Prem Shankar Jha

What is important is for the opposition to convey to the public that in the battle to defeat Modi’s BJP in 2024, the differences between Congress and AAP signify nothing.

Arvind Kejriwal (L) and Rahul Gandhi. Photos: Official Twitter handles

In the 12 years he was chief minister of Gujarat and the nine in which he has been the prime minister, Narendra Modi has shown, time and again, that he is built somewhat like a powerful automobile in which the manufacturers forgot to put in a reverse gear. Because throughout these years, his only response to every threat he has faced has been to launch a counter-attack, no matter what it might cost the nation or even his own future.

I had therefore been waiting for his counterattack to take shape ever since the opposition’s success in forming a combined front to fight the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2024, at Patna. I got my answer on July 5. Sharad Pawar had been the convenor who had made the Patna meet possible. So Pawar’s party had to be destroyed first.

The weapon that Modi has used is the one he has been using with increasing frequency against his political opponents and critics in civil society. This is the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, in which he made eight draconian amendments in 2019 that have given his government virtually unrestricted powers of arrest, detention and attachment of property, and all but abolished the habeas corpus, the right of the accused to remain free until convicted of a crime.

Since then, Modi has been relying more and more heavily upon the PMLA to ‘persuade’ his political opponents to betray their parties and join the BJP. His destruction of the Nationalist Congress Party has run true to form: four of the nine defectors – Ajit Pawar, Praful Patel, Chhagan Bhujbal and Hasan Mushrif – have been under investigation on a variety of money laundering and bank loan scam charges, and have had hundreds of crores worth of their properties sequestered. Now that they have become honourable ministers of the government and ruling party of the great state of Maharashtra, one can presume that these charges will disappear like the mists of the night at the rising of the sun.

That this has been Modi’s revenge on Pawar has been endorsed by no less eminent a journal than India Today, which has also warned that Bihar is next on the prime minister’s list. India Today has also surmised that this is only the beginning of a campaign that will be launched in other opposition-ruled states as well. Its purpose, the weekly has surmised, is to show to the people how unworthy of trust their representatives are and to remind them that only a party with a clearly stated ideology can be relied upon to fulfil its promises.

This is the challenge that the opposition now needs to meet. With the Lok Sabha elections less than nine months away, its first task must be to reassure the electorate that the unity achieved at Patna remains undented by the developments in Maharashtra. To do this, it needs first to highlight the progress it has made in removing the obstacles that have hindered the move from competition to cooperation. To say that this has been impressive would be an understatement, for the conclave reached an agreement not only on the yardsticks it would use to decide which party would contest which constituency, but agreed to leave the even more thorny issue of leadership to be decided after the elections. It also recognised the need to present an alternative vision of India’s future to the BJP’s Hindutva.

Despite these impressive achievements, doubts about the stability and longevity of the coalition have continued to persist. These have been fuelled to some degree by the absence of the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha, and of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, but their main cause is the explicit refusal of the Aam Admi Party to endorse the Common Declaration because it did not include a commitment to vote against the Delhi ordinance. Kejriwal need not have insisted upon this, because the ordinance is outrageous anyway, and would hamstring the Congress and BJP too, were they ever to come to power in Delhi. What is more, it was openly mischievous for Narendra Modi had lost this battle in the Supreme Court once already and was bound to do so again. Its sole purpose, therefore, was to give the simmering hatred of the AAP within the Delhi branch of the Congress an occasion to surface and thereby throw a spanner in the works of creating a unified opposition.

Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi’s failure to recognise this, and readily concede to AAP’s demand, was therefore a chink in opposition unity that virtually invited exploitation by the BJP. That is the chink that it is now trying to widen.

What is hard to understand is why this simple request has proved an obstacle to unity when much more serious obstacles have already been overcome. The only explanation is the impact that a concession by either party would have had upon its own party cadres. Despite the cementing and revitalising impact that Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra has had upon the Congress, its unity remains fragile.

In large parts of the country including, notably, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, its repeated defeats at the hustings have made it virtually cease to exist. It cannot therefore be blamed for fearing that after suffering three successive Vidhan Sabha poll defeats, its cadres in Delhi are also headed out of the door. Ajay Maken’s relentless attacks upon AAP are therefore attempts to stem the rot, and the leaders of the Congress cannot be blamed for not reigning him in, because of the effect this could have upon the party’s cadres in other states where its dominance is endangered or has disappeared.

But Maken’s  attacks upon the AAP have created a mirror image of the problem he faces within the Congress for Kejriwal within his own party. For through its silent endorsement of every attack that Modi has launched upon Kejriwal since 2015, Maken had made it virtually impossible for Kejriwal to join the opposition without some overt act of support for AAP in its constant battle with Modi.

What is important is for the opposition to convey to the public that in the battle to defeat Modi’s BJP in 2024, the differences between Congress and AAP signify nothing. AAP does not need the support of the coalition to rout BJP in either of the two states that it now governs. In Delhi it won 67 and 62 out of the 70 vidhan Sabha seats with a colossal 54% of the vote in 2015 and 53.6% in 2020. These are figures that the Congress did not even come close to matching either at the Centre or in any of the states from 1947 till 1989. In Punjab, AAP won 92 out of 117 seats last year with 42% of the vote. Against this, the Congress, BJP and Akali Dal together won only 23 seats with 23.9%, 6.6% and 18% of the vote, respectively.

The message these results send is unambiguous: whether the AAP joins or does not join the coalition formally in 2024 will make no difference to the number of seats it will win in the Lok Sabha.

Nor is there the faintest chance that AAP will enter into any post-poll alliance with the BJP, for not only has it suffered more at Modi’s hands than any other party, but it would destroy every tenet upon which its meteoric rise has been based. These are its complete disregard for caste, creed, colour and gender in its policies and governance, and its commitment to serving the poor instead of being served by the poor.

Finally, AAP will contribute more to the saving of Indian democracy by refusing to compromise on its demand for support in the Rajya Sabha and being willing to fight alone if necessary, than by making any of the compromises that will be necessary to become part  of an alliance of political parties. For it will demonstrate to the entire nation that the era of entitlement politics, in which candidates demanded votes from the electorate on the basis of their caste or creed, has ended and that of service politics, in which votes have to be won by serving the people, has finally dawned.

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The fact that the planned joint opposition in Patna was postponed has created rumours that such unity may not be achieved before 2024. This fear, however, is almost certain to prove groundless.

Rahul Gandhi at Roosevelt House, New York. Photo: Twitter/@RahulGandhi

The postponement of the the grand opposition meeting that had been scheduled for June 12 in Patna to June 23 has revived anxiety in India’s civil society that this could signal second thoughts in the Congress on the terms on which the unity need to be forged. This is in spite of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge having stressed the importance of uniting to fight the BJP in 2024, in his inaugural address to the AICC in Raipur three months ago, where he had advocated the formation of an alliance based on the ‘UPA model’ of 2004–2014, and had cautioned the rest of the opposition against forming a ‘Third Front’.

Since then, however, talk of a UPA-type alliance has almost disappeared from the Congress’s political  lexicon, but no alternative proposal for government formation in the event of an opposition victory has taken its place. It is not surprising therefore that the postponement of the grand opposition meeting scheduled to take place in Patna on June 12 to June 23, has once again aroused dormant fears that a formula for unity might still elude the opposition when decision time arrives.

This fear, however, is almost certain to prove groundless. The evidence for this, if any were needed, is to be found in the speeches of Rahul Gandhi during his six-day interaction with the Indian diaspora in the US, and question-answer sessions that followed. Thanks to Youtube, all of these can be seen in their entirety by those who were not physically present. So we are in a position, unique in human history, of being able to judge a speaker’s sincerity and character in a way that was unthinkable even half a century ago. And ever since he began his Bharat Jodo Yatra, Gandhi has been passing this eyeball test with flying colours.

