AS THE United Progressive Alliance government looks back at nine years of rule this week, the Congress — its lead partner — would do well to look back even further for its really talismanic lessons.
In the battle of ideas that have shaped this country, the Congress has always had a natural advantage: its lineage. This is a party whose founding leaders reached for the highest notes in the hardest times. At that crucial moment of Independence, it helped forge the miracle of India: a poor, feudal, illiterate, colonised society that was transformed almost overnight into a modern democracy committed to the noblest ideals. Plurality, universal franchise, equality of opportunities, and a wonderful raft of rights: the freedom of thought and expression, freedom to dissent, freedom to worship, freedom of association and freedom to constitutional remedies.
How far has it moved from those ideals? As the Congress looks back at its tenure this week, will any of this feature in its self-reckoning?
Some aspects of these nine years have already been hotly debated. On the one hand, this government has been dogged by corruption charges, a misuse of institutions and a sort of disconnect with the masses. On the other, no matter how flawed the implementation, it has introduced many important social legislations: the RTI, the RTE, the MGNREGA, and perhaps now, the Right to Food.
But what’s gone unnoticed is a damaging erosion of some of the core democratic values that underpin this country. The eventual cost of this will be much higher than any CAG report can compute.
One of these core values is the right to dissent. Without this, democracy can have no meaning. But, dishearteningly, the current Congress-led government has repeatedly struck at this foundation. One of the most telling examples of this is that last year, in an astonishing move, the home ministry cancelled Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) licences for nearly 4,000 NGOs, on the grounds that they had “an anti-national agenda” (without any burden of proving this). In effect, this meant these NGOs could no longer get any foreign funding to sustain their work. Most recently, on 30 April this year, the home ministry cancelled the FCRA licence for INSAF — a network of more than 700 NGOs involved in grassroots activities and people’s struggles for land, water, forests, livelihoods and a plural and equitable polity. INSAF’s activities, said the home ministry, were “prejudicial to public interest”.
The irony can’t get starker. This is a government that has actively wooed foreign funding and players in every aspect of our national life: in mining, telecom, retail, infrastructure, aviation, defence, media, stock markets, education, insurance, health, etc. But clearly, foreign funding for big projects — often on terms detrimental for the country — is kosher: resistance to them is not.
Is this then going to be the new paradigm for Indian democracy? The rich will have a voice; the poor must not. Scrutinising NGO funding could have been a legitimate exercise. But in 2010, ludicrously, the government amended the FCRA in a way that snuffed out rallies, demonstrations and protests. Under the new Act, any organisation deploying these methods would be deemed political in nature, and therefore become ineligible for funding.
This harsh stand on the FCRA strikes at the very heart of every citizen’s constitutional right to participate in governance — which includes the right to question, challenge and oppose the policies of the State through peaceful, non-violent and democratic means. But clearly, disagreement over government decisions no longer has to be a battle of convictions: disagreement has just been outlawed altogether. From the world’s biggest, most vibrant democracy, we are being reduced to a monochromatic boardroom.
The danger in this cannot be overemphasised. Dissent is not just being silenced, it is being criminalised. There are literally hundreds of activists and villagers languishing in jail on false charges, declared “anti-national” merely for disagreeing with a government decision. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set the ball rolling, in a sense, when he told the nation a “foreign hand” was behind the protest at the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project, but felt no compulsion to produce any facts.
Without voices to amplify their concerns, without peaceful means to express them, India’s citizens will increasingly feel they have no stake in the country. When the UPA hits its 10th milestone next year, how will they mark that on their report card? As zero loss?