Seventy years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech not only marked India’s independence from British rule but also expressed the vision for a united, democratic, egalitarian and modern country.
Not long after, that vision of the India’s first prime minister, as well as the values that guided the freedom struggle, was written in the constitution that Indians gave themselves. That constitution, its principles and the robust institutional architecture it put in place, helped India weather multiple challenges over the years.
Now the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appears is determined to erase Nehru’s legacy. To get the better of its political rivals and consolidate itself, the BJP has manipulated national institutions to short-circuit competition, undermine and even exclude its challengers.
In 2014, the BJP promised a radical rupture from the incumbent Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance-II (UPA-II) and rode to power on the sentiment that “good days are just ahead”. From 2009 to 2014, the UPA-II government was marked by not just by economic downturn and sluggish policymaking but also cronyism and corruption.
Today, under the premiership of Narendra Modi, the optimism of 2014 is fast evaporating as an “its my way or the highway” mode of governance shows a culture of one-party dominance violating both standard operating procedures and “dharma” – right conduct in the exercise of duty in Hindu philosophy – to get the better of its political rivals.
It was presumed by some that the BJP’s experience in the states and as the main opposition party for more than a decade would have given it a more magnanimous perspective. With its massive mandate and its quest for recognition, it was imagined the party would show greater generosity to its opponents as well as respect for the moral values embedded in the constitution.
One of the major election campaign planks of the BJP in 2014 was cooperative federalism. The issue of centre-state relations has been a core factor in the politics of the states beyond Hindi speaking areas of north and central India. The states anticipated a better deal since, as chief minister from 2002 to 2014 in western India’s Gujarat, Modi was highly critical of the functioning of the central government and even blogged of the “systematic disruption of our country’s federal structure both in letter and spirit.”
In power, however, his party, like the Congress in the past, has proved to be a “reluctant federalist.” When in the opposition, the BJP was critical of Congress and its use of governors as instruments of the ruling party. However, within a month in office, the NDA-II government threw federal niceties out of the window and replaced the UPA-II appointed-governors with its own.
Over the last three years, the central government has unhesitatingly used Article 356, an emergency provision in the constitution that puts a state directly under the centre, via the office of the governor and the centre’s administrative and financial muscle, to further the party’s partisan ends.
States such as Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Tripura, Tamil Nadu, Nagaland, Delhi, and Puducherry, proved to be sitting ducks for central meddling. These intrusions are gross violations of the federal spirit and are not good exemplars of cooperative federalism.
In Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, the governor convened a meeting of the state legislative assembly without consulting the government, in which only BJP and rebel Congress legislators participated. In Uttarakhand, the central government imposed Art. 356 just a day before the chief minister was to assert his majority in the assembly. In both cases, the BJP had encouraged defectors to topple the ruling Congress governments.
The Inter-state Council (ISC), a constitutional forum for inter-governmental engagement met more frequently when state-based parties called the shots rather than when the Congress or the BJP dominated. Though Modi has hailed the ISC as the “most significant platform for strengthening centre-state relations”, his government chose not to use it as a platform to involve the states in national-level decision making.
The BJP’s attempts to manoeuvre to a position of strength and checkmate the opposition has also undermined parliament. For instance, the NDA-II introduced a potentially institution-weakening step by passing a controversial bill in a way that allowed it to bypass the opposition – this was contrary to the spirit of the constitution and serves merely to further corrode government-opposition relations.
Finally, over the last three years, the government has been intolerant of criticism and has often “shot the messenger” while ignoring the message. Unfavourable judgements of public policy and functionaries as well as positions that oppose those of ruling cadre are often interpreted as a threat to the nation.
On different occasions, party spokespersons, as well as government ministers, have sought to restrain the right to free speech in the name of preserving national security.
For instance, when student groups on certain university campuses took a position on armed struggles that was contrary to the government stand, they were dubbed as anti-national.
Bypassing the opposition, curbing the freedom of expression, violating the rights of states can at best win pyrrhic victories. There are certain obligations for rulers in office and to not follow those canons is a corruption of the terms of office. Constitutions are negotiated constraints designed to serve particular purposes and produce specific results. It is normal that not everybody is happy with the existing arrangements. Dharma ,however, demands that you work within the institutional logic. To ignore the complexity and subtlety and invent practices that undermine the institutional order violates the spirit of the constitution: the bedrock of this democracy celebrating seven decades of independence.