In his speeches in the US, Gandhi displayed a palpable sincerity that is the polar opposite of the dissembling and compromise that characterises Indian politics, and for that matter most democratic politics in the world. In all of them his theme was the same – India’s innate strength, its durability and its pride has rested, throughout its history, upon its unquestioning acceptance of, and comfort with, its ethnic diversity and religious pluralism. This comfort, he told his audiences in California, Washington DC and New York, is the secret of the phenomenal success of the Indian diaspora in integrating themselves with their adopted countries. Gandhi reinforced this message through his unaffected display of pride in their achievements in the US .

But the message he hammered home most consistently is the one that is most relevant to India’s future. This was that while the BJP and RSS were constantly harping on a largely imagined  past, the need of the hour was to chart India’s path into an uncertain future. In a graphic phrase that bids to rival his ‘nafrat ki bazaar’ aphorism, he likened Modi  to  someone driving with his eyes glued to the rear-view mirror of his vehicle.

He illustrated this by referring to the train accident in Odisha. Within hours of the disaster, the BJP’s spokespersons were busy pointing out that there had been similar, serious accidents during the Congress’s rule too, and in highlighting a train collision at Ariyalur in November 1956 that had claimed 140 lives. What they chose to ignore was the response of the Nehru government whose railways minister resigned, taking constitutional responsibility for the tragedy. Even though the technology for avoiding such tragedies that the world has today had not even been dreamed of then. By contrast, no minister in Modi’s government has done so today, even though that technology has been in general use for decades.

What makes this omission inexcusable is that at the tail end of the UPA government’s rule, a committee headed by Sam Pitroda had recommended installing an anti-collision system on all of the 65,000 kilometres of railway lines in India. But till the time of the Odisha accident an entire  decade later, the Modi government had installed anti-collision digital equipment on only 1,000 km of railway lines.

In 1956, the Congress minister who took responsibility and resigned was Lal Bahadur Shastri. The party remembered this and made him India’s prime minister after Nehru’s death.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Gandhi’s speeches in the US was their tone. Narendra Modi’s speeches, both at home and abroad, are designed to create awe and fear. Gandhi’s speeches have reflected a desire to start a dialogue. In all of them he has emphasised the need for joint action by political parties in India – not to win an election or throw out a rival political party, but to save India’s ethnically diverse and religiously plural democracy from crashing in ruins.

If there had ever been any doubt left in people’s minds about his motives, this tour of the US should have erased them. For Rahul Gandhi, saving India’s democracy comes first. His personal status within it comes a long, long way second.

This is the understanding of the Congress’s motives today, with which the major opposition parties need to assemble at  Patna on June 23.

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If there is a lesson the opposition needs to learn from Modi’s endorsement of a film that he has almost certainly not even seen the trailer of, it is that he will stop at absolutely nothing to come back to power in 2024.

PM Modi. In the background are posters of ‘The Kerala Story’. Photos: Twitter/@BJP4Karnataka and IMDb.

Barely a year after the release of The Kashmir Files, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is again using another grossly incendiary film, The Kerala Story, to fan hatred of Indian Muslims in order to consolidate the “Hindu” vote and stay in power next year. 

The Kashmir Files was a hugely distorted and highly inflammatory depiction of the planned murders of prominent Kashmiri Pandits in the early months of 1990, which was designed to ethnically cleanse the valley of its Pandit community. The Kerala Story accuses Muslim organisations in Kerala of supplying 32,000 recruits to ISIS, the self-styled Islamic State terror group which briefly established control of territory in Syria and Iraq. Many of these, it claims, were women recruited to serve as the wives of IS fighters. 

The brazen disregard for the truth displayed by both films reflects how completely the Bharatiya Janata Party, under Modi, has become a conduit for lies. For, one brief look at the actual Kashmir files – not the screen version but the Union home ministry’s papers – would reveal that the killing of selected Pandits in 1990 was planned and paid for, in weapons and cash, by the Pakistan army’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and carried out by a handful of self-styled mujahideen recruited by it from among the many thousand young Kashmiris who had joined the rebellion against India after the Gaukadal police firing upon civilians in Srinagar in January 1990 that took between 24 and 55 lives. 

How opposed the average Kashmiri Muslim was to becoming a part of Pakistan, even after the 14 years insurgency of insurgency and draconian repression that followed, was revealed by two international opinion polls carried out in 2004 and 2009 . The first was conducted by MORI, Europe’s premier sampling survey organisation, and the second jointly by MORI with GALLUP. The 2004 poll showed that 61% of the population of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh wanted to remain a part of India and only 6% preferred Pakistan. 

Similarly, the 2009 poll, which was initiated by Chatham House, Britain’s premier foreign policy think tank, and confined to the Kashmir valley, showed that even in the four worst-affected districts of the valley, only 2.5 to 7.5% of those surveyed preferred Pakistan to India. 

That was the strength of the bond between Kashmiri Muslims and secular India that Modi fatally weakened within weeks of coming to power by breaking off all talks with the Hurriyat Conference, unleashing a reign of terror in the valley, gutting Article 370 of the constitution, and turning Jammu and Kashmir into a Union territory, thereby disempowering Kashmiris within their own state. That is the bond that The Kashmir Files has weakened further by creating alienation not in Kashmir but in the Hindu population of the rest of India.

The Kerala Story is intended to do the same to the 1200 year-old bond between the Hindus, Christians and Muslims of Kerala. It is a measure of Prime Minister Modi’s insecurity about his party’s – and his own – future that he is now openly endorsing the grotesque lie cooked up by his bhakts and his propaganda machine that there was an exodus of Muslims from Kerala to join Daesh, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. 

Here is what Modi said in a pre-poll speech at Ballari in Karnataka, on May 5: 

“ In these changing times, the nature of terrorism is also changing …Bombs, rifles and pistols… (have been replaced by) a new type which undermines society from within, makes no sound. The Kerala Story is a film based on one such conspiracy in Kerala”. 

What is the theme of The Kerala Story that Modi is asking the people of Karnataka and the rest of India to treat as gospelIt is that Muslim organisations in Kerala supplied 32,000 recruits to ISIS when it established its brief, blood -soaked control of territory around Raqqa, Deir-ez-Zor and Mosul in Syria and Iraq. Many of these, it claims, were sent to serve as wives for the IS fighters. 

What is far more incendiary, the film depicts in graphic detail how many of them were Hindu girls who had been converted to Islam before being inveigled into going. 

Several reviewers, who did not bother to do the 30 minutes of research on the internet that has gone into the writing of this article, have stated that this is “a serious issue lost to bad direction, and worse writing” (India Today). The Organiser, the de facto mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, has described the film as “a dangerous truth told with a calculated balance”.

But the entire film is such a bald-faced lie that to find the prime minister of India mouthing its praise and endorsing its contents in a public speech brings shame upon the entire country. Study after study, both in India and abroad, has noted the almost complete absence of Indian Muslims in the ranks of the IS. On December 20, 2017, Hansraj Gangaram Ahir, Modi’s minister of state for home affairs in his first stint as PM, reported to the Rajya Sabha that only 103 people who “sympathised” with ISIS had been arrested across 14 states by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), according to the data available with the government. The minister added: “Very few individuals [from India] have come to the notice of the central and state security agencies who (sic) have joined ISIS.”

Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous state – reported a paltry 17 sympathisers, followed by Maharashtra (16), and Telangana (16). Kerala had reported only 14 and Karnataka a mere 8. What is more, these were individuals accused of being ’sympathisers’ – and who had not left India to join ISIS in the desert.

Two years later, at the start of Modi’s second term in June 2019, minister of state for home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy stated in a written reply to Lok Sabha that the NIA and state police forces had registered cases against ISIS operatives as sympathisers, and have arrested 155 accused from across the country. 

