Heed this 67-year-old tryst

Illustration: Surendra


Our Republic and the Prime Minister were both born in 1950. An open letter, on Republic Day, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about India’s deepest oath

Dear Prime Minister

Warmest greetings to you on Republic Day.

You were born the same year as our Republic was. So, as the Republic turns 67, you do too. Twinned, by birth, to the Constitution, you have with it another bond. As Prime Minister of India you have taken an oath, in the name of God, to ‘bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India’. And from that great position, you have called it India’s holy book. You are therefore, a Constitution-person twice over, by birth and by oath.

Two and a half years after taking that oath, on this anniversary day, how do you see yourself in that bond?

You could, of course, say, “Ask the people of India, they will tell you if I have or have not been true to it.” If I were to do that, I know, there would be a torrent of appreciation for you. Not just the appreciation of your admirers but appreciation from objective observers as well.

No one can deny the fact that between 2014 and 2017 your appeal has grown. It has grown for three reasons. First, you have been seen as decisive, a ‘doer’. Second, you are perceived as having ‘taken on’ corruption. Third, you are regarded as being tough, tougher than all your predecessors, on terror. There is a fourth image that must also be placed on the table, though it is not exactly complimentary. You are believed to be clever, hushiar. And your ‘at midnight tonight’ announcement on demonetisation has been seen as hushiari.“Good for the country, no?” people said while queueing up the next morning in front of ATMs.

The important question

But does being all those three — decisive, hard on corruption, tough on terror — translate into ‘bearing true faith and allegiance to the Constitution’? Today, on Republic Day, it is important that we reflect on that question.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was a decisive woman. Between 1975 and 1977 she was even more decisive than her usual decisive self. Having declared a national emergency, she came down with an iron hand on people she portrayed as criminals, black-marketers, hoarders, corrupt. And terrorism, as we now know it, was absent during that period. But was Indira Gandhi true to her oath? You were 25 years old at the time, Mr. Prime Minister. You will remember how when she reneged on the Constitution, betrayed her oath, she was thrown out of power — lock, stock and barrel.

Indira was not India. No Prime Minister can be India. India alone is India.

An impression prevails that you want to be seen as India, that criticism of you therefore amounts to criticism of India, tantamount to treason. Questioning demonetisation becomes, in one flowing sequence, validating black money, going soft on terror and questioning your judgment — all anti-national. An immaculacy surrounds you, an assumption of infallibility imbues your pronouncements. And hence an aura of unquestionability.

No one who is accountable to Parliament, which represents all the people of India, can be a dictator or even a supremacist in the sense in which the word is normally used for one who wants to establish the superiority of a particular ethnicity, class or culture. But, Mr. Prime Minister, you are a supremacist for your vision of India. You want your India, the India you are Prime Minister of, to do things that will be hailed as exceptional, unprecedented, unparalleled. You want India to reach, go beyond, Mars, an Indian land on the moon. You want to send more Indian missiles hissing into the light blue skies than your predecessors did, more Indian submarines to plumb noiselessly into the deep blue sea than your predecessors would have dreamt of. There is, at one level, something quite natural and admirable about a Prime Minister being ambitious for his or her country, to think big, bigger, biggest for his or her people. Except when a nation’s leader believes in personal supremacism.

Sardar Patel was not such a supremacist. He was a supreme realist.

Isolated power

While supremacists love their own very particular crowds and those crowds love them, they are, as persons, very lonely. And loneliness finds two friends: secrecy and arbitrariness. A mist of trail-less circumstances surrounds a supremacist’s decisions. And these decisions come to be taken impulsively, whimsically. Sometimes they can be inspired, but on most occasions they create more problems than they solve and can also cause havoc. Isolated power is isolated from the advantages of consultation, from the benefit of an equal colleagueship. It is isolated, therefore, from the great bonus of republican partnership. So fond does he become of the dulcet tones of his own voice, that his auditory powers atrophy. Even when he seems to be listening to others, the personal supremacist is, in fact, listening to his own voice reacting to what he is hearing. He is his own singer, his own song and his own listener. The self-centrism of an elected leader is, in democratic terms, an irony. In republican terms, an anomaly. It scarred the period 1975-1977. It must not, in the same or modified form, in de jure fact or in de facto spirit, be readmitted into our polity, our political culture.

There are signs of it wanting to.

Abolishing the Union Planning Commission, replacing independent heads of autonomous academic institutions by persons of known bias, the stalling of judges’ appointments, the superseding of generals in Army promotions, of diplomats and bureaucrats in other elevations, the dangling in the air of the Lokpal, the undermining of the RTI Act, blacklisting NGOs, demonetisation, all come from the conviction,‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Indus and the Ganga’ of India. That, Mr. Prime Minister, is an uninsured journey into Great Unknowns on a gilded ratha with mini-supremacists scrambling atop it.

A political leader may, for all his egotism, be highly knowledgeable about certain things on his home ground. Much more so than, for instance, his officers. No diplomat could have matched Jawaharlal Nehru’s understanding of international affairs. No officer, ICS, IAS, IPS, could have matched Patel’s knowledge of political psychology, Chief Minister Pant’s understanding of rural politics, Chief Minister Namboodiripad’s sense of rural and urban economics, Chief Minister Kamaraj’s mastery of Tamil Nadu’s complex politics. But there are areas where others, experts, officers and NGOs, know better, remember more than a politician. As, for instance, in fiscal planning, foreign relations, defence strategy, science and environment policy and, above all, in ‘real-life’ issues like unofficial ‘official’ extortions, job insecurity, health non-coverage, the absence of insurance and pension cover. The deference by non-expertise to experience becomes a leader.

The way forward

You advise us to do with less and less of cash. Are you teaching us how to do with less and less of water? Let ATMs run out of money, use cards, you tell us, use digi-dhan. What about when our lakes go dry? Can we live with digi-jal? You are not warning the country of the known and unknown horrors of climate change, the power and fuel crises that await us, the pandemics, air-borne, water-borne and vector-borne, that are whirling overhead. You are telling us to be swachh but what of that behemoth source of aswachhata, our plastic lobby? You are teaching us the merits of yoga, but you are not disabling the fountainheads of ill-being in our gutka lobby, tobacco lobby. The control over our land commons, mines, forests by mafiosi, middlemen and mega ‘developers’ continues unchallenged.

And then, there is Kashmir. The team which, led by Yashwant Sinha and catalysed by Wajahat Habibullah, went to the Valley has made searingly honest findings, vital recommendations. Heed, Mr. Prime Minister, their clear voice. Had Jayaprakash Narayan’s warnings and guidance been heeded in the 1960s, Kashmir would have been spared the agonies it is going through today. The Constitution has not intended that part of our country for ceaseless bloodletting. History is giving us another chance for a bold new initiative that makes the most beautiful part of our nation its most peaceful.

I said at the start that your appeal has grown. So has, in typical Indian contrariness, your dis-appeal. Those who believe in the core values of our Constitution, though they are not bound to it by birth or oath, are deeply disturbed, dismayed, by the growing intolerance of dissent and the misrepresentation of criticism as anti-national.

You may have seen, at Girnar, Ashoka’s famous Edict VI which says “I am never completely satisfied with my work of wakefulness or despatch of business.” Remember, please, Asoka’s admission and his remorse which he called, in Magadhi Prakrit, anusaya. Your own exquisite language, Gujarati, has another sublime word for it, anutaapa. Atonement and compassion do not betoken weakness, they betoken nobility which is a leader’s sign.

With pride in our Republic, and faith in its ability to reclaim hope from despair,

Your fellow citizen.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor.