Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Gujarat Model of Democracy

Sahil Kureshi

Unable to pass the “reform” bills that it desired in Parliament, the Modi government has taken to the Ordinance route. At the time of writing, nine ordinances have been either suggested to the President or have already been promulgated. These include amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, a Coal Mines Ordinance as well as an ordinance increasing the cap on foreign investment in the Insurance Sector to 49%. The proposed “reforms” in these ordinances are a direct assault on the lives of working people of the country and are being pushed through at a frantic pace to serve the interests of big capitalists and land barons who bank rolled the BJP’s election campaign.

The promulgation of an unprecedented number of ordinances within six months of coming to power and that too regarding issues that have an impact on lives and livelihoods of millions of working people indicates a tectonic shift in the practice of Indian democracy and politics. Though the Constitution does have a provision for the promulgation of ordinances by the President, it comes with the suggestion that such an action should be taken if “circumstances exist which render it necessary for him to take immediate action”. However, there no pressing emergency of any sort that can justify the actions of the government. Seen in connection with moves such as the dismantling of the Planning Commission and the watering down of the MNREGA, such haste in issuing ordinances clearly shows that the government is working with an elaborate agenda to transform the country according to a script approved by those who funded Modi’s campaign (Interestingly, the BJP, even after repeated requests from the Election Commission has not filed affidavits regarding election funding and expenditure). In acting this script out, the government is not in a mood to debate its anti-people policies on the floor of the House. 

The government is also contemplating calling joint sessions to pass certain laws that it cannot pass as result of being well short of a majority in the Rajya Sabha. Such a provision has been used only thrice since 1947, the last instance being during the tenure of the NDA (under the Prime Ministership of the “Good Governor” Atal Bihari Vajpayee) when the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed. Such backdoor moves, government orders, ordinances, joint-sittings etc., to bring in so-called reforms are antithetical to the foundational principles of a democracy and must be condemned.

However, the undemocratic actions of the Modi government should not come as a surprise given Modi’s own track record when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. There was neither good nor democratic governance, and the 2002 riots were not an aberration in an otherwise unblemished tenure. Between 2001 and 2014, when he was the CM, there were numerous encounter killings and an onslaught on the democratic rights of minorities, students, the working class, and peasants. This was accompanied by the growth of crony capitalism and rampant corruption. The killings of Ishrat Jahan, Sohrabuddin, Kausarbi, Tulsiram Prajapati and Sadiq Jamal are still under investigation and top police officers having connections with the political leadership in the state are currently in jail. The government also restricted the sale of property in 40% of Ahmedabad labeling it as communally sensitive and putting it under the Disturbed Areas Act thereby creating greater ghettoisation. Apart from handing out freebies to capitalists, ministers in the Modi government have been convicted in riot cases (Maya Kodnani) and caught in corruption scandals (fisheries scam, Purshottam Solanki).

During its tenure, the government set up 52 SEZs in the state, gifting them to their main benefactors- Adani, Ambani and Tata. These lands were given away to the capitalists, sometimes at rates as ridiculously low as Re.1 per sq. metre. When farmers protested against the establishment of these zones or industries on their lands they were shown the true face of the Gujarat Model. None of the rallies called by different kisanunions to Gandhinagar have been allowed to get anywhere close to the state capital. The police, under instructions from the government, used methods like illegally detaining large numbers of protestors, threatening private bus operators and blocking roads in order to throttle any sort of opposition. . Moreover, along with the appointment of yes-men as Vice-Chancellors and Principals of important Universities and Colleges, and overt state-patronage for the burgeoning business of private educational institutions (the government has been pulled up time and again by the courts for allowing such institutions to come up and flout the already lax laws), student union elections continued to be banned at the college level and elections to the university bodies were reduced to a farcical process. Such was Modi’s contempt for democratic processes that even the Election Commission was not spared. When the then CEC J.M. Lyngdoh, in August 2002, stated that elections could not be held immediately after the riots due to the prevailing atmosphere of fear, Modi went on a tirade against him, using his full name to emphasize his Christian roots and making snide remarks about him being “Italian”.      

Alongside the attack on democratic rights, Modi’s rule also witnessed the sharp decline in the importance of elected people’s representatives and representative bodies (both local self government bodies and the Vidhan Sabha) and a corresponding increase in the power of the CM and the non-elected executive. The Gujarat Vidhan Sabha between 2007 and 2012 sat for a total of 157 days (about 31 days a year) and passed 87 bills. Though the number is below average, what is more troubling is the fact that of these 87 bills, 80 were passed on the same day that they were introduced and none were referred to any Committees. One can imagine the extent of the debate that took place regarding these bills and the importance that was given to the opposition’s views during these sessions. It was in this period that Ashok Bhatt (an RSS hardliner) and Vajubhai Vala (involved in a land scam, now the Governor of Karnataka) were the speakers of the Assembly. Through the speaker’s “decisions from the Chair”, the voice of the opposition, which was far from stringent in its criticism of the government, was completely muffled. The Leader of the Opposition and other MLAs of the Congress were routinely suspended for shouting slogans protesting the decisions of the speaker. It became a ritual to pass important bills related to land, education and electricity, when the opposition, being suspended, was absent. These laws included the Gujarat Electricity Duty (Amendment) Bill, Universities Laws (Amendment)Bill, the Gujarat Professional Technical Educational Colleges or Institutions (Regulation of Admission And Fixation of fees)(Amendment)Bill, all passed for the benefit of vested interests. Not only this, the post of Deputy Speaker, normally given to the opposition, also remained vacant for a period of 12 years despite repeated demands from the opposition. When the BJP finally accepted to fill the vacant position, in October 2013, it did not give the post to the opposition and instead opted for elections. The opposition boycotted this and the BJP candidate was elected to the post unopposed (The post currently vacant again). The Assembly was transformed from being a place where bills were debated and discussed to a rubber stamp whose only function was to ratify the decisions that the CM had taken in consultation with a small group of “loyal” bureaucrats and business magnates. In the assembly, MLAs were not allowed to ask questions regarding the entire state- they could only ask questions regarding specific districts. Any opposition was duly beaten down- inside the assembly by the speaker and outside it, by the police. This is the Gujarat Model the present government is trying to impose on the entire country.   
Modi and the BJP have a wealth of experience in exercising the tyranny of the majority and making short work of democratic norms and practices. They have neither time nor respect for established institutions. Six months after coming to power, they now have to pay their pound of flesh and they must do it quickly. With a brute majority in the Assembly and the only opposition being an unprincipled Congress and a few unorganized forces in civil society, this was not very difficult to do in Gujarat. The Congress would normally toe the line, and when it did not the MLAs could be suspended and laws passed. Civil society activists having very little mass support in the state could be branded as being anti-Gujarat and anti-development and immediately silenced. However, the situation today is slightly different- though the NDA has a large majority in the Lok Sabha, a united opposition in the Rajya Sabha can block the bills. The PM is out to prove that he will not be bogged down by the opposition, the Courts, the laws, or even the Constitution, by completely circumventing the parliament and taking to promulgation of ordinances. It is up to progressive forces, especially the Left, to forge a united opposition to the ordinance raj, undemocratic practices and anti-people policies of the present government within parliament, and lead, simultaneously, mass struggles against the same on the ground. The recent strike of coal workers under the CITU, the large protest against dismantling of the MNREGA organized by the Left parties, and the ongoing struggles against communalism, signal the shape of the militant fight needed against the imposition of the Gujarat Model of “Democracy” in the days to come.

The author is an independent researcher based in Delhi.

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