Three years later, in a detailed study published by the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis at New Delhi, Adil Rasheed reported that until 2019 less than 100 migrants working in the Gulf were thought to have been lured into ISIS while 155 had been  arrested in India for having ISIS links. 

“The mystery behind the very few Indian names appearing in the long list of foreign fighters in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS),” he wrote, “has puzzled strategic thinkers for some time now. This pleasant yet inexplicable surprise finds a historical precedent in the conspicuous absence of Indians from the legions of foreign ‘mujahideen’ fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s and from the Taliban and al Qaeda’s ‘Islamic Emirate’ of the 1990s”. 

The figure of 32,000 recruits from India, and the assertion that a large number of them were women, is therefore absurd – all the more so because estimates by the European Union and the Central Intelligence Agency in the US have put the maximum strength of the IS at its height at around 30,000. 

What is more, 5,000 of them had been recruited in Europe and most of the remainder had come from Arab countries devastated by civil war after the so-called Arab Spring. The largest number had come from Libya, whose economy had been totally destroyed by the concerted Euro-American attack upon it in 2011. The idea that 32,000 Indian Muslims had also joined IS, whether as fighters or sex slaves, is therefore ludicrous. 

That Modi, speaking in Hindi, should have gone to the length of endorsing such a dangerously incendiary film at Ballari in Karnataka before a large crowd whose grasp of the language is poor to non-existent, reveals that his intended audience was not Kannadigas, but the vastly larger masses of unemployed and desperate youth in the Hindi-speaking belt. These are the young Indians to whom he has so far been unable to provide jobs and a secure future, and who are now being primed to attack Muslims in order to retain their support for the BJP in the 2024 general election. 

If there is a lesson the opposition needs to learn from Modi’s endorsement of a film that he has almost certainly not even seen the trailer of, it is that he will stop at absolutely nothing to come back to power in 2024 and is willing to plunge the country into communal violence, not to mention war with a nuclear armed neighbour, if that is what it will take. This is what has transformed the role of the opposition in the next general election from one of winning the maximum number of seats to saving India from disintegrating in a sea of blood. 

It is, therefore, imperative that they put aside their political rivalries with each other and unite to meet the threat to India’s very existence that the BJP under Modi and Shah now poses to India’s very existence. The leaders of all the major opposition parties, including the Congress, are now fully aware of this. But, as the no-holds-barred struggle between Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, and AICC general secretary and former Delhi Congress party chief Ajay Maken’s incessant diatribes against the Aam Admi Party have shown, this realisation has yet to trickle down into the second rung of the Congress party’s leadership.  

The resistance at this level is understandable, for these are the leaders who manage party cadres at the ground level, and the surrender of some seats to other parties inevitably leads to demoralisation and defections of cadres in those constituencies. All opposition parties, and particularly the Congress, face this problem, but there is a solution to it.

This is for the opposition to agree to confine coalition building to the Lok Sabha elections and continue to fight each other in the Vidhan Sabha elections. This would not have been possible earlier, when Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections were held more or less simultaneously – as used to happen till the 1960s – but today presents no major problem.

By concentrating entirely upon national and international issues in his relentless campaigning during the past nine years, Modi has made it possible for the opposition to do the same. If it comes to an agreement over this, its victory in 2024 will be assured.  

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The prime minister is spending almost 11 times as much on meeting the same need as the Delhi chief minister. Is that because his job is 11 times as onerous as a chief minister’s? Or is it because Modi’s ego is considerably larger than Kejriwal’s?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. Photos: PTI

Narendra Modi must be in seventh heaven. His bete noire, potentially his nemesis, Arvind Kejriwal has been found to have feet of clay. For years now, Kejriwal has tirelessly contrasted his own simple lifestyle, and his party’s serving of people, with Modi’s endless preoccupation with himself, and  exclusive concern for the industrial health of the super rich, such as the Ambanis, the Adanis and the Tatas.

Ten days ago, Kejriwal had used the one weapon against Modi that a dictator has no defence against: satire and ridicule. Charlie Chaplin, the greatest comedian of the 20th century, had used this against  Adolf Hitler in his immortal 1939 film, The Great Dictator. Kejriwal had done this ten days ago with a 20 minute story he narrated in the Vidhan Sabha, titled “Chauthi Pass Raja”. This was having the same effect in India as The Great Dictator had had in the US: videos of the story have garnered millions of viewsThe release of data to show that the CM’s house his government is building costs Rs 45 crore was Modi’s counterattack! 

But will it succeed in denting Kejriwal’s hold on the people of Delhi? The commercial media’s gleeful  acceptance of the estimate as gross extravagance by a man whose ego has finally outstripped his unremarkable physical stature, was only to be expected in a country where investigative journalism has been strangled to death. But surely, some newspaper needed to contrast that story with the cost of Modi’s own pet project, the Central Vista Redevelopment project, which is Rs 13,450 crore, i.e $1.7 billion. 

This redevelopment is to spread over 20,866 square metres and have a total built up area of 64,500 square metres. Within it the prime minister’s house complex will cover 36,268 sq ft (more than 4,000 square metres) and cost Rs 467 crore.  This is more than ten times the amount estimated for the Delhi  chief minister’s proposed housing complex.

The prime minister’s new office and residence will be on a site covering 15 acres. It will contain ten four-storey buildings that will accommodate not only his residence, but the living quarters of his Special Protection Group and his private office complex. 

This is no different from the present arrangement in (the former) Race Course road where these functions are spread over 4 buildings set in lawns that cover approximately 16 acres. This arrangement  has comfortably served five previous prime ministers from Rajiv Gandhi to Manmohan Singh. 

Despite that, Modi’s reasons for the complex closer to Parliament House and the prime minister’s official secretariat are understandable, because of the rapidly increasing traffic on New Delhi roads, the worsening traffic jams being caused by it, and therefore the increasing vulnerability of any cavalcade to a terrorist attack. 

Construction for the Central Vista project. Photo: Oishika Neogi

What necessitated reconstruction of CM residence?

But these same considerations, multiplied many times, were what necessitated the reconstruction of the chief minister’s residence. For Kejriwal had categorically refused to move into Raj Nivas, the residence of the British chief administrators of Delhi, and later of chief ministers after Delhi became a state, pronouncing it too grand and too large for him and had, instead, chosen to stay at what used to be the Delhi Vidhan Sabha speaker’s residence at 6, Flagstaff road in old Delhi. 

All those who met Kejriwal at home in those days will remember that 6, Flagstaff Road is a single floor house with a small front lobby that Kejriwal had turned into an informal meeting room, a central living and dining room, and three bedrooms  spread around it, one of which was occupied by his father and a computer. That was all!

The entire house reeked of dilapidation. Considering that it had been built in 1942, barely a decade after the British shifted their capital from Calcutta to Delhi, this was hardly surprising. So, having lived in a similar house in New Delhi, in the 1950s and 1960s, I was not surprised to learn that the ceilings of all the three bedrooms had begun to leak. 

Those who are accusing Kejriwal of having been corrupted by power today, need to ask themselves why this surfaced only in 2020, seven years after AAP first came to power in Delhi? The short answer is that when he chose 6, Flagstaff Road over Raj Nivas, Kejriwal did not realise that the chief minister’s house needed to serve also as his main office.

This had been understood by the British as far back as in 1906, when they built the first office-cum-residence Raj Nivas on what was then the Ludlow Castle Road, and is now the Raj Nivas Marg.

After Independence, with an ever-expanding city and increasing state regulation of civic life, this complex became too small by 1988. Both wings of Raj Nivas where therefore completely redesigned and expanded into a residence-cum-secretariat at great expense in 1995. 

This background is necessary to understand why the conversion of 6, Flagstaff road from being simply one chief minister’s choice of a home, into the official residence of all future chief ministers of the state is costing Rs 45 crore. Kejriwal had chosen it as an unpretentious home to live in. But a chief minister’s home can never be private. On the contrary it has, necessarily to be a mini-secretariat that can receive information and transmit decisions instantly, as and when the chief minister needs it to do so.  

In 2015, when Kejriwal chose to live there, it was a home without an office. In the next five years this lacuna was filled by the ad hoc addition of temporary rooms constructed between the gate and the entrance to the house. These sufficed till 2020, when the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed. The shut down of the entire Delhi secretariat did not lead to shut down of work. On the contrary, with the need to open COVID wards, arrange medication, oxygen and ambulances, and  look after tens of thousands of migrant workers suddenly rendered destitute, 6, Flagstaff road suddenly became the pulsing nerve centre of government.  

I cannot even begin to imagine how his administration coped with the crisis from the ramshackle bunch of huts I had seen at Flagstaff road. But that experience, without a doubt, taught Kejriwal a hard lesson: he had to choose between looking and acting like a leader of the poor ever in search of votes, and a leader who wished to deliver service to the poor and save their lives. It is not therefore surprising that the first order for refurbishings worth Rs 7.09 crore, was issued on September 09, 2020. 

Once it was decided that 6, Flagstaff Road would be the permanent official residence of the chief minister of Delhi, another need arose that had been largely overlooked in Kejriwal’s first years. His was for quarters for his personal security staff. It was this need that had caused the present official prime minister’s residence to expand from 5, Race Course road as his home and 7, Race Course Road as his personal office, to include 3 and 9 Race Course Road as well. 

It is also the need explicitly stated for the PM’s residential complex Modi is setting up on the edge of the Central Vista lawns. Modi is therefore spending almost 11 times as much on meeting the same need as Kejriwal. Is that because the prime minster’s job is 11 times as onerous as a chief minister’s? Or is it because Modi’s ego is considerably larger than Kejriwal’s?

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The only way the country’s voters can have a viable opposition to vote for in 2024 is if the Congress, in true spirit, joins hands with other opposition parties and highlights Modi’s dangerous drift towards tyranny.

To the left, Rahul Gandhi. To the right, clockwise from the top left, M.K. Stalin, Arvind Kejriwal, Asaduddin Owaisi, Mamata Banerjee and KCR. In the background are Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Union government, it has had a secret ally. That ally is the Congress party of India.

The partnership between the two parties is not explicit but implicit. When it comes to words, the Congress criticises everything that the BJP says or does. But when it comes to deeds, the Congress has tacitly backed the BJP every time. It has been doing  this by sabotaging every attempt that leaders of various opposition parties have made so far to forge an alliance with it to fight the BJP in central and state elections.

It has been doing this through two, perhaps unintentional, political errors.

The first is to hold a grudge against any party that has supplanted the Congress within a state that it used to control. Its chief target in the past eight years has been the Aam Aadmi Party which has replaced it in Delhi and most recently in Punjab.

The second is to accuse any strong regional leader who proposes a coalition of wanting to rob the Congress party of its birthright and become the prime minister of India. 

It made the first mistake in the 2017 state elections in Gujarat where it spurned AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal’s offer to not merely ally AAP with the Congress, but also allow it to choose the candidates AAP would put up in the constituencies allocated to it. In the elections the BJP won 99 seats, against the Congress’s 77. But it won 15 of these with vote margins of less than 5,000 and nine with margins of less than 2,000 votes. A Congress-AAP alliance in 2017 could have won a sufficient number of those seats to oust the BJP and severely weaken Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s power base in the country and within the BJP.  

 The Congress’s second mistake has been to allow sundry party members to insist that the Congress must not only lead any opposition coalition in the fight against the BJP but, should it win in 2024, automatically claim the prime ministership. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi could have disclaimed such ambitions, but chose to remain silent.

The BJP’s delighted spokespersons have therefore learned that all they have to do to make the Congress party’s envy machine start running in Modi’s favour is to accuse any regional leader who talks of opposition unity of wanting to become the prime minister. That is what Union home minister Amit Shah accused Nitish Kumar of doing recently, when he proclaimed  that the doors of the BJP in Bihar are closed to him forever.

The BJP’s victory in 2019 should have brought home the price of disunity to the Congress. But the party’s second rank did not allow the claim that leadership was its birthright to die. As a result, although meetings between opposition leaders became more frequent, with several being hosted by the Congress, the key question – who would lead the coalition government if one had to be formed, remained unanswered. 

Rahul Gandhi’s inspiring Bharat Jodo Yatra, in  which he steadfastly refused to discuss political tactics and focused unswervingly upon the three critical challenges the country is facing – rapidly growing poverty, rapidly growing youth unemployment, and rapidly growing communal polarisation – created the policy platform around which an opposition to the BJP could coalesce. But the key question: who would head a victorious coalition government, remained unanswered. 

Rahul Gandhi and Omar Abdullah during the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Kashmir on January 27, 2023. Photo: Twitter/@BharatJodo

The obvious answer is that this question will arise only after the elections, and only if the coalition succeeds in dislodging the BJP. Till then it is not only hypothetical, but raising it before the election is the surest way of making sure that it will remain so. 

The history of our democracy provides ample proof of this, for the only three victorious coalitions – the Janata party in 1977, the National Front in 1989, and the United Front in 1996, had not chosen a prime minister before the elections.

The UF had, in fact, to send for H.D. Deve Gowda, then chief minister of Karnataka and completely unknown in north India, to head its government. Deve Gowda, moreover, came with the utmost reluctance for only a year in order to give the UF time to find an acceptable permanent leader. 

After Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra had given the Congress a new lease on life, the All India Congress Committee session at Raipur would have been the perfect occasion for the Congress to eschew the demand for primacy in an opposition coalition and announce that it would await the verdict of the electorate. With 19.46% of the national vote in 2019, against 4.06% for the next largest opposition party, the Trinamool Congress, it had the best chance of heading the next government anyway. All it had to do at Raipur was to announce that it looked forward to working with all other parties (or like-minded parties) to defeat the BJP in 2024. 

But instead it raised its hoary demand to be primus inter pares – the first among equals – yet again.

In her speech as the outgoing doyenne of the party, Sonia Gandhi conceded that this was a challenging time not only for the Congress but for the entire country. She minced no words in accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP-RSS of relentlessly capturing and subverting every institution, ruthlessly suppressing any voice of opposition, favouring a few chosen businessmen over others, fuelling the fire of hatred against fellow Indians, viciously targeting minorities and ignoring crimes and discrimination against Muslims, against women, against Dalits and against Adivasis. She accused Modi of showing contempt for the values of our constitution.

She reminded the party that since it had led India to freedom it had a special responsibility to protect the constitution. But she did not utter a single word about how it should go about doing this after its vote share had fallen from 29% in 2009 to 19% in 2019 and the BJP had snatched dominant party status from the Congress by doubling its share of the vote from 18.8 to 37%. 

The answer, as pointed out above, was obvious. But Sonia Gandhi did not once mention the word ‘opposition’ let alone the need for the Congress to work with it to save Indian democracy. The omission was significant because it came immediately after the inaugural speech of the new Congress president, Mallikarjun Kharge, in which he stated that ‘in the prevailing difficult times the Congress is the only party that can provide capable and decisive leadership to the country.’ He also extolled ‘the UPA model’ of coalition governance, stated that the Congress looked forward to forging a viable alliance with like-minded parties and warned that “the emergence of any ‘third force’ will provide advantage to the BJP-NDA”. 

Despite being harassed by Modi’s Enforcement Directorate for 12 hours and having her son Rahul harassed for 60 hours as the ED struggled to find some shred of evidence that would enable Modi to send mother or son to jail, neither Gandhi nor Kharge showed an awareness that Modi has absolutely no intention of ever ceasing to be the prime minister of India, and will therefore stop at nothing to ensure victory for the BJP in 2024. 

