A deficit of governance, morality in polity today
Several issues today are a pointer to a deeper moral and political crisis that engulfs our democratic set-up.
A recent viral video provided an accurate snapshot of the state of India’s governance. Images of workmen hastily refurbishing the crumbling civil hospital in Gujarat’s Morbi ahead of a prime ministerial visit offer a glimpse of a dystopian reality. As a small town recovers from the unimaginable tragedy caused by criminal negligence, leading to the loss of scores of lives, the idea that grief can be hidden from the public gaze by an extra coat of paint is appalling. But then, it is election season in Gujarat and the chamak (glitter) of a much-hyped Gujarat model must mask the grime of a rundown government hospital and ineffectual local administration. We are, after all, in the age of flashy optics, where the perfect photo-op matters above all else.
Consider also the recent visuals from the satsang (religious gathering) of Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the self-styled spiritual head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, being attended by VVIPs, including Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and ministers. The Dera chief, convicted of rape and murder, is out on parole for 40 days, the timing of his release conveniently tied in with a Haryana by-election and Himachal assembly polls, two states where the Dera has a considerable following. In one video, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister from Himachal seeks aashirwaad (blessings) from the convicted godman, appearing to white-wash the crimes of a rapist-murderer in public glare.
Recall also another recent video of 11 men convicted of rape and murder in the 2002 Bilkis Bano case being feted and garlanded by some Vishwa Hindu Parishad members in Gujarat after their life sentence was remitted. As the subsequent Gujarat government affidavit in the Supreme Court revealed, the premature release of the convicts was opposed by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the special court in Mumbai where the trial was held. Here, too, the political angle is unmistakable: With Gujarat in election mode, the quest for the Hindu vote appears to override all else.
A fourth video is just as revealing. A BJP Member of Parliament (MP) from West Delhi, Parvesh Verma, is seen exhorting a crowd to economically boycott a community and “teach them a lesson”. Without specifically naming Muslims, there are enough references in his rabble-rousing speech to realise who the supposed “enemy” is. It is hate speech delivered with impunity, designed to cement a vote bank. After all, Delhi, too, is about to witness a high-stakes municipal election battle.
Collectively, these videos are a pointer to a deeper moral and political crisis that engulfs our democratic set-up. First, there is a visible lack of accountability amongst those in authority. How can local government officials in Morbi get away with the bald lie that they were not aware that the iconic colonial-era bridge was reopened for public use after renovation? To blame overcrowding while ignoring the obvious lack of security at the bridge is a gross dereliction of duty. Likewise, how can the Haryana government say that it is unaware of the blatant abuse of parole granted to the Dera boss? Or the home ministry remain silent on the Bilkis case although the release was green flagged by the ministry? In the Verma case, some reports say the BJP leadership is “unhappy” with the MP’s utterances but there has been no formal reprimand.
Second, each of these instances points to an institutional corrosion and governance deficit at multiple levels. Civic administrations have earned a reputation for sloth and corruption; the failure of Morbi Police and municipal authorities to supervise basic safety norms mirrors this grim reality. The convicted Dera chief being allowed to hold large public gatherings shows the hollowness of the criminal justice system meant to ensure equality before the law. Short-circuiting the process to remit the life sentence of convicted murderers and rapists in the Bilkis case shows how the law can be subverted by partisan politics. The lack of action in the Delhi case exposes just how compromised the police force is: Activist Umar Khalid’s bail will be opposed even after he has spent two years in jail but a well-connected ruling party MP won’t be touched.
Third, the conspicuous silence of those in power, when confronted with hard questions, reveals a moral bankruptcy that is telling. How can the all-powerful “double engine” Gujarat government refuse to accept any responsibility for contracting a private company with no past experience in civil engineering projects to maintain a bridge that obviously needed an expert structural audit? How, for example, does the Bilkis case or indeed serial hate speech offences by ruling party members square up with the government’s slogan of sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas (with everyone, development for all, with everyone’s trust)? Or is it that we have reached a stage in our polity where the lofty goals of good governance and social cohesion are at complete odds with the realities of power politics, where political and constitutional morality must be forsaken at the altar of electoral benefit?
It is this deepening coarseness of a power-at-all-costs mantra that leaves one wondering what it will take to restore a moral quotient to a democracy in recession. When in despair, take solace in soulful poetry: Ummeed par hai duniya kayam, yeh waqt bura bhi tal jayega; roshni mein phir badal jayega, samay ke saath badal jayega! (the world lives on hope, this bad time too will pass; the light will return and change will come with time).
Post-script: I am sometimes asked how I switch off from the slough of despondency that courses through prime-time news. My answer: just listen to retro Hindi film music or watch an archival cricket match. You should try it too!
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal