February 27, 2024

Indian Democracy: Maturity and Challenges – IF Specials with Shri Arun Jaitley

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This podcast features the 1st Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial lecture delivered by Shri Arun Jaitley in 2018 on “Indian Democracy – Maturity and Challenges”

Text of 1st Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture on “Indian Democracy: Maturity and Challenges”

I am indeed very grateful to the India Foundation that they extended the privilege to me of delivering the first Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture on the challenges before democracy in India. We just had a few glimpses of what Atal Ji stood for. Probably one of the tallest leaders in post-independence India.

If we look back we visualize him as a very tall political leader. Probably one of the greatest orators that India has seen. A product of parliamentary democracy, a man who always measured his words, a man who had the capacity to place national interest higher than his own party interest. And of course, an excellent poet who used the facility of language that he possessed to pierce and penetrate every point that he wanted to make. His era spread through generations. And decade after decade, millions of Indians would throng at various places only to hear him.

What do I regard as his greatest achievement? Post-independence, the dominant party of Indian politics for at least four decades was the Indian National Congress. After its second decade in power and I’m sure historians will record it this way, the party developed dynastic tendencies. But the party was still very large and dominant. And that’s a period when we saw the domination spread all over the country, state after state.

Conventional non-Congress parties, the Communists shrunk to particular regions, the Lohia Socialists were belligerent in their opposition. But very poor at organization. And therefore, they frittered away. Some regional parties did emerge. But that itself was not adequate. India needed an alternative ideological and political pole. Who could that be?

The Bharatiya Jana Sangh lost in the first 30 years after independence, three of its tallest leaders, its Presidents, Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Dr Raghu Vira, who died in a car accident and then another unnatural death, Deen Dayal Ji. And the mantle of leadership had fallen on Atal Ji. Of course, there was a large organizational team to assist him. Our capacity to win was very difficult. But it was the personality of this man who in 1957 had entered parliament, leading a small motley group of people, to put across his alternative viewpoint, whether it was Kashmir, or it was Tibet, or it was a situation arising in the post-Indo-China War, the alternative voice was his. He went alone, with other leaders like Advani Ji standing step by step with him. 1967 was the first time when he achieved a breakpoint. We formed a government in Delhi. From a situation of political isolation to political alliances where one must also give credit to Dr Lohia, who played a key role in the 1960s in bringing about alliances, to the 1975 battle against the emergency for the restoration of democracy where a large number of Jana Sangha and RSS workers were in prison. In fact, they were the largest contingent. The merger into the Janata party, the split and the realization that we had to go alone in 1980. And you again started with only two seats in Parliament in 1984. The strength of the then leadership was, both Atal Ji and Advani Ji. Our Parliamentary strength depleted but our ideological position did not dilute. And slowly in 1989 from almost 88-89 seats to 1991, 123 seats, the next election 166 and then 183. And your political isolation was over. Since then the BJP, in its revived form under Atalji became the center stage player of Indian politics. And in election after election, the polarization was no longer Congress or anti-Congress. We had replaced Congress as the center stage party of Indian politics. They may have come to power once or twice thereafter on the strength of alliances. And for the first time Indian democracy because of two political parties as national parties became a viable Parliamentary democracy.

But for this, creation of an alternative ideological pole in Indian politics, India’s parliamentary democracy would have been completely incomplete. Then you would have had a scattered number of regional parties and some small national groups. And the principal party from the weaknesses it showed in the second decade would have succeeded in converting India more into a kingdom rather than even a dynastic democracy. Because that’s how the movement in that party went on.

Many people seeing the popularity of Atal Ji found it very difficult to criticize him. He was being referred to at one stage as the Teflon politician, very difficult to criticize. So the BJP’s critics started saying that he’s a politician in the Nehruvian mold. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a Democrat like Panditji would have been, but he created a political organization which stood completely opposite in many ways to the ideological positions of Panditji. He created that ideological pole that has become the center stage party of Indian politics. And that has made India’s democracy more meaningful which without two central parties would have had the kind of challenges which I have indicated.

