Finally, people will ensure Minimum Government (Sunday Guardian)
By M D Nalapat Indians, who are becoming aware of the rights that have thus far been denied to them, are showing intolerance for those who seek to control their lives.
There are more than a few frontline politicians in India who yearn to be known as the new mahatmas or saints among the people of India. Nitish Kumar, the restless Chief Minister of Bihar, is among these. He went ahead with a law against liquor that makes the term “draconian” seem tame, giving the police the power of arrest and the courts of incarceration at the merest whiff of a whisky and soda inside the home of a citizen. That such restrictions on citizens are against what may be termed the basic structure of democracy seem to be of little consequence to Nitish Kumar, who incidentally was enthusiastically congratulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself on his saintly ways. It may be assumed that Nitish Kumar himself is abstemious, but not all the people of Bihar are, and the consequence of the absurd, ill-advised and contra-democratic law banning liquor consumption has been an expansion of the mafia-run trade in illicit liquor as well as in the smuggling of spirits from states run by “unsaintly” Chief Ministers into Bihar. In common with other saintly moves such as the effort by the Prime Minister to do away with paper currency and adopt the barter system favoured by Mahatma Gandhi, any electoral benefits of such dramatic measures have been transient. Nitish Kumar has steadily become a less viable political leader by the month, making even Lalu Prasad Yadav seem a better choice, especially since the country’s renowned expert on cattle fodder was embraced by Sant Nitish himself in an electoral alliance that succeeded in besting the BJP and coming to office before the Sant’s inner voice course corrected by returning from the RJD to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the very leader the Sant had sought to block from nomination as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate by threatening to withdraw from the NDA were such a decision to get taken. The BJP chose Modi over Nitish, and the latter left, though not for long. Given the unpredictability of Nitish Kumar, it is unlikely that the once-bitten Lalu Yadav will allot the JDU a sizeable number of Lok Sabha seats in 2019, which means that the party has no option but to remain in the NDA. Under the Modi government, that formation has devoted considerable effort towards seeking to convert the people of India into abstemious souls, among other ways by using the judicial process to block a number of pornographic sites, including those that invite subscriptions from those interested in such fare. Just as in the case of liquor, such a move has already had the effect of generating gateways designed to leap over the firewalls created by the government. Worse, by diverting traffic to sites that have till now been obscure, but which contain material even more repellent than the banned sites. Although Victorians will explode in anger at this, it needs to be pointed out that it is preferable for the young to find sublimation in watching risqué video clips than in frequenting houses of ill fame. The second may lead to disease, while the first will not. Overall, India remains a democracy where the different branches of government compete in lowering the space for free choice of the Indian people, following what may be termed the “Classic Saudi” model, where too numerous internet sites are banned. If there is too much control over too great a field, finally the population will shrug off such restrictions. Fewer laws better enforced is the answer to a regulatory and legal system in India that has become so complex that it causes either a paralysis of the will to act in a productive way or results in a contempt for the commands given by the many branches of the octopus that is the governance system in India. Matters involving the freedom of the individual to choose should get tackled not through laws and use of the police, but by campaigns designed to change lifestyles and perceptions without reliance on the law and the police. The latter is the preferred way of a colonial or a quasi-colonial state and should be a rare and last rather option rather than the first.
It is striking how the institutions of governance in India are still (after seven decades of the Republic) allergic to handing over control of their lives back to the people. Victorian reflexes would be welcomed in Saudi Arabia, a country where multiple codes of behaviour have been prescribed for the citizen on pain of punishment if ignored. Societies such as the US give far more leeway to the individual citizen, and overall do not seek to forcibly constrict choice through governmental orders. In a democracy, the judiciary needs to be on the side of citizens’ rights and freedoms rather than their prohibition. It is therefore a sign of better times that the Supreme Court has in some of its judgements expanded the extent of freedom in individual lifestyles. Hopefully, just as freedom of choice in relationships has been affirmed, so will freedom of speech. For example, locking up individuals for expressing of views that may be unpleasant to hear but which do not contain any active incitement to violence is the mark of a dictatorship, not a free society, and it is a blow against democracy that multiple political parties in India are guilty of, including those vociferously accusing the Modi government of an authoritarian streak. Every year sees more prohibitions and greater controls over the lives and activities of the citizen in a combination of Victorian values and Classic Saudi social engineering methods. Classic because Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has these days been trying to de-Wahhabise the Kingdom, a move that hopefully will not be slowed down by the orchestrated din over the circumstances of Jamal Khashoggi’s death.
Now that the Congress Party is scenting high office, its spokespersons are becoming more and more the way BJP spokespersons became in the days when it seemed a done deal that Narendra Modi would occupy 7 RCR for at least ten years, if not more. The good news is that the people of India, who are increasingly becoming aware of the rights that ought to be their due but have thus far been denied to them, are showing a rising level of intolerance for those who seek to continue to control their lives. Unless the Victorian state morphs into an avatar which respects the right of the people to choose rather than be dictated to, it will find that its ability to enforce its will on the populace will diminish to a level such that they will be made irrelevant. If government does not bring in Minimum Government, the people will.