With every passing interventio, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking parliamentary debate to new lows. His reply to the debate on the motions of thanks to the President for his address to Parliament was exceedingly virulent. Though greeted by the treasury benches with loud thumps on desks, Mr Modi displayed poor knowledge of history. His reply to Renuka Chowdhury’s cackle — although not acceptable for lowering the standards of the Upper House — was nothing short of crass misogyny. Had the analogy Mr Modi drew between the member and a woman character from the epic Ramayan been made outside Parliament, Mr Modi would have been liable to being charged for insulting a woman. His party members’ response to his put-down of a senior woman member demonstrated that despite pledges to uphold the dignity of women, the party remains crassly patriarchal — a woman can at best be mataon or behnon, but not an equal with gumption to pay back in the same coin.
Despite Ms Chowdhury crossing the Rubicon of decent parliamentary intervention, it did not behove the Prime Minister’s status to intervene when the Chair was already seized of the matter and castigating her for the remarks and behaviour. If such examples are set by the most powerful leader, one can imagine the cues for the party’s storm troopers.
Additionally, by “advising” the Chairman of the House, albeit in the form of a “request”, he lowered the dignity of the office. Mr Modi clearly forgot that M. Venkaiah Naidu is no longer a party colleague junior in hierarchy. While the vice-president was admonishing Ms Chowdhury, Mr Modi cut in to make a vinti, prathna or request on how he should respond. It may be a very technical matter, but parliamentary proceedings are all about protocol and conventions, neither of which Mr Modi respected by interjecting. Moreover, Mr Modi’s speech was full of historical bluster and repetition of what has been said for the umpteenth time — that Sardar Vallabhai Patel was denied the prime ministership by Jawaharlal Nehru despite the backing of a majority of Congress members.
He further added that Indian history, especially Kashmir’s, would have completely different had Patel been the Prime Minister. Mr Modi and his cohorts in the Sangh Parivar who have thrived on the projection of the Sardar’s iron fist as opposite to a timid Nehru on matters where display of military muscle was required, completely ignore that India’s history would have been completely different if Sardar Patel and his home ministry along with the home minister of Bombay state, a man who eventually became Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, had acted with greater alacrity when clues were scattered everywhere after the failed bomb attack on Mahatma Gandhi January 20, 1948 by Madanlal Pahwa, who was a part of the Nathuram Godse-Narayan Apte conspiracy. Negative portrayal of Jawaharlal Nehru and everything to do with the Congress post-Independence has assumed centrality in Mr Modi’s utterances whereas a coherent account sans hyperbole is required about this government’s achievements so far. Repeated attempts to selectively appropriate history marks the lowest point of parliamentary debate and underscores that the chief executive no longer demarcates between an electoral rally and a parliamentary speech.
Scant respect paid to Parliament and its conventions has another worrying facet. This was highlighted grimly by Ghulam Nabi Azad when in his intervention in the debate on the President’s address, he talked about an atmosphere of fear choking India. He said people in the country, including privileged Opposition leaders, fear speaking on their phones because of the apprehension that the State is eavesdropping on private conversations with the intention of using the information against them. “You have divided political parties by using the ED, income-tax, NIA. You have gone after people who are aligned with us.
Businessmen are fearful of speaking to us on the phone because our phones are being tapped and they fear being targeted for having sided with the Opposition,” Mr Azad claimed. But despite the seriousness of the matter, the issues raised are yet to be clarified. In fact, 44 months since this government assumed office, there has been a concerted assault on viewpoints or expressions contrary to the ruling establishment’s opinion. This is an ominous development and a pointer to the challenges ahead and further assaults on India’s democratic spirit and character.
The atmosphere of fear that Mr Azad alleged as being all-pervading in fact reflected the worrisome report of the Economist Intelligence Unit, which released its Democracy Index last week. It is a matter of grave concern that India slipped 10 places to 42, the second sharpest fall after Indonesia, which fell by 20 positions. The assessment is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of the government; political participation; and political culture. India was dragged down because its score was low on functioning of government, political culture and civil liberties; while a semblance of democratic vibrancy was recorded due to the electoral process and pluralism and political participation. Significantly, India slipped and got labelled as flawed democracy because of low scores on parameters directly involving the State; whereas wherever citizens had a direct role, India performed better.
Worryingly, the report highlighted the continuing global trend of “democracy recession”, a process that has not been reversed in the decade since 2006 when the EIU began preparing this annual index. Globally, elites have become sceptical of democracies and this is where leaders like Mr Modi have sought to tap the unarticulated sentiment that “controlled dictatorship” will be good for India. India’s continuous fall on the free speech indicator in this report since 2014 highlights growing intolerance for viewpoints not endorsed by the State. Coupled with the rise of conservative religious ideologies backed by state programmes, the clouds on the horizon are worrying and parliamentary interventions like Mr Modi’s further legitimise browbeating of minorities, both demographic and intellectual.