By M D Nalapat
It looks like it would be more of the same brew served during 2004-2014.
Among the problems concerning UPA I and II was that Sonia Gandhi regarded the people of India as moving to a different beat than those in her native Italy. During 2004-2014, with the exception of the Right to Information Act, there was no effort by the government to replicate the freedoms present in Italy to its citizens. The people of India continued to be constrained by colonial-era shackles that were only added on to by such votaries of “strong” governance as Palaniappan Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal, both of whose associates claim that each is the personal choice of Sonia Gandhi and her successor Rahul Gandhi for the Prime Ministership, Lok Sabha numbers in 2019 permitting. Judging by the deference with which these two authors of law upon law of regressive measures are treated within 10 Janpath, it is a certainty that both will have important roles in any coalition in which Congress plays a role, as will other favourites such as Sushil Kumar Shinde (whose intimates too talk of him as the favoured choice of “Madam” for the Prime Ministership) and A.K. Antony, the lifelong pacifist who in a spirit of historical irony became among the longest-serving Defence Ministers of India. Placing him in that particular “hot seat” is analogous to Bertrand Russell becoming Minister of Defence of the UK during 1939-45, and it is scant wonder that the combined exertions of Chidambaram, Sibal, Shinde and Antony motivated the Indian voter to bring the Congress tally to 44 in the 2014 polls. Although Rahul Gandhi was in a unique position to influence policy (during the UPA decade), he gave no outward sign of opposing restrictive and socially regressive laws, such as those that the Supreme Court has tossed out as being contrary to the rights of a citizen in a democracy. Given the UPA-era governance links of the core team of the Congress Party in what it heralds as a new era, will a Rahul Gandhi in power retain the liberal instincts of his present stint on the opposition benches, or in power again entrust the processes of governance to those committed to a colonial view of India? Which is that the people of India do not merit the freedoms enjoyed by citizens in countries such as Italy, the UK or the US, but must remain shackled to the administrative and legal constructs left behind by the British together with the luxurious structures of the Lutyens Zone.
On the anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress Party in the person of its leading office-holders went all the way to Wardha to emote about a “climate of fear” across the nation. Their solution? To replace Narendra Modi as Prime Minister with almost anyone else barring Amit Shah. Party chief Rahul Gandhi should know that the roots of the fear that he talks about are related not to Modi, but to the colonial system of governance left behind by the British. The lowliest officials in India and the politicians and moneybags who control them have awesome power over the lives of citizens, such that an individual would face ruin were he or she to run afoul of the bureaucracy. As for freedom of speech, a defence analyst, Abhijeet Iyer-Mitra, is facing jail time for having posted on the internet remarks about the ancient land of Kalinga that are both tactless as well as tasteless. While such expressions of opinion are not in good taste, they would not in more than a few other democracies result in the denial of liberty that prison entails. Iyer-Mitra has already been made to suffer the ignominy of having his powers of reasoning questioned by the many who went through the offending posts, which is surely punishment enough in a context where peer recognition and respect is vital to future success. Instead, he will most probably go to jail, where he will join hundreds of thousands of others who have committed “crimes” that are defined as such only by a penal code that was made almost two centuries ago after the 1857 revolt against foreign rule. A Supreme Court bench once opined that a life sentence is precisely that, a sentence which may conclude only with the death of the individual incarcerated. Such a feature is among the more unattractive parts of US jurisprudence, together with the death penalty, and hopefully both will go the way of the laws against same-sex relationships or relationships outside wedlock that were tossed into the wastebasket of history by the Supreme Court recently. To consign an individual to prison sans hope of release would be to extinguish any thought or hope of redemptive behaviour. Prisons should not be such as would degrade professional skills and personal relationships, and in such a context, except for those prisoners with a propensity for violence, “open jails” need to be the norm rather than the exception. It is a tragic reality that the families of prisoners (as indeed those who suffer from insanity or dementia) often join in paying a steep price, through social exclusion and the blocking of career or promotion opportunities. Rahul Gandhi recently claimed in the UK that he shed tears when he saw photographs of the dead Velupillai Prabhakaran (the LTTE chief). There are millions in India whose fates are far more deserving, not simply of the tears of Rahul Gandhi, but concrete actions to make this country more just.
Prime Minister Modi promised of transformational change when he campaigned for the job in 2014. Once in office, he chose UPA-era favourites to key official posts, and stocked his ministry with those prominent in the A.B. Vajpayee regime. However, that such was his intention became known only after Modi formed his official and ministerial family. By retaining those active during UPA I and UPA II overwhelmingly in his core team much before the 2019 polls, Rahul Gandhi is giving rise to a perception that a government either led by the Congress or with it as the major partner would be a UPA III. It would be more of the same brew that was served to the Indian people during 2004-2014. It is not the continuance of Modi as Prime Minister, but the persistence of colonial-era powers and arbitrariness in decision-making that causes fear of those governing amongst those governed. Unless Rahul Gandhi—unlike his mother—shows that he regards the people of India as deserving of the same basket of rights and freedoms as Italians or Brits enjoy, and works towards that objective, his promise of change will disappear into the ether, once in power.