Nor is there any hint of realisation that his determination to remain the prime minister of India for the rest of his life does not spring only from his ferocious drive to succeed, but his fear that if the BJP is ever voted out of power, all the allegations of his tacit or explicit complicity in the pogrom of Muslims that occurred in Gujarat in 2002 will surface once more to torment, and possibly punish, him for the rest of his life. 

With the able support of his home minister, Amit Shah, PM Modi has been able to foil every attempt by relatives of the victims and members of civil society, to hold him accountable for the police inaction that led to that pogrom. the string of faked ‘encounters’ that followed, and the so far unsolved murder of his former home minister, Haren Pandya. But that executive power will crumble to dust, and Modi’s immunity from future prosecution will vanish if the BJP fails to win the Lok Sabha elections next year. 

Modi and Shah cannot, therefore, afford to let that happen. But both of them know that the ground beneath their feet has begun to soften. Ten years of slowing GDP and industrial growth, and growing unemployment, have made close to 40 million more men and women between the ages of 16 and 60 face great difficulty in finding jobs – leading some to drop out of the labour force – during his stewardship of the country. 

The disenchantment may have been there even in 2019, but no voter was given a chance to feel it because the opposition was unable to unite and unable to present a plan for reversing the growth of unemployment, and rising distress of the poor that Modi’s first five years in office had seen. So inept had the party’s organisation become that even the release of its election manifesto took place only nine days before the start of the voting, on April 2. India’s youth were therefore left with no choice but to continue to hope that Modi would fulfil his promises if given another chance. 

During his first term in office Modi made calculated use of communal animosity to shore up the BJP’s, and his own support. But four years on, lynching Muslims and uploading the videos has not only lost its novelty for the Hindu masses but has created serious disquiet in the moderate ‘Vajpayee’ wing of the BJP. 

More pertinently, it has also done so in the RSS. Between March 2021 and October 2022, in speech after speech, delivered in places as far apart as Mumbai, Ghaziabad and Nagpur, on occasions ranging from a book launch to the Dussehra festival, Mohan Bhagwat the Sarsanghchalak of the RSS has made no secret of his anguish over the way in which Modi has been fanning communal animosity against Indian Muslims. 

Also read: Mis-Understanding Mohan Bhagwat

Modi cannot but be aware, therefore, that his continued leadership of the BJP now rests solely upon his ability to continue delivering the votes the Sangh Parivar needs to pursue its dream of a Hindu Rashtra. He is therefore fully aware that the 2024 elections will be a time of reckoning for him. So, he is leaving no stone unturned to dismember the opposition and discredit its leaders.

His preferred instruments during his first term in office were the CBI, the NIA and the Delhi police. During his second term, his government has been relying upon the Enforcement Directorate.

To prepare the ground for his onslaught on the opposition he pushed through no fewer than eight amendments to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act in 2019, which have given the ED untrammelled powers of arrest, seizure of property and denial of bail. 

Since 2021 his government has relied almost entirely upon arrests of the leaders of opposition parties under the PMLA, to paint them as corrupt and anti-poor in the eyes of the electorate. His aim now is not merely to destroy ordinary law-abiding peoples’ faith in their political leaders, but to completely discredit Indian democracy itself and thus pave the way for the authoritarian rule he intends to usher in after the 2024 elections, in the guise of Hindu Rashtra. 

The sheer savagery with which these are being used can be judged from two sets of data: Between 2004 when it was promulgated, and 2014, the governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh filed 112 cases, carried out 112 searches and made-up prosecution dockets in 104. By contrast, between 2014 and May 7, 2022 the Modi government has launched 5,310 investigations, 2,974 searches, attached Rs 95,432.08 crores worth of property arbitrarily declared “proceeds of crime”, and 839 prosecutions but secured only 23 convictions, a conviction rate of below 3. 

The Modi government has paraded these figures to show how corrupt the political system of the country was till his government came to power. But when placed side by side with the 50-fold jump in prosecutions and the simultaneous passing of amendments to the PMLA that have virtually destroyed habeas corpus, they tell a different story. That is the story of a terror campaign designed to crush democracy and replace it with a Modi-cracy that will endure till the end of his natural life. 

Modi has not revealed how he intends to do this, but the attacks by governors upon the autonomy of elected chief minister in opposition-ruled states, his casual violation of the safeguards placed by Article 324 of the constitution upon the independence of the Election Commission and above all, his direct assault upon elected chief ministers and ministers through the ED and the PMLA show that he will stop at nothing to retain his hold on power.

The AICC’s meeting in Raipur was an opportunity to highlight this drift towards tyranny, but it has proved to be an opportunity missed. The Congress must now join the opposition parties to create another. And it must do this soon, because the time to carry the message to the people has almost run out. 

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Kiren Rijiju on Nehru’s ‘Blunders’ in Kashmir: The Dubious Benefit of Hindsight

Jawaharlal Nehru in Kashmir in May 1948. Photo: Photo Division, MIB, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On October 26, the anniversary of Kashmir’s accession to India 75 years ago, Union law minister Kiren Rijiju highlighted five blunders made by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to explain why Kashmir remains a breeding ground for terrorism, and a bone of contention between India and its largest neighbours that, to use his words, is bleeding India till this day. His precise allegations were the following: 

  • “July 1947: Maharaja Hari Singh approaches Congress to accede to India like other princely states. Nehru refuses, saying “he wants more”, a requirement which did not exist in any instrument.
  • October 20, 1947: Pakistani raiders invaded the Kashmir region. Nehru still waffles and does not accept Kashmir’s request to accede to India.
  • October 21: Nehru officially writes to PM of Maharaja Hari Singh, saying it is not desirable for Kashmir to accede to India at that time. This despite Pakistani forces rapidly advancing in Kashmir.
  • October 26: Pakistani forces surround Srinagar. Maharaja Hari Singh again makes desperate appeal to join India. Nehru still negotiating and waffling with inordinate delay in responding.
  • October 27: Kashmir finally accepted into Indian union when Nehru’s demand met on Sheikh Abdullah.

Rijiju used October 26, the 75th anniversary of  Kashmir’s accession to India to launch his diatribe against Nehru’s dilatoriness in accepting its accession to India. But his main purpose seems to have been to shift the blame for the increasing alienation of Kashmiris, and the renewed attacks on the few remaining Kashmiri Pandits in the valley, upon Nehru’s shoulders from those of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where it rightly belongs. 

There is one flaw in his attack on Nehru: it is seriously inaccurate. I am able to assert this with some authority because in 1995 I wrote a book titled Kashmir 1947 – Rival Versions of History, a book BJP spokespersons have often quoted (and sometimes misquoted) to substantiate their statements on Kashmir. So, using Rijiju’s five blunders as a frame, let me set the record straight. 

First, Maharaja Hari Singh did not exactly offer to accede to India in July 1947. He asked Rai Bahadur Gopal Das, a prominent Hindu gentleman from Lahore to intercede with Sardar Patel to break the ice that had formed between him and Nehru, in order to commence negotiations on accession to India. This was because he had decided six months earlier in December 1946, that if the British denied the princes the option of remaining under their suzerainty, he would accede to India.

The last Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh. Photo: Unknow author/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The deciding event for him had been the arrival in Muzaffarabad on December 23, of 2,360 penniless and traumatised refugees, fleeing from the Muslim League’s first instigated pogrom against Hindus in Rawalpindi and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and been received with open arms by the almost entirely Muslim local population. The Maharani had rushed to Muzaffarabad to supervise their relief and rehabilitation. Her account of what the refugees had suffered made up the Maharaja’s mind: If a 6% minority of Hindus and Sikhs in the NWFP, who had lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbours for centuries, could suffer this terrible betrayal what, he wondered, would the fate of Kashmir’s 23% Kashmiri Hindus left helpless in Pakistan be?