He maintained dignity in public life. He treated his opponents with respect. In the 1971 war, he could stand with the then prime minister. After 1991 when he was the leader of the opposition he was probably the closest friend to the then prime minister. Their opposition did not matter. And since these days one of the great challenges to Indian democracy has been the quality of public discourse. I think from politicians of that generation particularly, Atalji one really has to learn that one of the tests of responsible political leadership is how you treat your opponents. How do you talk about them? How do you refer to them? That also enhances rather than lower the quality of public discourse.

I was recently unwell and recovering when I heard the unfortunate news of Atalji passing away. So from my library, I dug out to what I had read earlier, a compilation of all his speeches. And I said I must find out from the great speeches he had delivered, which is the one I regard as the greatest one. It was not an easy task. And surprisingly, I found out that his best speeches were not what he delivered in Parliament in 98 or 99. They were recently in an era of television so the television picked them up.

But his single best according to me was the speech in Parliament in May 1964 when as a 38- year-old MP and the leader of the Jana Sangha, he stood up to pay his obituary tribute to Pandit Nehru. In my view in independent India an extempore speech of that quality is unprecedented, has probably never been delivered. I dug out that speech again yesterday and I must read out to you the first two paragraphs of what he said about his principal political opponent.

And in Hindi he says,

“सभापति जी,
एक सपना था जो अधूरा रह गया,
एक गीत था जो गूंगा हो गया,
एक लौ थी जो अनंत में विलीन हो गयी,
सपना था एक ऐसे संसार का जो भय और भूख से रहित होगा,
गीत था एक ऐसे महाकाव्या का जिसमे गीता की गूँज और गुलाब की गंध थी,
लौ थी एक ऐसे की दीपक की जो रात भर जलता रहा, हर अंधेरे से लड़ता रहा, और हमें रास्ता दिखा कर एक प्रभात में निर्वाण को प्राप्त हो गया ।
मृत्यु ध्रुव है, शरीर नश्वर है,
कल कंचन की जिस काया को हम चंदन की चीता पर चढ़ा कर आए उसका नाश निश्चित था,
लेकिन क्या ये ज़रूरी था की मौत इतनी चोरी छिपे आती,
सब संगी साथी सोए पड़े थे, जब पहरेदार बेख़बर थे,
हमारे जीवन की अमूल निधि लुट गयी
भारत माता आज शोक मग्न है,
उसका सबसे लाडला राजकुमार खो गया,
मानवता आज किनवंदना है, उसका पुजारी सो गया
शांति आज अशांत है, उसका रक्षक चला गया,
दलितों का सहारा छूट गया,
जन जन की आँख का तारा टूट गया,
यवनिका पात हो गयी,
विश्व के रंगमंच से एक प्रमुख अभिनेता अपना अंतिम अभिनय दिखा कर, अंतर ध्यान हो गया ।।”

This is the quality of his tribute to his principal political opponent. And if we just have to read this and compare it with the current level of political discourse, I think it’s obvious as to what the challenges lie before democracy in India. I hope those who claim the political legacy of Pandit Ji, if they have an aptitude for reading will certainly read these two paragraphs.

Speaking about Indian democracy when our founding fathers after independence conceived of the system of parliamentary democracy it was probably the best suitable for India. Different regions, caste, communities, tribes, languages, religions, nothing could have been better. Multi- party democracy, free and fair elections, federalism, fundamental rights, the rule of law, independent judiciary, professional civil service and the various freedoms which are all mentioned. Today there is a threat of fake bogeys. When the bogey of threat to constitutionalism is raised, if we objectively analyzed, why I refer to it as a bogey, those who criticize the maximum at times even to the extent of bordering on irresponsibility, then turn around and say ‘Free speech is in danger’. So the threat to free speech is referred by those who use it the maximum. And who use it to exceed the principles of accuracy and those who even take liberties with the truth, day in and day out will say ‘Well, free speech is in danger’.

