It’s rather instructive how ‘pro-people’ political leaders sound when they are not in power, except that they think public memory is short and they can get away with doing exactly the opposite when in government. It’s a universal phenomenon.
One such example was a video in circulation two weeks ago on WhatsApp. It featured two senior BJP leaders asking all the right questions. “Protesting against government policies is a fundamental right of citizens and the Opposition in Loktantra. The Congress has not given us this right. This right was bestowed upon all of us by the Constitution. On what basis is the prime minister saying we can’t protest? If you criticise us, we will not allow you to protest seems to be the attitude of this government. The Congress has been taught a lesson during Emergency and people are not going to tolerate it even now.” Being Union ministers, how could they be so brutally frank about their own government? As NITI Aayog Chairman Amitabh Kant wondered, are we really having too much democracy? Many thoughts flashed before realisation dawned that the video dates back to pre-2014.
Juxtapose what the BJP leaders said with the observations of Dharmendra Rana, an additional sessions court judge, while granting bail to young activist Disha Ravi: “Citizens cannot be put behind bars because they choose to disagree with State policies. Difference of opinion, disagreement, dissent or for that matter, even disapprobation are recognised, legitimate tools to infuse objectivity in State policies.” Find any difference between the views of the BJP leaders and the judge? Not exactly, except that similar protests are now seen as acts of ‘Aandolan Jeevis’. Rana also offered us insights from the Rig Veda: “Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions.” Sadly, those in power, irrespective of their party, firmly believe they are the repository of all noble thoughts and the opinion of everyone else critical of them is basically destructive.
Now, examine the questions raised by BJP leaders before 2014. “Taxes on fuel are higher than fuel prices themselves. Why can’t this government focus on reducing fuel prices?” asked one of them in 2013. Crude was then hovering around $100 a barrel vis-a-vis $40-65 now. Another superstar sarcastically commented: “Told the petrol pump attendant to spray Rs 2-4 of petrol on the car. Jalaana hai.” Now, he may have to spend more to get enough petrol to burn down the car. No need, though. The star has since attained self-realisation and transformed into a ‘Shanti Jeevi’. It’s a different matter that Central tax on petrol has gone up from Rs 10 in 2014 to Rs 32 and on diesel from Rs 5 to Rs 31. Don’t blame the government! The revenue thus raised is meant for “Sabka Vikas”.
In an obvious reference to Disha Ravi, a Union minister tweeted a group picture, in which he and his friends were seen, with this comment: “At 21, we in ABVP, were debating about how to take the country forward. Engaged in constructive nation-building work.” In 2013, the same leader fumed that the “continuous rise in fuel prices is absolutely unacceptable. This is like the Jizya tax. How much looting will this government do?” Another firebrand BJP leader (also a current Union minister but mellowed these days) broke barricades at will during the UPA regime, calling the fuel/gas price hikes a shame. The same questions are being asked now. Only, those asking are destructive, anti-nationals and those raising the taxes are engaged in nation building and, therefore, beyond reproach.
A well-known pro-BJP columnist writing for many media outlets lamented that 75% of opinion pieces in newspapers are critical of the government; yet, people complain of lack of freedom of expression. After all, what was essentially wrong with Emergency? Efficiency improved, government offices functioned well, but what people detested was denial of their fundamental rights even as media too was forced to do government propaganda (any resemblance to a similar situation now is totally illusionary!). Keeping aside the veracity of the statistics put out by the columnist, isn’t media supposed to hold the mirror to the government? Of the three Constitutionally created institutions even the judiciary, which is expected to keep tabs on the legislature and the executive, is in a way a State organ. The media is not. As Bertrand Russell put it: “If an opinion contrary to yours makes you angry, subconsciously you are aware of having no good reason to think as you do.”
A recent tweet bemoaned it’s a fallacy to believe we are in a free country when “we can’t eat what we want, can’t tell a joke, can’t share a tweet, cannot express love in public, can’t have an opinion and cannot protest”. Yes, we have come to a stage when normal orders expected from courts become occasions to celebrate our Constitutional values, such as granting of bail to Disha Ravi. Let’s not be confused. Some regional dispensations run by non-BJP leaders are no less undemocratic.
P Chidambaram, who as the Union home minister was responsible for enacting draconian laws, realised the value of liberty only when he himself faced arrest. We have lost memory of when the Left parties last led a well organised agitation on any public issue. No wonder, a section of social scientists have begun to ask if India was ever a democratic country in its true sense.
Ahead of the 2019 polls, when a former judge asked Rahul Gandhi during a private consultative meeting how the Congress rule in the past was different from the current BJP dispensation, his reply was: “What can I do? I have not launched this party. I only inherited it.” While he may have disowned his predecessors, the baggage will continue to haunt him, as the BJP government that always promises a bright future for all of us invariably digs into the past to justify its present actions. And, the Congress has not left us with a great past. From weakening institutions, manipulating judiciary, cultivating celebrity journalists or dislodging governments, the award for the original script writing goes to the grand old party. The BJP copied its template, but with a lot more perfection and ruthlessness.
There is, however, one significant difference between the past and the present. It is the intoxication of religion. That provides the much-needed shield to check public outburst as a vast populace is pushed into a make-believe situation where they are made to think even in times of distress: Sab Upar wale ka krupa hai. A nation is essentially made of people, not temples, mosques, churches or statues. For now, people are left to fend for themselves and fight for their rights. As hate spreads and as a consequence economy falters, the already skewed growth (in terms of sharing of wealth) will lead to a bigger social crisis.
That is when the veneer falls off and the moment of truth arrives. When? As good as anybody’s guess but it is going to be long and hard.
GS Vasu (email@example.com)
Editor, The New Indian Express