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A RESIDUAL DREAM
- The Congress is now unable to judge what is indiscreet

Like many other liberal-minded individuals in the country, I dread the genuine prospect of Narendra Modi’s taking over as the nation’s prime minister in a few months from now. The sordid details of the planned killings of members of the minority community under his auspices, which had immediately leaked out, shocked the country and the rest of the world. These stories are now being confirmed by the reports being submitted by the special team of investigators set up under the direction of the nation’s judiciary. That a substantial proportion of Muslims have been voting for Modi in recent elections in Gujarat is no evidence that he has been either forgotten or forgiven; it is merely another instance of the persecuted, having no recourse, throwing themselves at the mercy of the persecutor.

The corporate sector, driven exclusively by the profit motive, is full of admiration for Modi because of the ruthless way he has gone about getting them land for setting up the industries. The tribal people, whose voice rarely reaches outside the state, are, on the other hand, full of apprehension: Modi has ‘de-notified’ many forest territories reserved for the tribes so that industry could move in.

One or two amongst us, convinced that the country would have no peace with Modi as head of government, hold the view that if that came to that we would opt for the seemingly lesser of the two evils, the Congress. In the firm belief that the latter stands not the ghost of a chance as long as it is shepherded by Indira Gandhi’s dud grandson, we have suggested one or two alternative names even at this late hour. To no avail; the Congress cannot conceive of any existence without the prop of the family.

But wait, there is no end to the follies it is determined to commit. The grim possibility of impending surcease perhaps clears the mind as nothing else does. With the Election Commission getting ready to issue any day the formal notification for the Lok Sabha polls, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance has launched, via newspapers, radio and television channels, a dazzling campaign replete with effusive praise of the wonders it claims it has done to India during its tenure: the country was poor, it is now prosperous; its people once went hungry, now food is reached to the most humble mouth in the most humble household; agriculture was once languishing, now lush crops cram the government warehouses; India had barely any modern industry at the time of Independence, it is currently on the way to becoming one of the leading industrial nations in the world; our countrymen were, only a few decades ago, virtually without literacy, now they have all the opportunities for education including higher education, and children in primary and higher primary schools receive most nourishing mid-day meals; Indians were earlier without jobs, employment opportunities are now innumerable and varied, including in the reaches of high technology; the government is at present making every effort to transform the status of women and ensure full-scale gender equality, something unheard of in the past; similarly, it has spent such and such astronomical sums of money to raise the standard of living of minority communities, marvellous consequences are about to follow; in the past, we did not have enough of culture, India at the moment spells culture at its most sophisticated to the awe-struck world.

The self-advertisement goes on in this manner almost interminably. The copywriters appear to be a competent lot; they do their assigned work with competence and disp lay enough — sometimes too much — imagination. There is this mocking story about the famed presidential election in the United States of America in 1932, when the Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, won an upset victory over the Republican Party candidate. The final deciding factor was the latter’s religious denomination: he was a Catholic, and in spite of all the resentment at the Republican administration’s failure to take effective measures to soften the hurt the economic depression was causing, there was great reluctance in the deeply conservative South and mid-West to vote for a Catholic president. After his defeat was formally announced, the Republican candidate is reported to have sent a one-word cable to the Pope in Rome: “Unpack.” Should they take seriously even 1 per cent of the claims put forth on behalf of the Congress and the UPA in the ongoing campaign blitz to be true, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chieftains should tell their disciples that the Ram Rajya was over and they might as well disperse.

But the hollowness of the claims are not the issue. Such things happen in the election season. That the entire publicity campaign is being financed by the taxpayers’ money cannot be helped either: the government, as long as it is duly constituted, can brag and boast at will and can spend out of public revenue for such boasting and bragging.

The real objection to the advertisement is because it is an atrocious act of corruption for a very specific reason. The UPA regime is having a harried time in coping with the awkward series of allegations after allegations of corrupt deeds involving cabinet ministers; not even excluding the prime minister himself; it is having a running battle with the comptroller and auditor general on a range of controversial decisions by different ministries and the nation’s highest judiciary has from time to time been exceedingly sarcastic on a wide number of official transactions which have grave financial implications. The recent spate of state elections has provided enough confirmation of large-scale disenchantment with the Congress. On the issue of corruption, the party is vulnerable, very much so. It was the expectation in some circles that the Congress would put its best feet forward between now and the Lok Sabha polls and desist from further controversial moves. Its leadership evidently has arrived at a stage where it is unable to distinguish between the proper and the indiscreet.

For the flood of advertisements that is drowning the country is seriously at fault on a crucial matter: not just the government or the prime minister, but, alongside, a private person, Sonia Gandhi, too beams at you from each of them, but she has no business to be a part of official advertisements. She may be the president of the Indian National Congress and the chairperson of the UPA which constitutes the government, but neither the Congress nor the UPA is the government, the president of one or the chairperson of the other is no part of the government; her presence in the advertisements is legally impermissible, the administration has enough legal acumen within its fold to enlighten it of the patent illegality that is involved and it nonetheless indulges in such a breach in law — it is therefore guilty of corrupt practice. Thus will be the verdict where governance is subject to democratic functioning.

Not that the UPA or the Congress is precluded from showering their supremo with plaudits in the pre-poll season. But to do so, they must use their own money, not that of the taxpayers, period.

Suppose during the late 1990s when the Bharatiya Janata Party was running a coalition regime in New Delhi with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister, any government publicity material carried the picture of Venkaiah Naidu, who was the then BJP president, there would have been mayhem, the floors of both houses of Parliament would be occupied by protesting members, followed by constant adjournments, and much more. I live in Calcutta and can well imagine if, at any time during the Left Front government’s long, very long, tenure in West Bengal, a government advertisement carried the picture of the then chairman of the Left Front, say of Pramode Dasgupta or Saroj Mukherjee, alongside Jyoti Basu’s: protest marches to Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bag and assembly precincts, shrill, scandalized editorial pieces in the Bengali papers; injunctions sought in the Calcutta High Court, the issue raised in Parliament, a prim home minister making a stern statement in both Houses reminding the state government of the need to be constantly aware of the distinction between party and government.

The authoritarian streak shows. What applies to parties in opposition does not apparently apply to the Congress. True, the UPA government has been indulging in this illegality for the past few years: piecemeal advertisements from individual ministries drawing attention to some achievement or some fresh venture on their part embellished with pictures of the departmental minister, the prime minister — and Sonia Gandhi, the UPA chairperson. I remember raising the issue a couple of times, but words of a columnist are for the birds. Conscience impels me to try again.

With the Lok Sabha elections round the corner, the illegality and the unconstitutionality is on a massive scale; involving advertisements in all forms of media, day after day, and bestowing Sonia Gandhi is a big hunk of pride and glory of the claimed achievements of the government over all aspects of life and living.

No political party is likely to enter into a scuffle with the Congress on the matter since most of them, including the new curiosum, the Aam Aadmi Party, would, I suspect, love to emulate the country’s most ancient party in this kind of business should they ever come to power. But I hope one or two among the eminent lawyers, who are Constitution-wise well-versed, would feel interested and do the necessary follow up. If that hope is belied, I still have a residual dream of, if not the entire Constitutional bench, a Supreme Court justice would make a suo motu intervention to stop the blatant act of corruption now being perpetrated.