The challenge of putting the Nation First

The challenge of putting the Nation First

Hari Jaisingh

In his Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture last week in New Delhi, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley brought into focus a number of critically sensitive issues which have a bearing on the way Indian society needs to evolve itself in harmony with the changing times and changing situations in the country, without one set of fundamental rights over-riding or “extinguishing” the other. He observed the same Constituent Assembly which “gave the right of equality and dignity, also gave the right to religion and right to administer religious institutions”.

In this context, he raised the question “Can one fundamental right override the other? Can one subsume the other? The answer is no”, he opined, and rightly so. “Both have to exist and therefore both have to harmoniously coexist”, he stated.

Arun Jaitley is a brilliant lawyer who has a mind of his own on a number of sensitive matters. He was honest enough to state that he was “giving his personal opinion”. I understand his dilemma and limitations to talk and interact freely and fearlessly. However, the major problem facing the Indian society today is politicization of socio-religious issues. Everything these days is viewed on the touchstone of vote-bank politics. One doesn’t have to go far in his research exercise to prove this point.

Just have a closer look at BJP chief Amit Shah’s recent utterances on the goings-on in Kerala, following the apex court’s verdict, lifting a ban on the entry of women between 10 and 50 years of age into the world famous Sabarimala shrine. Women have not been able to enter the temple because of protests by those who want to preserve its age-old tradition.

Arun Jaitley’s idea is that “in the interpretative process, there is a greater statesmanship by allowing the two sets of fundamental rights to coexist harmoniously by finding how they can do it”.

On principle, I agree with the honourable Finance Minister that societies can work out reforms “through their own process, rather than mandates from governments or otherwise”. The moot point is: where is that visible ideal situation in Indian society today amidst varied political angularities, growing intolerance, and acts of violence often seen these days?

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was of course the tallest leader of his time. He was forward-looking and successfully ‘projected’ his secular credentials before the public while retaining the essence of Hinduism. He indeed acquired the benevolent father-figure image on India’s highly complex political screen. Perhaps, we often sympathized with him for the problems he was confronted within the Sangh Parivar and beyond. We need to have proper assessment of this phenomenon for the larger good of Indian society.

I had great expectations from the present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who talked passionately about “Change India”. I also expected him to carry forward Vajpayee’s legacy without creating false hopes which divert the country’s attention from harsh ground realities and hard options. I do not wish to be judgmental on the present BJP-led NDA regime. All the same, I am of the view that instead of “rejoicing” whatever has been achieved so far by the ruling establishment, it needs to have a hard look at the way things are going. It is disquieting to see “a long gap” between “verbalization” and concrete actions on the ground. In the process, the country seems to be losing a historic opportunity to bring about the much-needed changes in the system for the betterment of the poor, the have-nots and the jobless segments of segments of society. In fact, what we have of late been seeing is the growing insensitivity of the ruling class to the real issues and problems facing the country.

My point is simple: can we start viewing on matters and issues in a larger perspective? Merit needs to finally clinch every issue and not on someone’s ability to pull the strings at the right moment. A bit of soul-searching on the part of the powers-that-be can help them appreciate the changing global setting as well as varied needs of our society. The ultimate goal has to be one of understanding the “whys” and “hows” of stability and changes taking place in every segment of society so that we evolve the right responses to new situations as seen on the Sabarimala shrine in the wake of the Supreme Court’s judgment. My only regret is that the apex court overlooked the most vital issue of asking the state government to create basic infrastructural facilities on the terrain for women’s safe passage to the shrine and ensure their right of equality and dignity within a broad traditional framework.

Arun Jaitley is, of course, right in saying that “the nation is higher than any institution or government. However, I do not wish to go along with his observation that “the authority of the elected is higher than “non-accountable institutions”.

Well, a lot depends on the quality of the elected members of our legislatures. It needs to be remembered that Parliament is a creature of our written Constitution and not its creator.

We cannot ignore harsh realities on the ground. It is a known fact that as many as 1,765 “people’s representatives in Parliament and legislatures in the country face criminal charges. This works out to be a little over a third of all representatives in India”. This is not a happy situation for healthy growth of our parliamentary democracy. It will be a different story once the quality of our elected persons is not soaked in criminal acts and money-making at the cost of the exchequer.

Of course, all our institutions, whether elected or professional, as provided for in the Constitution for specified purposes with the requisite autonomy in their functioning , are expected to be fair and seen to be fair. The misuse of the institutions such as the Election Commission, the RBI or public sector units by the powers-that-be undermines the legitimacy their authority in the public eye. We surely do not wish to see our functional institutions as “caged parrots” of the ruling class of the day.

Indian democracy, for that matter, cannot be run as someone’s fiefdom. Nor can it be allowed to be undermined by the vested interests. Actually, we need to evolve the right type of political leadership not as a personalised factor but as an institution, both in the example it sets and the model it creates for the rest. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was one such shining example. He understood India’s complex ground realities and had the ability to hold his multi-colour umbrella to rally various segments of society under its fold. Alas, such a role model is missing today and hence the state of turmoil, acts of violence and the absence of tolerance, mutual understanding and harmony. In any case, the warning signals are very much visible on the national wall.

It needs to be appreciated that coterie politics and sycophancy ultimately weaken the system of governance and promote mediocrity over quality and merit. Equally vital for our democracy’s healthy growth is logical voices of dissent and freedom to express different views and opinions freely and fearlessly. We do not wish to see “silence” of the grave in the name of stability for our vibrant India. I hope that the RSS-BJP leadership would give a better account of its political management than has been the case so far and follow the unity spirit of our Iron Man Sardar Patel whose Statue of Unity was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 31.