Nor, he believed would Kashmiri Muslims be spared. This fear was founded on his knowledge of the umbilical cord that joined the Reshi Islam of Kashmir to Hinduism. Reshi is a corruption of Rishi. Their most revered saint, Sheikh Nooruddin, is known in the valley, and invoked by Kashmiri Hindus, as Nand Rishi. His most famous disciple, after whom the main Srinagar hospital is named, was Lal Ded. Her full name was Laleshwari Devi. 

Kashmiri Muslims did not change their surnames, and have not even thought of doing so even today. Their diet is still almost entirely Shaivite Hindu: there is no beef in Kashmiri cuisine; most Kashmiris still shun chicken and eggs; Reshi Islam has a dawn prayer, the Aurad-e Fitrat, that has no counterpart in Sunni Islam but is the incorporation of Surya Namaskar into Islam. And finally, all prayers in Reshi Islam start with an invocation of their ancestors by name, just as I have done in every formal prayer I have ever uttered from my Upanayana, till the deaths of my wife and parents. In Sunni Islam this is haraam.

These differences had not gone unnoticed by the Muslim League. In 1943, when the J&K Muslim Conference asked for incorporation into the Muslim League, Jinnah sent a close advisor, possibly his private secretary Khurshid Hussain, to Srinagar to feel them out. Here are a few excerpts from Hussain’s assessment:

“The Muslims of Kashmir do not appear to have ever had the advantage of true Muslim religious leadership…. Islam in Kashmir has therefore throughout remained at the mercy of counterfeit spiritual leaders …..who appear to have legalised for them everything that drives a coach and four through Islam and the way of life it has laid down….It would require considerable effort, spread over a long period of time, to reform them and convert them into true Muslims.

Hari Singh, therefore, knew, viscerally, what would happen not only to Kashmiri Pandits and Jammu Hindus, but to Kashmiri Muslims if he acceded to Pakistan. But in December 1946, he had lost access to Nehru because, six months earlier, when he jailed Sheikh Abdullah for raising the twin cries of ‘Land to the Tiller’ and ‘Down with Dogra rule’, Nehru had tried to force his way to Srinagar to see Abdullah, been stopped at the border in Kohala on the Srinagar-Rawalpindi road, and virtually held captive in the state guest house for three days till he turned back. 

In 1947, Hari Singh made not one but three unsuccessful attempts to break the resulting ice but failed. For the first, he sent his Maharani, accompanied by the 16-year-old Karan Singh, to Lahore for a secret meeting with a judge of the Lahore high court, Mehr Chand Mahajan. At the meeting, which occurred in Faletti’s Hotel, Mahajan asked for time to consider but before he could decide, the British, who had their spies, took the option away from him by appointing him within days to the Radcliffe Boundaries Commission. This was the first indication that the British were determined, to ensure that Kashmir should become a part of Pakistan. The Congress never got to know of this secret power play. 

Hari Singh made his second attempt to break the ice in July by asking Rai Bahadur Gopal Das, a prominent Hindu gentleman living in Lahore, to meet Sardar Patel when he visited Delhi, inform Patel of his desire to accede to India, and ask Patel for his help in ending his estrangement with Nehru. Patel’s reply to him, dated July 3, was the first formal communication between the future government of India and the state of Kashmir. There was no communication between the Maharaja and Nehru either in the rest of that month, or in August.  

Hari Singh made a third and final attempt on September 19, and this was directly with Nehru, via Mehr Chand Mahajan, who had taken over as prime minister of Kashmir after the dissolution of the Radcliffe Commission. 

A postage stamp issued in honour of Mehr Chand Mahajan. Photo: Post of India, GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons

Mahajan’s memoirs give us the first explicit clue to Nehru’s reasons for not responding earlier. At his meeting with Nehru, when he reiterated that the maharaja was prepared to make the internal administrative changes that Nehru desired only after his accession had been accepted on the same terms as all the others, Nehru apparently lost his temper and virtually threw him out. As a highly insulted Mahajan was leaving the room, he said “Release Sheikh Abdullah from prison, then we can talk”.

That single, throwaway, sentence holds the key to understanding the dilemma of the new government and therefore to Nehru’s strategy for resolving it. The dilemma was, “If we accept Kashmir’s accession now, what will we do if Hyderabad opts for Pakistan?” 

For the architects of the future Indian Union, Hyderabad was the Mr Hyde (in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel) to Kashmir’s Dr Jekyll. Hyderabad was the second largest of the princely states, only marginally smaller than Kashmir but with three times the population and four times the wealth. It too was one of the only four princely states that had enjoyed full internal autonomy, including the right to have their own armed forces, and be given a 21-gun salute by the British. It had an 81% Hindu population ruled by a Muslim elite, against Kashmir’s 77% Muslims ruled by a Hindu elite. 

Finally, Hyderabad had a far better claim to independence than Jammu and Kashmir because while the latter was a creation of the British and had existed for a mere 98 years, Hyderabad had never been annexed, either by the East India Company or the British Raj. In 1947, therefore, it was the last, still-autonomous, part of the Mughal empire. So, not surprisingly, the Nizam too was determined to remain independent no matter what it cost him. And unlike Kashmir, he had made this plain on June 11, 1947  by announcing that Hyderabad would not participate in the constituent assemblies of either India or Pakistan

Contemporary Indian assessments of Nizam Asaf Jah VI have painted him as a miser, as somewhat unbalanced and harbouring delusions of grandeur, and if not as a Muslim fanatic himself, then as a willing tool of Qasim Razvi, who had emerged as the head of the Razakars by 1947. What else could make him believe, for even a moment, that Hyderabad could exist as an independent state when it was plumb in the centre of the Decan almost 200 miles from the nearest sea? 

But later assessments provide an explanation that is far better grounded in realpolitik. The Nizam had the sovereign right to accede to either India or Pakistan. He was therefore using the leverage that gave him to bargain for the greatest possible autonomy from India. What was worse, with communal clashes increasing and the Razakars steadily gaining the support within the Muslim elite, and Jinnah offering every kind of inducement to him, to the point of pressing the Maharaja of Jodhpur to accede to Pakistan, the Nizam’s bargaining strength was getting stronger by the day.  

The only way to take the initiative away from the Nizam was to accept Kashmir’s accession to India not from the Maharaja but from the people of Kashmir. For this, Nehru had to show that not only the Maharaja but also the majority community wanted to be a part of India. And for that, he needed the explicit endorsement of Sheikh Abdullah. This made it absolutely impossible for India to accept Hari Singh’s accession while he was keeping Sheikh Abdullah in jail. 

Mahajan took Nehru’s message to the maharaja and Hari Singh lost no time in putting Abdullah’s release in motion by sending his former prime minister, Ram Chandra Kak, to mend his bridges with Abdullah. Sheikh Abdullah met him more than halfway. In his reply to the Maharaja, he wrote:

“In spite of what has happened in the past , I assure your highness that myself and my party have never harboured any sentiments of disloyalty to your highness’s person, throne or dynasty….I assure your highness the fullest and loyal support of myself and my organisation.”

The Maharaja released Sheikh Abdullah three days later (September 29) and the road to Kashmir’s accession to India was finally open.   

But why, one may still ask, did Nehru not act with greater celerity after that? Why did he allow 23 days to pass, giving Pakistan all the time it needed to organise the ‘spontaneous’ tribal raid into Kashmir that began on October 22? The question is legitimate, but it too is a product of selective hindsight. There were three reasons for the delay: first, the infant government’s preoccupation with the overwhelming disruption and slaughter unleashed by partition; second, the maharaja’s reluctance to make an explicit commitment on the role of Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference even after he had tacitly accepted Nehru’s pre-condition and released him; and third the lack of any information about what was brewing in Pakistan. For this, the British government was directly responsible. 