So leaving this aside, what are really the serious challenges? Poverty still remains a very key challenge. It’s a challenge we have to fight. I am one of those who firmly believe that the pre- 1991 economic policies were flawed. Economic liberalization could have dated at least 20 years earlier. We may have been in the China league. From 1947 to 1991, we suffered slow growth rates and a very slow reduction in poverty levels. Post-1991 our growth rates have improved. Our depletion of poverty has also become faster. But live communities cannot wait indefinitely, they lose out on patience.

And therefore the first challenge is that we must continue to grow and grow fast. And the benefits of that growth must be translated and transferred to both the weaker sections of society as also to rural India. And that is perhaps the foremost challenge that Indian democracy has to face. We are experimenting with it. As a fast-growing economy. And the social welfare schemes, the quantum being spent on it are indeed very large.

Our second threat will always remain terrorism and insurgency. We have been successful in substantially eliminating terror in three parts of India or reducing it substantially, Punjab is one example, it is reduced in the North East and almost eliminated in the southern part of India. But two challenges still remain. The first relates to terrorism emanating out from Kashmir. And the root cause really is that Pakistan never reconciled to Jammu and Kashmir being a part of India. They tried conventional war and failed. They then resorted to the insurgency. As a part of the global ISIS, we’ve seen its impact particularly in Kashmir where one was the movement from Sufism to Wahhabism. Past Governments closed their eyes when with the help of foreign money this movement from Sufism to Wahhabism was taking place in Kashmir. And the consequences are evident. India is fortunate that in most parts of India, as for any aspirational people in India all religious and caste communities are now involved in the struggle for bread and butter for enhancing their careers. In most parts of India which are very peaceful, the Muslim community is no exception, they are a part of the struggle for bread and butter issues. But isolated pockets, where we’ve seen some instances, in coastal Karnataka, some instances in Kerala where ripples of the ISIS can be seen.

The second challenge of terror of course, is Maoism. I have said this in Parliament and I at the cost of repetition would say this ‘there are the ideological Maoists, there are the weaponized Maoists, there are the poor citizens, tribals who are misled and the fourth category which I referred to in Parliament and I think I’ll correct myself. I used to refer to them as half Maoists. But I think now one has to accept that they are the over ground face of the underground. They have to be fought through the battle for the elimination of poverty and they have to be fought using the law of the land in mind. But unfortunately, not having learned from the dicta of what Panditji stood for in democracy or what Atalji said about Panditji, mainstream parties giving respectability to them.

Would Mrs. Indira Gandhi or Mr. Rajiv Gandhi ever have gone to a congregation where a slogan was raised ‘Bharat ke tukde tukde’? Certainly not. But the degeneration of ideology because of personal grievances or personal ambitions compelled the Congress party leadership to do so. And today there are many who are changing this discourse and people like me and those who ideologically stand on a similar footing have no hesitation in accepting that the responsibility of keeping this country together belongs to us because the alternative discourse may not find much support in the public. These people don’t win elections but they raise a powerful voice. And if you see the impact of that voice, the word ‘Sanskar’ is today a ridiculed word. In Indian society, we used it ‘ki wo bahut achche sanskar wala hai’. It was about the value system. So the alternative discourse is to make it an object of ridicule.

The alternative discourse is that nationalism is right wing and insurgency, using violence as an instrument of overthrow is activism. So when their sympathizers are arrested, its human rights activists who are arrested. And those who stand for keeping the country together are nationalist and therefore, rightwing. And the result we can see. The result is, that you have aberrations in democracy. I hope I am always able to call them as aberrations and not the rule. Where for fighting terrorism the army officers are to be prosecuted. And those who believe in the philosophy of violent overthrow of parliamentary democracy are to be given maternal affection and home care when they are arrested. That’s the irony. And therefore this ideological narrative creates a situation of this kind.

