The Angst of a Nation

By    H K Dua

Sixty five years ago, India stepped into freedom for its “Tryst with destiny”. Serious challenges confronted the new Independent nation: Communal riots, settlement of millions of refugees, an immediate war on Kashmir, integration of princely states, a tottering economy left behind by the British raj and challenges of keeping the promises the illustrious group of leaders had made to the people during the long freedom struggle.

Yet, India was looking into the future and its uncertainties with unusual hope and confidence   –- despite the travails of the partition of the sub-continent and the burden of 200 years of bondage.  The challenges that could overwhelm any new set of rulers expected to govern a nation of 330 million people living under abject poverty and steeped in the centuries of prejudices   of the worst kind, our leaders –-  men of great vision and steely will that gets into the bones only in prison terms –-  thought big, wanting to build a new India that could look  straight into the eye of the world.

With the first flush of freedom, they could choose any form of government. The people would abide by their word which they believed. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in a few months of Independence, but these men – Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabbhai Patel, Dr B. R. Ambedkar, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and several others — looked ahead and opted for a constitution that would usher in parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary, an accountable executive and the free press. The most audacious decision they took was to go in for universal adult franchise which would allow for every Indian –  the rich, and the poor, educated or illiterate, the influential or those without voice, all men and women without minding their caste, creed, religion, region,  language or gender or whether they are dalits or adivasis, the right to vote. They chose to ignore the sneers of the west and showed enough faith in the ability of “the loneliest and the lost” of the land to have enough wisdom to choose their new rulers.

The new men in command wanted to build a new nation-state, democratic and just to its citizens, and a powerful country which could not be subjugated again even by the mightiest of the world. . They thought of big plans, industrial plants, big dams, and war on poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and inequality. They travelled quite a few miles, along the track, in spite of formidable odds stacked against them.

Those days were different. The leaders, who were men and women of substance, aimed high and somehow believed in themselves and the people. The people in turn shared their dreams and believed in them. Those were exciting times. A sort of history was being made by the nation just born free.

Fairly at the beginning of the 21st century, these are different times now. Excitement of making a history in the new century is missing. The nation seems to be on a holiday from thinking ahead, caught as it is in its inner anxieties

India’s is one of the more powerful economies of the world; It has the third largest armies of the world, its achievements in scientific research has enabled it to join a select band of nuclear weapons states; an Indian is likely to land on the moon in a couple of years and a select band of space scientists is at work to send an Indian mission to the distant Mars in five years or so.

These impressive achievements notwithstanding, there is a widespread cynicism prevailing in the country — a peculiar sense of worrisome unease or apprehension that is shared by most citizens of the country about its future. This indefinable angst pervades across the nation.

Overburdened by this angst, India is in danger of becoming an inward-looking country, which is finding itself unable to take major initiatives for finding its due place in the world.  Even an individual suffering from a sort of continuing anxiety cannot look for ways to fight his or her problems. So are the ways of nations, big or small. Somehow the nation’s creative energy is getting sapped, being replaced only by a mood of corrosive negativism which is permeating throughout the body politic.

Jawharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Dr B R Ambedkar and dozens of other leaders with different backgrounds, temperaments and persuasions, had   at times different views on vital issues, but they never preferred their personal interest to that of the nation or the causes they had dedicated their lives to. The spirit with which they went about doing what they thought was their duty to the nation endeared themselves to the people and gave them a sort of moral authority which the present leaders across the political spectrum in no way are able to enjoy.

While the quality of leadership has gone down over the years, it has also declined in the working of major institutions envisaged in the Constitution for guiding the affairs of the country. These institutions — Parliament, Judiciary and the executive — had a promising start and participated in the post-Independence task of nation-building. They were respected by the people then.  Over the years, their functioning has become grossly flawed, which in turn has led to the loss of public faith in them.  And the loss of respect among the people is leading to deterioration in the quality of democracy and standards of governance across the country.

One of the worst examples of institutional decline is Parliament itself. The Constitution entrusted great responsibility and authority on Parliament, it was looked at with awe and a great deal of respect by the people. Today it has become subject of public ridicule.  The conduct of many MPs – with exceptions — has become object of public sneer.

Time was when every political party fielded the best of its leaders in Parliament. Jawaharlal Nehru himself, unlike many of his successors, spent a lot of  time listening to the debates and often intervened impromptu to clarify government policy or a decision, or to educate the MPs of hows and whys of an issue that was exercising their minds.