Early in October, a British officer serving with the Pakistan army had reported to General Frank Messervy, the transitional commander in chief of the Pakistan army, that he had chanced upon a meeting at the home of the deputy commissioner of Rawalpindi, where seven or eight tribal leaders,  including one Badshah Gul, leader of the Afridis, were planning the details of an invasion of Kashmir. Messervy must have reported it in turn to Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, the supreme commander of both the Indian and Pakistani armies, who was based in Delhi. But Auchinleck did not consider it necessary to inform the prime minister of India, and may not even have informed Lord Mountbatten, the governor-general. That led to his rapid, and unceremonious, exit from his position and replacement by General K.M. Cariappa.

General Cariappa, C-in-C, Indian Army, greets Jawaharlal Nehru at Plaam Aerodrome on the Prime Minister’s return from his foreign tour on November 15, 1949. Credit: Photo Division

The maharaja’s reluctance to make a commitment to the role of Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference remained a stumbling block even after the raiders had entered Kashmir, sacked Muzaffarabad, killing and injuring more than 3,000 civilians, and sweeping up into the Jhelum valley. It was only after they cut the power at Mahura power station 40 miles from Srinagar on October 23, plunging the maharaja’s Diwali dinner into darkness, that reality finally dawned on him. He sent deputy prime minister Ram Lal Batra with what the latter described as a ‘Letter of Accession’ to India, to Delhi the next morning.

Nehru immediately sent V.P. Menon, accompanied by then Lt Col Sam Manekshaw and Wing Commander Dewan of the Royal Indian Air force to get the maharaja’s signature, assess the military requirements, and gauge Srinagar airport’s capacity to sustain a military airlift. As Menon reported to the defence committee of the cabinet the next day (they were able to fly back only because National Conference cadres lit up the runway in the dead of night with flaming torches), even as late as the evening of October 25, Hari Singh had still been reluctant to make a firm commitment on democratisation that Nehru required to legitimise India’s acceptance of Kashmir’s accession. 

This was not simply a battle of wills. Nehru knew that once the accession was complete, India could force the maharaja to do anything Delhi wanted. But democratisation after accession, even with Sheikh Abdullah’s consent, would not have made it an accession by the people of Kashmir. Nehru, and no doubt Patel, needed that because even at that crisis moment they had not forgotten Hyderabad. Every risk Nehru took during those fateful days was intended to ensure that an invasion of Hyderabad, were it to become necessary, would be considered legitimate in the eyes of the world. For there, whatever the Nizam may have desired, there was never any doubt that his people wanted to be a part of India.

Kiren Rijiju’s third, fourth and fifth ‘blunders’ are therefore nothing more than the querulous complaints of a government that knows that it has caused irrevocable damage not only to Kashmiris, but to India in Kashmir, and is now looking for ways in which to shift the blame onto the shoulders of a long-dead prime minister who can no longer defend himself, and whom the party that he helped to create is too lazy, complacent, or ignorant to know how to protect. He also seems to have forgotten that nine other states, listed in Article 371 of the constitution, have been formed on the basis of the explicit guarantee of Kashmir’s ethnonational identity provided by Article 370. Except for Arunachal Pradesh, to which he belongs, all the other states of the region have been its beneficiaries.

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Much like Adolf Hitler, Narendra Modi’s eyes are set on the complete dominance of the BJP in Indian politics. To this effect, his government will continue to use its carrot-and-stick policy to destroy the opposition.

Sanjay Raut; Narendra Modi, Manish Sisodia. Photos: PTI

Eight years into government by Narendra Modi, it is no longer possible to pretend that India’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy is not in acute danger. The reason is the collapse of the judiciary, the only pillar of democracy that had remained standing after the second victory of the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019.

History will remember Justice A. M. Khanwilkar’s two last authored judgments for the barely veiled hostility they showed towards civil society and their disregard for the fundamental rights and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty enshrined in the constitution.

Khanwilkar began the demolition of these rights on June 25, when he not only dismissed Zakia Jafri’s appeal for justice with contempt but also incited the Modi government to punish those who had helped her to file it.

His demolition project was completed on July 27, just two days before he retired, by rubbishing no fewer than 242 petitions against the draconian powers appropriated by the executive branch of the government to harass, impoverish and imprison those merely accused of money ‘laundering’ – hiding ill-gotten gains from taxation through laws against economic crimes given to specially created agencies by a succession of laws such as the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO), the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED).

Eighty of these petitions were specifically against amendments to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), which had reversed the burden of proof, placing it upon the accused – who had to prove their innocence – instead of on the government having to prove their guilt.

Congress MPs holding banner and placards stage a protest march at Parliament House complex to express their solidarity with the party Chief Sonia Gandhi who has to appear before the Enforcement Directorate in connection with the National Herald case, in New Delhi, July 21, 2022. Photo: PTI/Kamal Kishore

This made it possible for the  ED’s interrogators to heap charge after charge on an individual without requiring even prima facie substantiation, to interrogate them endlessly in order to force more and more information out of them, in the hope of tripping them up with inconsistencies that could become the grounds for further interrogation or sending them to jail.

The PMLA had been enacted by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and substantially amended by the Manmohan Singh government in 2012, but both were aware of the dangers that reversing the burden of proof entailed. So they had launched investigations with great caution. Between 2002 and 2014, the Enforcement Directorate lodged only 112 cases in all and made an equal number of searches.

But this changed dramatically after Modi came to power, for in less than eight years between June 2014 and the end of March 2022, the Enforcement Directorate launched 5,310 cases, conducted 3086 searches, attached Rs 104,702 crore (1.4 trillion) worth of assets (calling these the “proceeds of crime”) and filed 880 charge sheets.

However, it secured only 23 convictions! By any yardstick, therefore, the PMLA has been a miserable failure as a deterrent to financial and economic crimes. So, why is the Modi government so determined to retain it in precisely the form in which it has so spectacularly failed?

Consolidation of power at all costs

The answer is that since 2015, and in particular, since it added no fewer than eight more amendments in 2019, Modi has been using the Act for an altogether different purpose. This is to tame or destroy, the myriad opposition parties that make up India’s political mosaic, and turn India into a one-party state.

From his first day as prime minister, Modi made no secret of his determination to do this and remain India’s leader till the end of his natural life. In his first speech after being sworn in as prime minister in 2014, he spoke expansively about all that he hoped to achieve in the next 10 years. Ten, not five! Modi was already looking beyond the next general election on that first day in power.

Since then, his every action has reeked of hubris, and a savage determination to put his personal, indelible, stamp on Indian history, no matter what the cost. Nothing exemplifies this better than his casual destruction of the Central Vista lawns in New Delhi to build not only a grand new parliament building that the country does not need, but also a palatial new house for the prime minister, which he rather obviously intends to live in till 2034 if not longer.

Construction is underway for the Central Vista project. Photo: Seraj Ali

In 1933 Adolf Hitler took advantage of a fire in the Reichstag – the German parliament – that he may well have instigated, to get himself declared chancellor for life by Von Hindenburg, the then German President. Modi has found a better way to achieve the same end. This is to use a combination of stick and carrot to destroy the opposition parties one by one, till the BJP’s dominance of Indian democracy is assured.

In the open-ended powers that earlier government had unwisely heaped upon the police and central investigative agencies, he has found all the means that he needs, and more, to achieve his goal. For the past eight years, he has been using these to divide political parties, dismantle non-BJP governments in the states by securing defections, and destroy powerful political leaders in the opposition who fail to respond to his threats and blandishments.

For this purpose, his earlier weapon was the CBI – the Central Bureau of Investigation. But since 2019, it has become the National Investigative Agency (NIA), buttressed by changes in the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act at the political end of the spectrum, and the Enforcement Directorate, bolstered by no fewer than eight amendments to the PMLA in 2019, at the economic.

Abuse of ED and PMLA

In the past two years, Modi has relied more heavily on the PMLA and the ED to break or tame the opposition. The reason is that while the Code of Criminal Procedure puts limits upon the CBI’s capacity to act arbitrarily against those whom the government targets, the PMLA does not.