This, of course, brings me to the next issue that corruption is and will always remain a major challenge. The answer is very clear. We need to eliminate discretions and have objective criterion. The more we do it, our experience in the allocation of natural resources that you rely on the market mechanism rather than individual discretions, has brought this. And therefore corruption will always remain a major challenge. A strong public opinion which unfortunately does not exist today because the corrupt have also been winning elections one after the other. It’s one thing to say why are criminals given seats? Why are corrupt people given seats? But a larger question is why do people vote for them? And therefore you need a strong public opinion which creates a revulsion against them.

Coming to a more current issue. I don’t regard this as a challenge. I regard this more as an issue which a vibrant Indian democracy must deal with. Issue relating to ‘What is secularism?’, the issue relating to ‘How do you balance fundamental rights with the right to religion?’ and these will always remain issues which will throw up contemporary challenges which the society has to find an answer to.

What did the Constitution framers do? They said equality, Article 14 and Article 15, no discrimination on basis of religion caste sex gender and so on. Reservation for those who socially and economically need it. Fundamental Rights Article 19, liberty and life Article 21, and life also mean the right of women to live with dignity or every citizen to live with dignity. And then came Article 25 and 26, the right to practice and profess your religion, a fundamental right, the right to administer your religious institutions, again a fundamental right. And then came Article 29, 30, a special provision for minorities because a society is also always judged by how it treats those who are few in number. And therefore, rights of minorities in relation to their educational institutions, language, culture and so on. And that includes religious minority and linguistic minority. They didn’t end there. They also referred to in the Directive Principles, Article 44, the need to have a uniform civil code, Article 48, in the animal husbandry protection, the need to protect animals, particularly the cow.

Now these are the ambit of provisions. I ask you all a question. If today Dr Ambedkar reappeared and he tried to reintroduce Article 44 and 48 in the Constitution, would he be able to do so? He did this in the presence of Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Babu and it was unanimously accepted. The obvious answer is ‘no’. And that is the aberrations which we are getting into. The fundamental principles are very clear. India will never have a state religion. India is not a theocracy, can never be. India will always protect those who are fewer in number and minorities. They will have a full freedom of religion. So will others in the majority community. There’ll be no discrimination on the basis of sex or gender or religion or caste. Everyone will have a right to religion and manage his or her institutions. When conflicts arise how do you resolve the conflicts. And I’m not saying this at the point of criticism I’m seeing this is a point of a futuristic debate.

The same constituent assembly which gave the right of equality and dignity simultaneously gave the right of religion. And the right to administer your religious institutions. So can one fundamental right override the other? Can one subsume the other? Can one extinguish the other? The answer is no. Both have to co-exist and therefore both have to harmoniously coexist. How do they harmoniously coexist? This is purely a personal opinion of mine, we will always struggle and there will be always two opinions. How do you reconcile? The reconciliation is possible.

When it comes to the rights of a citizen, irrespective of gender or caste or religion, rights emanating out of birth, rights emanating out of marriage, rights emanating out of divorce, adoption, inheritance, death. The right to survive, maintenance should all be governed by the constitutional rights of equality and dignity. When it comes to religious rituals and the management of your religion, unless the practice is so obnoxious and hostile to human values, the same can go into another fundamental right of religion and the right to manage your institutions.

But if you use one set of fundamental rights to extinguish the other, it perhaps will create further challenges. The challenges it creates is and this is a global debate, this is not a debate only in India, it’s a debate between the Constitutionalists and the Devotees. And if I sum up the debate somewhat taking liberties with words, the Constitutionalists believe that first there is the Supreme Court and thereafter there is a god. The Devotees believe otherwise. And this is a global debate which goes on. And therefore how to reconcile the two. I quite realize that there will always be grey areas left. And a reconciliation will always be a challenge. The grey areas will normally belong to the courts to interpret. That’s how a society governed by a rule of law will function. But the only harmonious existence without one right extinguishing the other can be emerged on these principles.

