Political Illiberalism in India – From Restaurant Bill to Amartya Sen’s Comment

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BJP MP Chandan Mitra suggested stripping Amartya Sen of his Bharat Ratna after the latter criticized Narendra Modi. (Outlook India)

The essence of a democratic society lies in its ability of accommodating dissent. But the entire political class in India has developed such a politically illiberal and intolerant style of functioning that it has become impossible for them to bear with criticism. Even constructive opinions given by party insiders with the intention of helping the political outfit are viewed as signs of a possible coup or revolt. In such a scenario, the only thing which reigns supreme is party line coupled with parliamentary whips. The recent controversies involving a restaurant bill printed by a popular eatery in Mumbai and reactions to Amarta Sen’s comments about Narendra Modi have only indicated strengthening of political bigotry in India.

This week about 30-35 workers of Congress’s youth wing attacked and forced the shutting down of an eatery in Mumbai. The reason why the eatery attracted such wrath from the Congress party was because of the presence of a message critical of the UPA government on the eatery’s printed bill receipt. The message read, “As per UPA Government, eating money (2G, Coal, CWG Scam) is a necessity and eating food in an AC restaurant a luxury.” If Congress men considered the message to be defamatory, they could have got legal reprisal by taking the matter to court. No party or institution can take the law in its hands. Goons who function as party workers cannot enforce upon closure of shops by means of brute strength. If such a thing happens then it only exposes the gangster-like fascist tendencies of a family party where various sycophants vie with one another to charm the first family by clamping down on anything which may annoy their leaders.

Similarly, the Bhartiya Janata Party’s Chandan Mitra exhibited the worst form of political bigotry when he suggested that the next NDA Government should strip Amartya Sen of his Bharat Ratna. Mitra’s comments on Twitter were in retaliation to Amartya Sen’s observations about BJP’s poster boy Narendra Modi. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen recently stated that he did not wish to see Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister since he had not done enough to make the minorities feel secure in his state. Sen also disapproved of Modi’s model of development by citing the dismal performance of Gujarat on social indicators despite its corporate friendly environment and infrastructural progress. By suggesting something as radical as Mitra did, is the BJP trying to tell all the intellectuals and academicians that their opposition to Narendra Modi would lead to them being stripped off of all their honours and achievements. Vajpayee’s NDA did not bestow any favour upon Amrtya Sen by awarding him the Bharat Ratna. It was his hard work which earned him this title. Being a true gentleman, Amartya Sen has even offered to return the Bharat Ratna if Vajpayee asks him to do so. This needless controversy has pitted Chandan Mitra in the league of those whom CNN-IBN anchor Sagarika Ghose called “Internet Hindus”, a group of intellectually corrupt Hindutva fascists whose shameless activism is best visible when they go on abusing anyone and everyone who comes in the way of Modi, Hindutva and BJP.

Political intolerance isn’t relegated to the top two national parties in India. Regional satraps and regional parties also have a similar attitude. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accused a college student of being a Maoist and walked out of a television talk show when she was asked about a barbaric rape incident in Bengal. Samajwadi Party disowned its leader Shahid Siddiqui after his interview of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was published in a leading Urdu newspaper. SP went to the extent of stating that he was not even a party-man, a contention which Shahid Siddiqui labelled as a “joke” since he claimed that he joined the SP in the presence of party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party also expelled its MP Vijay Bahadur Singh from the party after its leader openly defended Narendra Modi’s controversial remarks.

This kind of rigidity and stiffness would be more suitable to a dictatorial society than a democratic one. Intra-party democracy and the liberty to criticise one’s own party are as essential in a democracy as the rule of law is. Those parties who muzzle upon dissent and silence opposition by means of goonda-ism do not possess the right to call themselves public representatives. After all, democracy is all about disagreeing without being in disagreement.

 

Delving into UP

As far as political significance is concerned, Uttar Pradesh tops the charts. The most populous state of India has the capacity as well as the ability to make or break the political fortunes of political outfits in India. History bears testimony to the fact that Uttar Pradesh has many a times single-handedly decided the fate of the Union Parliament of India. The State of UP sends as many as 80 members to the Lok Sabha and so the political leaders cannot afford to take UP lightly. The Assembly Elections in India are on and Uttar Pradesh along with four other states has gone to polls. The Uttar Pradesh Assembly has as many as 403 seats and the magic figure is 202+. Many analysts have labeled the 2012 Assembly Elections in UP as a sort of dress rehearsal for the 2014 General Elections. Such is the influence of this ‘mini-general election’ that each and every party has instructed its stalwarts to campaign endlessly to ensure its triumph in the state.

