes of all persons who subscribe to it.

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For instance, an honest follower of Sanatan Dharma may not be a vegetarian in practice; that does not mean he is any less Hindu. Jainism in a pure form does not countenance the killing of even the smallest creatures, but it would be difficult to venture a guess that followers of the religion have not ever directly or indirectly acquiesced in the execution or killing of another person, albeit deservedly, under our system. There can be innumerable examples. So, when one hears BJP leaders extol the virtues of the Hindu Rashtra, the question that arises in the mind is, what does that mean and how is it different from a secular state? What does Modi make of such statements, having taken his oath under a secular Constitution? Many of the new generation who voted for this government might have other pressing issues in mind, like jobs, and they might tire quickly of empty words, however dramatically they may be spoken.

It is important that we know what the prime minister believes we are or should be as Indians, what the nature of the state is, and what it means in practical terms. It is one thing to win elections on far-fetched promises of plenty for all and quite another to tell the country what the state is and will be. If the BJP honestly believes that it has a valid philosophical position that is also a convincing one, it should have no hesitation in stating it frankly rather than leaving it to crass pronouncements by sundry rabblerousers. In a democracy, a result can depend on what the majority seeks for itself, as well as, what it feels the minority must not have. And that is not about religious and linguistic divides alone, since people can disagree on many things. Let us look at an example: some voters may want their children to be taught the Bhagavad Gita and would therefore support such a programme without any opinion on what others want; others might want comparative religion to be taught and would therefore not be opposed to the teaching of the Gita. If either of the two groups have no real interest in their own preference but want to deny the other their preference, the vote will not be a fair democratic choice and the courts will have to step in. Thus, the much-misused notion of “appeasement” needs to be analysed carefully. Unjustifiably denying one person an entitlement in order to please someone else or provide for that other on the ground of religion in order to get support is certainly appeasement. But balancing expectations or ensuring that entitlements are effectively delivered to all cannot be appeasement. If that is not good governance, what is? Anyone who finds this difficult need only spend a little time reading some chapters of the Constitution.

The writer is a Congress leader and former Union minister for external affairs, October 2012-May 2014

First published on: 28-10-2014 at 02:25 IST
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