Chennai: Hailing from Odisha which has produced some of the finest Navya-Nyaya logicians in Indian Philosophy in the backdrop of the Sanskritic-Tribal engagement, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leader and popular MP, Baijayant Panda or ‘Jay’ Panda as he is known in political circles, can hardly be seen as a nonconformist rank outsider in Lutyens’ Delhi, the principal seat of the Indian polity.
But ‘maverick’ yes, he is in the sense of being a trendsetter, in seeking to bring a fairly articulate, alternate centrist angle to hard issues that confront Indian politics today. His latest book, ‘Lutyens’ Maverick: Ground Realities, Hard Choices and Tomorrow’s India’, is basically a collection of essays and articles he has been writing since 2009 for various journals and leading Newspapers. The author, though, has imparted them an underlying unity and continuity by collating them under six big themes and placing each of them in perspective in a poll-year book.
Significantly, Jay Panda has been elected twice each to both the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, an indication of his electoral popularity in his home state. He holds a ‘dual degree course’ in Engineering and Management in Communications from Michigan Technological University, USA. All this is a big plus as he brings an early morning dew drops-like crystal-cool perspective to issues that really bother him as a representative of the people. In this collection, there is candour and a sense of moderation when it comes to criticism, as much as they are suffused with appreciation of the “achievements” of the Narendra Modi-led NDA government.
But more than these, Jay Panda’s well back-grounded and researched essays give one the impression that he is earnestly trying to steer the debate on hot political issues in a new direction that avoids any polarized confrontation with the powers-that-be in Delhi on the one hand, and rigorous ideological positions on the other. His anchor, representing a strong eastern regional party, seems to be the common charter of Indian citizenship based on Constitutional principles of equality, inclusiveness, self-respect and tolerance.
From the reliability of EVMs’, reservations, amendments to the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, religious conversions, Centre’s handling of issues of death-row convicts, demonetization, GST, Indo-Pak ties, row over the Collegium system in appointing Judges to the higher judiciary, several issues concerning women’s security, gender, Triple Talaq Bill and movement towards a uniform civil code, right to privacy, cultural vigilantism, ‘Aadhar’ and data protection, to overall economic slowdown and the loosening of ‘identity politics’ and so on, Panda goes through the various positions with a thoroughness of a gentleman-physician. At places, he offers his own considered views as ways out of the melee.
For instance, in the section on ‘Economy: In the Era of Modinomics’, Jay Panda has a thought-provoking piece on the by now infamous demonetization of two high value currencies announced by the Prime Minister on November 8, 2015, and the ‘tectonic shift’ the new Goods and Services Tax (GST) brings to the economy. In the interface between economics and public policy, they are invariably seen as the latest Siamese twins, whether people like them or not.
However, interestingly, Jay Panda’s response is not a straight-jacketed one. He admits “there are elements of truth” in criticisms against both demonetization move and the GST, the apparent failure with the former in curbing black money and the ‘teething troubles’ of the one-India-one-tax syndrome vis-à-vis GST. Nonetheless, the author, in a veiled justification of demonetization, alludes to how political funding from deep pockets and certain other sectors like real estate and private educational institutions were “among the cash-heavy sectors which suffered from the one-two punch of demonetization and GST.”
“This has certainly contributed to the economic slowdown. The point is that you cannot have your cake and eat it too, by simultaneously claiming that demonetization and GST have hurt the economy, while also insisting that black money did not get affected,” argues Jay Panda. “Growth is likely to bounce back as the effects of GST kick in. Though job creation will increase as well, the stark reality is that because of technology, automation, and disintermediation, eight per cent (or even 10 per cent) GDP growth no longer supports as many jobs as it used to. Radical measures, such as UBI (universal basic income) will need to be considered,” the BJD leader adds. Jay Panda even suggests that Rupee devaluation could be “another option” to boost India’s exports; but one is not sure whether the new RBI Governor, Shakthi Kanta Das would be on the same page with him on this issue, as it is widely believed that North Block has won the first round after Urjit Patel’s exit. However, it is in candidly exploring such nuances
and shades of grey, the diverse strands to any issue, as nothing seems purely black and white, that Jay Panda stands out as one reflecting on a wide range of political and governance concerns facing India.
In the same breath, the author has been forthright on several other issues; like for instance he sees reforms in political parties raising funds and in funding elections as absolutely essential. He again minces no words in calling for even Parliament amending its own rules and procedures as “paternalistic relics of Raj-era limited democracy” should go. He calls for reforms in the ‘criminal justice system’ and feels that the present system has “more checks than balances”. Jay Panda also advocates return to “classical secularism”, meaning strict separation of the state and religious institutions, with its “strong linkage to classical liberalism”, to ensure that so-called liberals of the day (you may also read them as pseudo-secularists) do not end up defending caste/sectarian/religious minorities interests. It is a razor-sharp argument he offers here, one that can cut deeply both ways. Nonetheless, Panda finds it “bizarre for constitutional judges to act as arbiters of religious authenticity.” He even quotes Ju
stice D Y Chandrachud in this context, who said, “SC Judges are now assuming theological mantle, which we are not expected to….The test should be whether a practice subscribes to the Constitution, irrespective of whether it is essential (to a religion) or not.” By that yardstick will the Supreme court’s rulings in the latest Sabarimala temple entry for all women case and negating instant ‘Triple Talaq’ served on Muslim women, be eminently reasonable, rational discourse prevailing over ‘political correctness’ of the day? At the end of the day, Jay Panda is not really sure, though he says the two situations are quite different.
Nevertheless, it is this commitment to keeping the dialogue open-ended that makes this collection valuable, not necessarily for the conclusions that the author might draw or leave unsaid....