I see the 2012 UP Assembly Elections as a battle between the Congress’s Comprehensive Social Engineering, BSP’s Collective Caste Calculus, SP’s Socialistic Renaissance Avtar and the BJP’s Exclusive Developmental Politics. The Congress Party has been out of power in UP since 22 years. Congress party’s scion Rahul Gandhi has been working overtime in the region to orchestrate his party’s resurgence. Ever since Rahul has stepped into politics, he has concentrated on rebuilding the party’s strength in the crucial state of UP. Rahul has taken a big gamble by spearheading the Congress’s campaign in UP and if its fortunes remain the same, the prince is bound to face brickbats. The Congress’s campaign in UP has been based on what I call, ‘Comprehensive Social Engineering’. All these years Rahul has been consistently visiting Dalit homes and staying overnight with them just for the sake of luring the voters of that community. Rahul’s theatrics will surely help the Congress in tapping a significant portion of the Dalit votes. Rahul hasn’t confined himself to one community. He has been found fighting for the farmers in Bhatta Parsaul who alleged that their land was forcefully acquired by the State Government of BSP. The farmers allege that when they fought back, the State police lathi-charged them and even went on to victimize certain families by murdering men and raping women. Rahul scored a political masterstroke when he took up the issue of these farmers and brought it to the centre stage of Indian politics. Rahul toiled hard and eventually convinced the Union Cabinet to instruct the Union Poverty Alleviation Minister to draft a New Land Acquisition Bill which would provide the farmers with better and more reasonable acquisition rates for their land. This populist legislation is yet to be brought in front of the Union Parliament but it has surely won Rahul many admirers among the community of farmers. This initiative of Rahul will benefit the Congress Party electorally in UP and will consolidate the votes of farmers in their favour. The Central Government headed by the Congress has been undertaking quite a few populist measures. Sonia Gandhi led NAC’s pet Food Security Bill is one such example. The bill seeks to provide the right to food to all and would help the Congress Party in reaching out to the impoverished people and will help in winning the votes of people belonging to the lowest strata of the society which includes SC’s/ST’s. The Centre even sanctioned multi-crore packages for weavers and backward regions like Bundelkhand to woo different communities. The Congress didn’t restrict itself to the lower castes. FDI in Retail which unfortunately got stalled by the Opposition, aimed to eye the middle and the upper middle class educated people. The party strongly argued that the entry of foreign firms will not only provide the youth with job opportunities but will also ensure better rates for farmers who are bound to benefit because of organized retail. The two-faced argument was indicative of the fact that the Congress was trying to weave in the support of the rich as well as the poor. The Congress Party had promised minority quota to the minorities in its manifesto during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls but purposely enacted it prior to the UP elections with the intention of using it as an electoral tool to drum up political support among the minorities. But the Congress Party does face many apprehensions. It’s heading an unstable coalition at the Centre and scams like the 2G and CWG were huge setbacks for the Congress-led Government. The Anna Hazare Movement and the Lokpal Logjam further deteriorated the image of the Congress Government. Nowadays the UPA Government is being accused of thwarting federalism. The issue took to the top of the podium during the Lokpal Debate in Parliament and also during the recent controversy in connection to the National Counter Terrorism Centre. It’ll very difficult for the Congress to tame all these negative factors and come out with flying colours in UP.
 
The incumbent government in UP is that of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The party headed by Mayawati secured a massive mandate during the last elections and this time around it is fighting to improve its tally further and to storm back to power. BSP has always projected itself as the party of the downtrodden and the socially backward but this time it’s indulging in something which it hasn’t done before. I call that a ‘collective caste calculus’. For the very first time the BSP is projecting itself as a party of the ‘sarva samaj’ and not just the ‘dalit samaj’. It’s undertaking a more encompassing campaign by means of initiatives like ‘Brahmin Jodo Abhiyan’ and is also talking of minority quota. Mayawati’s grip over the administration has been strong and she has been able to restore the rule of law in the land. She has managed to ensure the elimination of many dacoits and has successfully kept many criminals behind bars. Her colossal parks with her giant sized statues along with her mammoth security apparatus (which matches that of the American President) are viewed by many of her supporters as symbols of Dalit pride, a community which was historically discriminated and oppressed but has now finally emerged on the scene courtesy Behenji. Mayawati is an astute political strategist and she outscored other parties when she passed a resolution to divide the state of UP into four parts. Even though the plan didn’t get the green signal from the Home Ministry but still Mayawati managed to invoke among people what analysts call ‘regional loyalty’ and it might provide her with electoral benefits. Mayawati has bigger plans and intends to emerge as the single largest player on the national scene and consolidating further power in UP is the first step towards that. But coming back to power won’t be an easy ride for Mayawati. She has been accused of heading a corrupt cabinet. Her government is accused of many scams, the National Rural Health Mission scam being the biggest. The controversy is shrouded with mystery and has led to a series of murders. Mayawati’s BSP is also accused of misusing central funds for constructing parks and statues instead of utilizing it for developmental purposes. Mayawati has come under heavy criticism from her political compatriots for this but she remains undeterred.
 