There were able parliamentarians like Govind Ballabh Pant and Jagjivan Ram and Dr B R Ambedkar on the Treasury Benches. Leaders like Hiren Mukherjee, Bhupesh Gupta and Inderjeet Gupta of the CPI, Atal Behari Vajpayee of the BJP, Minoo Masani and Narain Dandekar of the Swatantra Party, Nath Pai and H.V. Kamath of the Praja Socialist Party, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia and Madhu Limaye of the Socialist Party, A K Gopalan of the CPI (M),  and Acharya Kripalani  — who was nobody’s man — enlivened the debates with sharp reasoning, biting criticism, sarcasm, humour, wit and often wisdom and a rare sense of responsibility, unfamiliar to the present generation.

Though a few in numbers in Parliament – as Jawaharlal and the Congress party always swept the polls – the opposition leaders by sheer skill; public concern and often oratory set high parliamentary standards that any democratic country could be proud of. They never let down the institution of Parliament, whatever their differences with Nehru’s policies and decisions might have been. Both Nehru’s government and the opposition leaders, whatever the dispensation, always aimed at establishing Parliament’s supremacy in the initial years of the Republic. They knew they were setting precedents for the future. They could never think of failing the country, whatever their views on the issues. They were trying to earn the people’s faith and respect for Parliament. They would have been shocked if they were to see the way Parliament is functioning these days – within 68 years of freedom!

Session after session, Parliament these days is getting adjourned without transacting much business. Most often there is no orderly debate in the House. Even the budget is being passed by Parliament without much discussion with members having forgotten that by sanctioning money for expenses, it is exercising tremendous authority over the government. The demands for grants for most ministries are routinely guillotined without discussion. The Question Hour, which liberally provides members an opportunity to make ministers answerable for acts of omission and commission , is being frittered away day in and day out by members walking into the well of the House,  shouting slogans and asserting that they will not let the House function unless their demands are not met. The opposition blackmail, which is against all parliamentary rules, and conventions, leads to frequent adjournments of the House without the opposition parties — whatever their colour — realizing that they have wasted another opportunity to put the government on the defensive. They also do not realize the harm that is being done to the people because of delayed, or ill-considered legislation.

Rather than feeling remorse over forcing the House to adjourn without transacting its business, responsible opposition leaders have now begun justifying what they are doing to Parliament by saying that causing disruptions and forcing adjournments of the House has become “a legitimate form of protest” in parliamentary democracy.  A self-serving thesis, but dangerous in its consequences. If only they knew how serious the damage is they are doing to parliamentary democracy in the process!

It is after centuries that democracy comes to a country and a Parliament comes into existence. They have forgotten that tomorrow they could be sitting on the Treasury benches only to face a similar music. While the governments certainly need to be more responsive and forthcoming in Parliament, the opposition has the right to   oppose and attack government’s policies on the floor of the House or outside in strongest terms. It is, however, a pity that the nation has to witness the opposition parties, instead of fighting the government, have now chosen to fight the institution of Parliament itself!

A democracy to work smoothly requires a consensus on issues of vital national concern like foreign policy, the nuclear question, national security, terrorism and what is most important is the running of Parliament. Sadly, this consensus has not emerged in Parliament, nor has much effort been made by a continuing dialogue between the government and the opposition parties. On the contrary, noisy scenes, bordering on bedlam, repeated disruptions, and adjournments, gross wastage of time have been blotting Parliament’s copybook. MPs of the disrupting parties often greet adjournments with victorious laughter. The result is public scorn, the institution of Parliament has come to earn for itself. Over time this is going to cost the nation a great deal and the quality of democracy the country is going to suffer to such an extent that succeeding generations will find it difficult to rectify.

No less worrying is the quality of the members who are getting elected to Parliament and state legislatures. While the role of big money is a bane of most democracies of the world, in India criminalization of politics is also affecting the composition of Parliament and the State legislatures as well as the functioning of the political system.

At one stage in the UP assembly as many as 175 out of 400 MLAs had criminal background. In the Lok Sabha, the then Speaker of the House, Mr Som Nath Chatterjee told me there were 40 MPs who had criminal background. This was an underestimated figure. In the present Lok Sabha there are as many as over 162  MPs with criminal background, many of whom can be convicted for multiple offences,  according to the Association of Democratic Reforms which has been doing admirable work on pointing out the ills that have begun to seriously afflict Indian democracy.

