India at 64: caught between bigotry, corruption and chaos
Another Republic Day and the country's poor still have little to hope for
The general election expected in April or May this year forms the backdrop to India’s 65th Republic Day celebrations on Sunday. The event marks the day when the new constitution was promulgated and the country’s final break from the colonial era.
The otherwise joyous occasion marked by grand parades in state capitals and the national capital New Delhi, where India showcases its military might with ballistic missiles and marching columns, is this year being held under a noxious cloud of electoral invective, posturing and theatrical street confrontations that would be farcical if they did not have the seeds of a potential constitutional crisis.
Three seminal events leading up to the big day involved the three main political rivals seen as the main contenders in this year’s polls.
The first was a meeting of the Congress Party’s leadership in which its vice president Rahul Gandhi was chosen to lead the election campaign, but not named the party’s candidate for prime minister.
He spoke of programs for the poor, religious minorities and women and youth, but could not spell out a strategy that would help the party overcome charges of widespread corruption during its ten year rule, involving its top ministers and political leaders.
His mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, had the final say in not naming Rahul as the Congress prime ministerial hopeful. She vetoed a cacophony of sycophantic voices clamoring for Rahul to be appointed the party candidate for the top post if the party’s United Progressive Alliance wins a poll majority.
Sonia Gandhi, with her impeccable political instincts, guessed correctly that Rahul would be an easy target, if not exactly a sitting duck, if the campaign became a confrontation between him and Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) anointed candidate. She did not want the focus to be on personalities, a sort of a political duel between the two.
The second event was the BJP’s own national conclave and the core group meeting of its council where expectedly disappointment at being denied an easy target in Rahul Gandhi overwhelmed whatever policies it wanted to announce to woo voters.
Modi has been hankering for a direct fight with Gandhi similar to that of an American presidential campaign where Republican and Democrat nominees slug it out across the nation.
Much of the BJP meetings were spent slamming Gandhi for chickening out of mortal combat. It was left to Modi to articulate, in the time left, his vision for India and the party’s policies for the future.
He disappointed on both counts, pandering to industry and commerce in his focus on good governance and prosperity His vision for a united India, which covered the party’s core support base, left out religious minorities, the Dalits, the Tribals and people on the margins.
The third event was bizarre -- a confrontation between the Aam Admi Party (AAP) leadership and the federal government.
While Congress leads the federal government, the AAP controls the government of Delhi. The irony that the AAP rules with the “outside” support of the Congress is not lost on anyone.
AAP founder and Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal led a sit-in near the federal Home Ministry after the federally controlled Delhi police stopped him marching to the offices of the Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde.
Kejriwal said he wanted to protest against police who refused to carry out orders from his ministers – one calling for the arrest of an African woman suspected of human trafficking, and another demanding the arrest of the in-laws of a woman who was allegedly set on fire.
Kejriwal accused Shinde of being at the top of a chain of corruption beginning with police constables and involving senior officers including the police commissioner.
Kejriwal’s sit-in, close to where the Republic Day parade will be held, divided the people of Delhi. His supporters applauded his stand against the government; his opponents said it exposed his lust for power.
Lost in the fracas was the promise of a decisive struggle against corruption, which had first caught the imagination of the people and catapulted Kejriwal from street agitator to chief minister.
The strength of the Indian republic has been its commitment to pluralism and equity, in polity as much as in its social discourse. This has held the nation together despite widening gulfs between the rich and poor, and contrasts between emerging metropolises and IT hubs and rural areas and small towns still mired in gross underdevelopment.
Hope had always been held out to the poor that they were the ultimate beneficiaries of all development policies even if it was not apparent at first sight. The movement against corruption led first by Anna Hazare and then by Kejriwal was built on the argument that this promise was not being fulfilled because middle men, ministers and politicians were siphoning off the funds.
Unless things change radically in the next three months, the likely scenario will not see a focus on the poor man, or those who seek security from targeted violence.
With the AAP seeking a national vote without yet articulating a national policy, and Congress plagued by charges of corruption, the spotlight remains on the BJP.
Unfortunately, the party has signaled that its focus will be on the 200 million strong middle class with a political prosperity gospel and the Hindu majority in its accusation that Congress has been pandering only to Muslims.
And that is not good news for the world’s largest democracy as it celebrates Republic Day.
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