Since the Emergency, no Government has used official machinery so wantonly to suppress dissent.

There is something comical about UPA leaders lamenting the disruption of Parliamentary proceedings by the opposition BJP. Blocking Parliament has been an opposition strategy for about four decades — right from the days of Tul Mohan Ram. When the BJP was in power, the Congress itself had blocked House proceedings, seeking the resignation of then Defence Minister George Fernandes. Thus, no party can come clean in this game of Parliamentary blackmail.

This is but one aspect of the scourge eating into the vitals of the country’s democratic fabric. The attack on watchdog institutions for their ‘outreach’ and misuse of state power to suppress dissent, have already become part of the system. More reprehensible is the tendency to hoodwink smaller parties into supporting the government in the event of a trial of strength.

INSTITUTIONS UNDERMINED

All this will have a far-reaching effect on the quality of Parliamentary democracy. Indeed, violations of democratic norms have so frequent that they have ceased to prick the national conscience. No longer does civil society protest selective raids by the CBI and enforcement agencies on political rivals. These acts seem to have acquired a sense of legitimacy.

Democracy is built on precedent. If a CBI threat to Mulayam could enable the UPA to survive in a crucial voting, in future other ruling parties too, could resort to such high-handedness. That is how illiberal actions gain currency. In the past three years, the UPA government has earned the sobriquet of being the most reckless user of official machinery to silence political challenge. Only a well-oiled dirty tricks department could have performed the task so well.

At one level, institutions that do not fall in line are denigrated — such as the judiciary, Reserve Bank, Comptroller and Auditor General, Public Accounts Committee, Election Commission and even the National Sample Survey Organisation. At another, there have been determined efforts to change the role and character of bodies like the Planning Commission.

Look at the chorus of condemnation over even a mild deviation from the official line. In the Coalgate case, the Prime Minister himself assails the CAG for ‘exceeding the brief’. His general secretary Digvijay Singh says the present CAG has political ambitions ‘like T.N. Chaturvedi’.

NO HOLDS BARRED

At the peak of the 2G crisis, Kapil Sibal had insisted that the CAG should be made to conform to the ‘post-liberalisation’ mindset. Its role should be confined to verifying whether funds have been spent for the stipulated purpose. The CAG itself alleges that the departments concerned deliberately delayed their responses to the Government’s auditor in cases like 2G, oilfield lease to Reliance, and the now-scrapped ISRO’s Devas deal.

How many of us could have really thought that the government leaders will one day fret and fume at the RBI, the country’s monetary watchdog? RBI has been resisting pressures to dismantle time-tested regulatory systems that had insulated India from the 2008 financial crisis in the US.

There have been moves to curtail the RBI’s role by vesting regulatory powers in the Financial Stability and Development Council (FSDC). However, the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had shot it down.

Even the National Sample Survey Organisation, though not autonomous, faced official wrath for putting out ‘alarming’ employment data. And soon after Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s outburst, the NSSO boss came out with a due ‘correction’. The Election Commission is one body that has emerged more powerful, despite arm-twisting efforts.

Fortunately, the judiciary has been spared of direct assault. Yet, no opportunity is lost to find fault with judicial pronouncements. There was scorn and veiled warnings when the judges used the term ‘neo-liberal’. Learned judges were advised not to do anything that hamper the GDP growth and scare away the investors. The unusually large number of revision petitions is testimony to the suppressed official ire against judicial ‘hurdles’. Since the Emergency, no government has misused official machinery so wantonly to suppress dissent.

SUPPRESSING DISSENT

The use of a disproportionate assets case to bend Mulayam Singh Yadav during the 2008 trust vote was a turning point. The reach and depth of the operations since then has been really shocking.

Take the Kudamkulam agitation by fishermen. First, church officials were openly coerced to halt the movement. Then a whole array of enforcement agencies worked overtime to dig out cases against the ‘ring leaders’. Their alleged foreign links were probed and stories of foreign donations to the local NGOs dished out systematically to the media. Ministers even talked of a blanket ban on foreign funds to all NGOs. Fake cases were registered. Their fault? Protesting against a nuclear power plant near their villages.

The Anna Hazare story is a test case of state interference and highhandedness to silence a peaceful crowd. The Anna team’s only fault was that they demanded an anti-corruption bill. It was not against any individual. Yet they were repeatedly denied a place to sit and protest. Anna himself was arrested on highly questionable grounds. Denial of the right to protest, if allowed to go on, will curtail space for dissent.

This is not all. Investigating and enforcement agencies were unleashed on protesters. Fake changes were levelled against Anna. Fake CDs and Noida plot allegations were clamped on the Bhushans; charge were unearthed against Kiran Bedi for ‘misuse’ of air ticket; against Kejriwal, all they got was a violation of service agreement with the IT department, his former employer. Baba Ramdev’s ashram was raided and several lapses unearthed.

Swooping on individual crusaders has become so common. Just this month, anti-corruption cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was jailed.

POLITICAL VENDETTA

The selective use of the CBI and enforcement agencies to hound the ruling party’s political challengers is a far more perilous transgression. Technically, swooping on Jaganmohan Reddy — even if for the sin of his Congress stalwart father — cannot be faulted. But why was Jagan singled out when so many UPA leaders found guilty by the same CBI remain untouched?

It would be naïve to dismiss all this as a minor illiberal streak, happening with or without the knowledge of the Prime Minister. Any future government can replicate such abuse of power under the precedent of ‘you-too-did-it’. Thus blockade of Parliament, ban on rallies, tax raids and CBI cases against the political opponents will soon be accepted as part of the system.

It is baffling as to why major political parties remain lukewarm to such wanton violations. Possibly, civil society groups and those like Jagan are political rivals to both the ruling party and the opposition. Or, does the Opposition hope to replicate the same anti-democratic practices when it assumes power?

(The author is a columnist and was political editor of two prominent economic dailies.)

(This article was published on September 19, 2012)
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