Friday 17 August 2012

Mukherjee takes on civil society (PO)

M D Nalapat
THE newly-elected President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, has been in government since his third decade of life, having served in numerous positions under varied Prime Ministers. It was not therefore a surprise when, on August 15,he put himself firmly on the side of the government led by Sonia Gandhi and administered by Manmohan Singh in its now two-year battle with Civil Society. President Mukherjee had a clear message to the people of India: trust those who for more than six decades have led the country into continuing poverty and graft.

Even though relief has not come all this while, the people should be patient and wait, perhaps for six decades more, rather than seek to challenge a system that has delivered so little to them in comparison with those found in East Asia. India’s political parties are, in effect, the personal property of individual families, while “opposition” to any ruling party at the centre is usually notional, with both sides taking care of each other’s interest, albeit in secrecy. The consequence has been an unparalleled rise in the wealth of those in politics. Gone are the days when even middle ranking politicians would travel by bus and stay in nondescript facilities. These days, they travel by chartered flights and helicopters, staying in the most pricey establishments and toting mineral water from springs in France. Indeed, they and their families are rapidly losing touch with India, so enamored are they of Europe, a continent that they implicitly regard as the fount of wisdom and culture, despite its sorry record of colonialism in the past and interference in the presentwithin countries across the globe.

Watching those claiming to represent them gorge on the proceeds of corruption, the people of India may be forgiven for having less faith in The System than President Pranab Mukherjee, who is justly famous for such efforts as imposing a 97% rate of income tax in the 1970s and seeking to block colour television from coming to India in the 1980s.The politician from Bengal lived in a black and white world, and wanted the same for each of his countrypersons. One of the many small signs that the tolerance that is the warp and woof of genuine democracy is disappearing in India (and there are many bigger ones as well) is the fact that since the 1980s,this columnist was invited each year by the President of India to an At Home in the Presidential palace every August 15 (Independence Day).This despite the fact that he has been a critic of every Prime Minister and of every government since he began his career in journalism four decades back. When A P J Abdul Kalam was President, his office resisted pressure to drop the name of this critic from the Invitees list. That was done by the previous President of India, Pratibha Patil, whose sole contribution to the history of India is that she spent more, much more, on foreign travel than any of her predecessors. She was, however, a faithful follower of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, and was hence rewarded with five years as Head of State. Pratibha Patil justified Sonia Gandhi’s trust in her by, among other like deeds, ensuring that known critics of her idol got disinvited to the Presidential palace. For the last two years of her reign, invitations to the annual At Home ceased to come, a situation that seems to have been continued by President Mukherjee.

The mantra of those enjoying the benefits of high office is simple: Trust us. Trust us blindly, no matter that our record all these decades has been abysmal. The only recourse allowable to a citizen in “the world’s largest democracy” is to trudge to the ballot box once every five years and choose among a list of uniformly uninspiring candidates. Any other activity is impermissible and indeed, ”a danger to democracy”, as President Mukherjee (on August 14) and Prime Minister Singh (on August 15) warned the nation on live television. In India, because of the fact that its system of laws and administrative procedures is firmly anchored in the colonial past, any show of public protest needs government permission in advance.

This was the system that got introduced by the British Raj, and it is the system that is being followed now in what is presumed to be a democracy. So comprehensive are the powers of the state that a citizen can find himself incarcerated and his assets sequestered by a host of authorities for the vaguest of stated reasons. Going to courts means a life-long struggle that consumes all of one’s time. Some lucky litigants get final decisions (after the lengthy process of stays, adjournments and appeals) in as quick a time as twenty years after filing a case. By then, of course, they may even be dead. Most fail to get a final decision in such a short time, their cases continuing for thirty, forty and more years, well past their lifetimes.

Hence going to court to get redress from arbitrary actions by state authorities is a long, expensive and painful process. Experts in the system of British colonial law and practice such as the present Union Finance Minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, have taken care to see that several of the actions of the authorities in his bailiwick are non-justiciable. Hence, the citizen has no recourse to the courts but must seek justice from the very structures that have done him the injustice in the first place. For those lacking the power and panoply that has been the lot of President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it is a scary situation. Small wonder that they are coming out on to the streets to seek to claim the rights and privileges that genuine democracies bestow on their citizens. Small wonder that they are being opposed by President Mukherjee and Prime Minister Singh.

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