Most listeners were pleasantly surprised by President Pranab Mukherjee’s address to the nation on the eve of this year’s Republic Day. Similar speeches in previous years have usually delivered homilies, trying to raise the hope and confidence of citizens. Given India’s Constitution, it is generally assumed that the president’s speeches on national days are crafted under the guidance or advice of the government in power. This year, the president’s Republic Day eve speech has raised the veil from such an assumption. Given the president’s over 40 years’ active participation in parliamentary politics, he is probably completely aware of what may be appropriate and what may not when he addressed the nation. This made his speech even more revealing and relevant to the issues which he raised in his address to the politicians as well as the common people of India.
This article does not presume to analyse the different aspects of the president’s Republic Day address, but is only an attempt to focus on those issues which are related to the recent events leading to the crassness of political discourse and the unruliness and the absence of decorum and debate in Parliament. Prior to moving into Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president was very much a part of the top leadership of the United Progressive Alliance I and II. Over the decades, as a member of the Indian National Congress and a veteran parliamentarian, he built a rich reputation as an intellectual and learned thinker and, above all, as a pre-eminent and trusted consensus seeker with political opponents and their leaders in Parliament, as well as outside it. In this process, he achieved a well deserved political reputation. In the light of this, his dismay at the rise of rigidity and militancy, bordering on anarchy, in the political discourse and behaviour of political parties and extra-constitutional actors, in Delhi as well as in many Indian states, reflected the mood of the country regarding politicians and our political institutions.
Following the president’s speech this year on the eve of Republic Day, many who heard him may have erroneously jumped to the conclusion that the president may have been prompted to share his distress at the unruly protests, verging on anarchy, of the Aam Aadmi Party around the Rail Bhavan a few days prior to January 26, 2014. This may have been only partially so because the event appeared to be unprecedented behaviour on the part of an elected state government. But we may not remember similar previous dharnas by the late chief minister, N.T. Rama Rao, in Hyderabad and another one by a chief minister of another southern state. These dharnas in state capitals were in the pre-‘Breaking News’ television era and did not attract as much national attention.
But the litany of events leading to the present surcharged environment has been steadily building up for a while. The tenure of the current Parliament, in terms of disruption, unruly demonstrations, sloganeering and stoppage is indeed unprecedented. The aggressive venting of frustration by the elected members of major Opposition parties and their leaders is indeed shocking and frequently bordering on anarchy. The reluctance of political party leaders to seek and reach consensus on important issues affecting the people and the future of India reflects a very sad decline of our principal democratic institution. The large number of important parliamentary bills which could neither be introduced nor debated or passed, as well as the stoppage of several other legislative businesses, have opened a sad chapter in India’s parliamentary history. Even the introduction and passage of many bills, without debate or discussion in the din of disturbances, is equally unfortunate.
While the high point of achievement may have been the passage of the Right to Information Act, its fullest impact will only be felt when the act includes the judiciary and the fourth estate within its ambit. The lok pal bill restored a rare sense of collective purpose. Other important bills concerning issues related to the prevention of corruption remain to be introduced in the last session of Parliament.
The deteriorating state of reasoned discourse also coincided with a series of explosive corruption allegations. These were incidences of anarchy by individuals holding high offices. Not surprisingly, over a period of time, a state of anarchy seems to have infected every section of our society. Some of the instances of social anarchy are the widespread practice of rent seeking in day-to-day life and the inhuman atrocities being perpetrated on women across the homes and streets in India. The instances of rape and violence against women alerted the world about the barbarity of our people. The atrocities against women have been further exposed by the brazenness of the kangaroo courts and khap panchayats in several parts of India in total defiance of the civil administration. Such behaviour and defiance have exposed base animal instincts as fairly widespread in our society. In spite of the hue and cry across the country and the enactment of specific measures, women continue to feel insecure in their homes, offices villages and cities in India.
Depriving people of their legitimate expectations of civilized discourse and actions from their elected representatives in Parliament and out of it has become a source of distress and now is one of the prime issues of the forthcoming general elections.
The atmosphere of helplessness, frustration and the erosion of hope have become compounded by the story of India’s economic growth losing its way. The slowdown has been attributed to external factors, which happens to be only a partial reason. The primary hurdles are entirely domestic. The high voltage corruption cases and the continuous obstruction in the functioning of Parliament are the principal reasons for preventing progress with vital economic reforms. This is one of the greatest wastages of opportunity and will be recorded in history as probably one of the most damaging for the people and future of India. The role of certain corporate plutocrats has been no less shameful and damaging.
The only faint silver lining has been the various initiatives to alleviate the misery of the poorest of our people, by providing our deprived citizens recourse to gainful employment, access to food and reducing post-natal mortalities of mother and child. But most Indians are still angry and frustrated by the state of the nation. As the general elections draw closer, it would seem that we are trying to clutch at straws of hope. Sadly, much of the electoral discourse is inconsequential and hubristic. The only difference is that political discourse has now moved out from the legislature to the streets of cities, towns and villages. In the present environment, it would be a grave mistake to take the democratic genes of India for granted. India is a nation fatigued by the false promises of its politicians. Political aspirants will not escape the anger of the people of India. The eventual outcome will be against anarchy, greed, corruption, failed promises and false hopes.
The presidential address brought to the surface the undercurrents of the state of the nation in its raw starkness with a certain sense of urgency.