Federalism of course and I just state this principle, is an important challenge. When we got independence, Indian Centre-State relationship was more unitary. But then when the threat to national security and sovereignty was over, after the first 30-40 years we evolved into a more federal system. And today we have federalism in action. You have regional groups. You have central parties. And having sat through some dozens of meetings of the GST Council which is India’s first federal institution, I just want to put a word of caution. Federalism in India is essential. India is and should always be a union of states. It must have strong states and a strong center. The moment India becomes a confederation of states greater challenges to India will emerge. The responsibility of the center in keeping this country together and looking after the states is far higher. And therefore, the balance of Indian federalism lies in making India a union of states. And no step which goes in the direction of making it a confederation of states must ever be taken.

I occasionally hear voices and one of the reasons why this experiment doesn’t take off is whenever regional parties have come together, for reasons other than federalism we have still not reached a stage of maturity where there is any longevity of their governments. It’s a failed idea or at least today it’s a flawed idea. I don’t know what will happen 20 years from today. Governance needs a strong central pole. You can have regional players around it. But you can’t have a confederation of regional players. Professing that philosophy because there are issues for which you require India to remain a union of states and never evolve into a confederation of states.

Separation of Powers- The separation of powers is a concept which is a part of the basic structure. And this is one concept which has not been violated by any Indian government of any party. In fact greater encroachment into the functions of other organs, both through entering the executive domain, at times laying down legislative guidelines, under Article 142, by a process of misinterpretation, not interpretation as in the judge’s appointment case, usurping a power which

belongs to the Parliament. We can actually see the principle of separation of powers at times being obliterated or diluted. It’s a tendency which must be avoided and we require statesmanship of all institutions to do so.

The last two subjects: there are many others but the last two subjects I wish to refer.

First is are we weakening the authority of the elected? and creating a power shift in favor of non- accountable institutions. Ultimately at the center or the states, it’s only the elected who are accountable. The non-accountable are not accountable. Those who manage them are transient players in the life of India and the life of democracy. The nation that is India is higher than any institution or any government. And therefore, we have not been able to realize how non- accountable institutions in the power shift of governance which has taken place will react to the challenges of the day. Can non-accountability be a mask for corruption? Can it be a ground for investigative adventurism as I call it? Can it, in case of other non-accountable institutions, be a ground for inaction? What does the nation do? It’s a major challenge. Today I am providing no answer. But it’s a question which is real. But one answer is clear to me, that the country is taller than any institution. And therefore, when we deal with non-accountable institutions which is a challenge of the day, we will have to keep these principles in mind and those who think right will perhaps reflect on this.

The last of course is the quality of politics and the quality of public discourse. World’s largest democracy, fastest growing economy, a huge aspirational set of people who have sent a diaspora which has gone and dominated the world. Are we able to get the best into public life? Caste- based parties where inheritance is only on the family principle, it’s not true of only one party, it’s true of several. Where merit gets replaced as a family inheritance takes over. These are family owned political parties. How long can Indian democracy afford this? And this has a direct impact on the quality of politics. Because when you have a following which either becomes a caste following or in case of families it becomes a crowd around a family, for their own ambitions and interests, the quality of politics suffers and when it suffers the quality of public discourse suffers.

How does India meet the challenge? And therefore there are many more but because of paucity of time I have not referred to them. But I think at the end of the day as a famous saying goes- ‘We’ll have to keep that spirit of democracy alive.’ And let’s be clear Democracy can’t be saved by those who are committed to dynasties. Democracies can’t be saved by those who are committed to the left wing philosophy of violent overthrows of government who believe in breaking India into pieces. And for this purpose, we have to look at our national assets. And our national asset is that the new India which is emerging is highly aspirational. It’s in a different league. There is a disconnect between it and the larger quality of politics. And therefore it’s a responsibility as in other mature democracies as we evolve towards being a more developed nation, we really have to look at the best. And once we are able to do that I think what lies as democracy in the hearts of men and women will perhaps be our best insurance to strengthen Indian democracy.

Thank you very much!


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