The next contender is Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party. Samajwadi Party has also undertaken a blitzkrieg campaign to woo the electorate. The party’s campaign is being led by Akhilesh Yadav. For the very first time the SP has altered a few of its trademark stances. The party in its manifesto has promised to distribute free laptops and has spoken in favour of promoting English education. The two announcements hold grave significance as SP has been traditionally opposed to Computers and English as they equated them with the evils of Colonialism and Imperialism. This new strategy has made me categorize the SP as a party in its ‘socialistic renaissance avtar’. The SP has even promised free public transport and electricity to the electorate. As far as freebies are concerned, there is no party capable of matching the SP. Apart from this the SP is banking upon the traditional votebank of Yadavs and Muslims. It has called the Congress’s minority quota a false promise and termed it as misleading. The SP has stated that all Muslims are ‘pichdas’ and promised to enact 18% reservation for all Muslims. I see this as a communal move taken with the intention of polarizing the Muslim vote. It’s true that a large number of Muslims are backward and they need educational and job quotas to free themselves from social and economic backwardness but I am unwilling to accept the fact that all Muslims are in need of quotas. This move might just prove counterproductive for the SP. The people of UP haven’t still forgotten the criminal rule under the SP regime and these handicaps will be tough to overcome.
 
The final serious contender is the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). BJP is relying upon its traditional votebank of Brahmins and it is also trying to tap in the OBC votes this time. The BJP has promised that it will scrap the Congress’s minority quota if voted to power at the Centre and has even said that it will think of increasing the share of OBC quota in UP. It has been projecting itself as the saviour of OBC’s and has left no stone unturned to woo the community. The desperation was on show when the BJP took in tainted BSP discard Kushwaha to please the OBC’s. By invoking the Ram Mandir issue in its manifesto, the BJP has once again successfully marketed itself as the upholder and protector of Hindu prestige and pride. The BJP is even trying to cash in on the Anna Movement and is making use of the anti-corruption mood in the country. The BJP has continuously claimed that it was due to the commendable role played by the BJP as a watchdog in the Union Parliament, that the people of India became acquainted with scams like the 2G and CWG. The BJP is trying its best to make use of the anti-incumbency wave at the Centre. BJP has been ruthless in its criticism of the Congress and has taken the party head-on on the issue of minority reservations. The BJP is quick to point out to the electorate the success of its governments in Bihar (with the JDU) and Gujarat. BJP has all along claimed to practice what it calls ‘exclusive developmental politics’. But the BJP still hasn’t been able to make a substantial impact. It’s been quick to question the minority quota but it’s not questioning its own majoritarianism. Communalism isn’t just about outright minority appeasement, it’s also about propagating absolute majoritarianism. In the state of Goa, a minority bastion, the BJP has fieled more than 20% Christian candidates, in Punjab (another minority stronghold) the BJP has gone for a pact with Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and has fielded quite a few Sikh candidates but in UP, a state of 200 million where there are as many as 4 crore Muslims, ten times the number of Muslims in countries like UAE, the BJP has found only one worthy Muslim candidate in its list of 403 candidates. The BJP’s evident anti-Muslim stand will affect its electoral fortunes and the party’s communal ideology will continue to haunt it in the UP elections.
 
It’s going to be a tough fight between the Congress, SP and BSP. These three parties will share 350 seats among themselves with each getting a minimum of 100 seats. Any one party out of these could emerge as the single largest party. The BSP will get the votes of the Dalits which will ensure respectable number of seats for it. Its votebank will remain consolidated. The Congress will eat up into the votebank of all parties. It will get a pie of Minority, Brahmin, OBC and Dalit votes but in no condition will the Congress get more than 40% votes of any of these communities. The Congress will be the biggest gainer in these elections. The SP will get a significant share of the votes of Yadav’s and Muslims and they will manage a century of seats for themselves. The BSP will lose over 100 seats and the BJP’s fortunes will also decline. BJP will not get more than 30 seats. Its traditional voters ie the Brahmins will be split between them and the Congress and the OBC’s wont vote for them as they expect. The remaining 20-25 seats will be wrapped by parties like the RLD, Peace Party, JD(U), first timer TMC and other independent candidates. Only the Congress-RLD and the SP will be in a situation to form the Government. No other coalition is possible. BSP might go past SP and Congress in terms of seats but it won’t be able to forge a winning alliance. Even the SP and the Congress can emerge as the single largest party. The numbers separating these three parties would be very less but the verdict from my side is out. The Congress-RLD combine along with the SP is going to form the government. There will be a power sharing deal which would include the SP joining the UPA at the Centre and split-Chief-Ministership in UP where both the Congress and the SP will have a leader of theirs as CM for a fixed period of time.