Concerned citizen, whose number is growing by the day across the country, have been stressing the need for keeping criminals out of the political system and the legislatures. Repeated attempt by the Election Commission –- which is one of few constitutional institutions that has been able to retain public faith in its competence, and fair play, have not succeeded. Nor have the Supreme Court’s efforts — which have been somewhat feeble – on so serious a problem.  The Supreme Court had advised the Election Commissioner to go in for a law which can enable it to reject the nomination papers of those candidates who have been charged by a trial court for crimes fetching conviction of at least two years of jail term. The Election Commission has convened several meetings of major national parties to push through this simple reform which doesn’t require a constitutional amendment, but much to its disappointment and that of the country, most political parties opposed the proposal on the ground that they could become victims of vindictive judicial proceedings launched by a state government against even the innocent candidates put up by the opposition.

Ordinarily, the political parties themselves should shut the door against criminals, but they are too keen to win more seats even if they have to take the help of  musclemen, and the local mafia that have cropped up in many parts of the country, affecting the making of laws and policies, governmental decisions, and governance.

Politicians are also averse to bringing about reforms that could curb the use of big money in elections. The size of constituencies is becoming larger with every election, thanks to the rise in population, requiring greater spending. For the big business, elections provide a great opportunity to gain influence over political parties, and its leaders, believing that after the elections, they could swing policies and decisions in their favour. The use of big money is not only corrupting the elections, but is often corrupting the making of policies and decisions in most States and at the Centre. No political party whether ruling or sitting in the opposition, is able to say “no” to receiving money from businessmen.

The lack of money and the cost of elections has made it difficult for honest men and women endowed with public concern to jump into fray and fight elections and get entry into Parliament or the State legislature. Outside the pale, they are left to merely bewail the way democratic norms are being mauled every day. Their growing cynicism is not without reason.

Equally worrying for the people is the functioning of another important organ of State – the judiciary. Traditionally, the Kachehri  is the last hope for an aggrieved citizen. The Supreme Court has been a great bulwark of the Fundamental Rights of the people, the Rule of Law, the Freedom of the Press; although during the Emergency it did let down the people by approving even the denial of the Right to Life.It admitted its blunder much later and tried to undo the damage done to its reputation, which it has been ever trying to retrieve afterwards.

Of serious concern is the huge pile of arrears of cases pending in courts across the country. As many as three crore cases are pending in the subordinate courts, the High Courts and the Supreme Courts. But for the occasional statements of concern little effort has been made to reduce the arrears. Three crore of arrears in human terms means delay, which translated into actualities, means denial of justice, to three crore families. Even otherwise, the judiciary, particularly in the States, has lost faith of the people – sometimes because the quality of justice it is dispensing, and sometimes because of other reasons.

Not much can be said about the executive wing. The bureaucracy, exceptions apart, in most States. is distant, callous and indifferent to the woes of the common man. Rather than tackling the problems of the people, in many cases, senior bureaucrats have joined hands with the politicians, readily sharing power and at times whatever that comes with it. This cosy relationship often extends to businessmen and property developers, making the nexus more formidable and lucrative.

With the major organs of the state failing the people, the governance in most of the country was bound to suffer. This adds to the people’s worry about the state of the nation and the inability of the political system to live up to the expectations. The way the political parties, short-sighted as they are, are functioning, do not create hope. India has wanted to emerge, like China, as a major economy and an important power of the 21st century. It has the potential that is acknowledged more abroad than at home. The world’s confidence in India’s ability to be in the highest league in about two decades is greater unlike the confidence of our people in themselves. The angst which is weighing heavily on the minds of most people has sunk too deep in the psyche of the people who are finding it difficult to shake it off.

Who is to pull the nation out of its despairing mood is not known. The present sets of leaders across the political spectrum have to look beyond their nose and nurture a vision, a sense of direction, and the capacity to pursue it with tenacity. There is no point waiting for a 21st century Mahatma to descend on the scene. The leaders of lesser calibre have to accept the challenge and take India forward to enable it find its due place in the world.

The writer is a former Member of Parliament. He has been Editor of the  Hindustan Times, the Indian Express, the Tribune and an Editorial Advisor of the Times of India. He has also been Media Advisor to Prime Minister and an Ambassador. He is now Advisor to Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a New Delhi think tank.

January 2016