Under the constitution, the CBI can only investigate a crime with interstate ramifications after obtaining the consent of the state governments concerned. This required states to provide a general consent under the Delhi Police Act. But, even then, this had to be exercised  “with the support of the state Police”.

But, under the PMLA, the Enforcement Directorate can call anyone from anywhere in the country for interrogation without having to give a reason why; question them for hours on end, record everything they say without a defence lawyer present, and use even minor discrepancies in their statements as grounds for arresting and incarcerating them. In this respect, its power goes far beyond that of the CBI and state police, who cannot use a self-incriminatory statement, unless it is repeated, and recorded, before a magistrate.

Enforcement Directorate. Photo: PTI/File

The PMLA also does not require the Enforcement Directorate to furnish a copy of the Enforcement Case Information Report (ECIR), its version of the police’s First Information Report, to the person being arrested. Finally, bail is far more difficult to get under the PMLA than it is under criminal law because the ED has routinely argued that the defendant has the money not only to influence witnesses but also to flee the country and live a luxurious life elsewhere.

Pehle AAP

The Modi government’s transformation of a bad law into an instrument of oppression has taken place in stages.

The first phase came when Modi launched a campaign to destroy the Aam Admi Party (AAP). When the BJP was routed in the Delhi assembly elections in December 2014, Modi unleashed a barrage of attacks upon Kejriwal’s government that virtually paralysed it. The harassment was so intense and so incessant that, to bring it to an end, Kejriwal had to claim, in a 10-minute televised interview given at the end of July 2016, that Modi was bent upon getting him killed.

Middle-class India treated this as hyperbole but in the months that followed, Modi – acting through then Lt.  Governor Najib Jung – paralysed the Delhi government.

Among the weapons he used were the CBI, which called in around 150 members of the Union territory cadre of officers, serving in Delhi, for protracted interviews that turned into thinly veiled warnings to keep the Union government informed of everything that Kejriwal was doing and planning. Among the instruments he used was a case of corruption lodged by the CBI against Kejriwal’s personal secretary Rajendra Kumar, an officer with an unimpeachable reputation, that disappeared from Modi’s radar after he resigned from his post.

The BJP also launched cases of slander and defamation against Kejriwal simultaneously in 33 courts across the country. When this did not break the government, the Delhi police began arresting AAP MLAs on a variety of grounds. By July 2016, 11 out of AAP’s 67 MLAs were in custody.

Modi’s next target was Mamta Bannerjee’s Trinamool Congress government in Bengal. His principal weapon was videotapes obtained in a Tehelka-financed sting operation that showed 13 persons accepting money from chit fund owners. Twelve of them were top members of the Trinamool Congress,  who promptly became the subjects of a central CBI/ED investigation. This operation had taken place in 2014, but for reasons that remain unexplained, was uploaded by a private TV channel, Narada TV in 2016two years later, only weeks before the Assembly elections.

When the Bengal and Kolkata Police took no action against the 12, in February 2019, 40 CBI officers descended without waiting with a warrant to arrest no less senior a police officer than the Kolkata Police Commissioner and whisk him away to Delhi for interrogation. Thanks to a quick-witted policeman on duty at the commissioner’s house, the CBI officers found themselves surrounded by the Kolkata Police, virtually arrested and held in informal custody until Delhi agreed to call them back.

This ‘invasion’ by the Union government led to three states – West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – withdrawing their General Consent under the Delhi Police Act. They were followed rapidly by others: by March 2022, six more states had withdrawn their consent from the CBI, and other central agencies. These were Mizoram,  Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Kerala, Jharkhand, Punjab and Meghalaya.

From CBI to ED

The CBI’s searing experience in Kolkata did not discourage the Modi government but only made it turn to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act of 2002 to bring the opposition to heel. His first target was Uddhav Thackeray’s Congress-Shiv Sena government which had wrested Maharashtra from the BJP in the state elections of November 2019.

In November 2021 and February 2022, the Enforcement Directorate arrested and jailed two senior leaders of the Shiv Sena, Anil Deshmukh and Nawab Malik, on charges of money laundering. Six and eight months later the two are still struggling to get bail.

Shiv Sena MLAs got the message. In June this year, when the BJP  turned its attention to the destruction of Uddhav Thackeray’s government, it found little difficulty in weaning 40 Shiv Sena MLAs and 12 MPs away and ‘persuading’ them to join the breakaway group of Eknath Shinde. This may not have been as difficult as it sounds because the near-criminal antecedents of many of its members made them especially vulnerable to the BJP’s methods of “persuasion”.

For Modi, the destruction of the Congress -Shiv Sena combine in Maharashtra was not enough. On June 30, the Enforcement Directorate arrested Sanjay Raut, Uddhav Thackeray’s right-hand man and searched his premises for nine hours for evidence it could use against him. of raids at his residence. Raut had earlier been accused of making a great deal of money over the ‘redevelopment’ of a chawl in Mumbai. But the search unearthed only Rs 11.75 lakh in cash, which the ED seized as ‘evidence’.

But evidence of what? With apartment prices in central Mumbai ranging from Rs.23,044 to Rs.36,195 per square foot, 11.75 lakh could buy at most 3 to 4.6 square metres of built-up living space – not even enough for a bathroom, in a central Mumbai apartment! The allegation is therefore laughable but, five weeks later, Raut is still in jail.

These are not the only states on which Modi has unleashed the PMLA.  Jharkhand and Bengal have come next on Modi’s list.

In West Bengal, Partha Chatterjee, Mamata’s closest ally, has also been sent to jail by the ED, which say it has recovered more than Rs 100 crore from the apartment of his alleged “accomplice” Arpita Mukherji.  The ED claims that the flat actually belongs to Chatterjee. Mamata’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee has been interrogated by the ED many times on this issue to break his will.

Guns trained on AAP again

Modi’s most recent assault on India’s political pluralism has taken place at the scene of the first: New Delhi. After nearly six years of uneasy coexistence, he has turned his guns once more on the Aam Admi Party.

Realising that directly assaulting Kejriwal would rebound on the BJP, as it did in February 2020, he has turned the Enforcement Directorate onto Delhi’s health minister Satyendar Jainand now deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia. The reason is almost childishly obvious. After its victory in Punjab, AAP is no longer perceived as a local, purely urban party, but as a national party capable of challenging and defeating both the Congress and the BJP in assembly elections as well.

With elections looming in Himachal and, more importantly, in Modi’s home state Gujarat, an attempt to destroy the party’s credibility by painting it to be as corrupt as the rest of them had become inevitable.

But Modi reserved his crowning assault for the Gandhi family. The purpose behind the ED’s three summons to Sonia Gandhi, its more than 50 hours’ interrogation of Rahul Gandhi, and its sealing of the offices of Young India in the National Herald building is to humiliate the Gandhi family and destroy the last shreds of the aura that once surrounded Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and complete the elevation of Modi to the status of India’s new supremo.

Realising that directly assaulting Kejriwal would rebound on the BJP, as it did in February 2020, he has turned the Enforcement Directorate onto Delhi’s health minister Satyendar Jain and now deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia. The reason is almost childishly obvious. After its victory in Punjab, AAP is no longer perceived as a local, purely urban party, but as a national party capable of challenging and defeating both the Congress and the BJP in assembly elections as well.

With elections looming in Himachal and, more importantly, in Modi’s home state Gujarat, an attempt to destroy the party’s credibility by painting it to be as corrupt as the rest of them had become inevitable.

But Modi reserved his crowning assault for the Gandhi family. The purpose behind the ED’s three summons to Sonia Gandhi, its more than 50 hours’ interrogation of Rahul Gandhi, and its sealing of the offices of Young India in the National Herald building is to humiliate the Gandhi family and destroy the last shreds of the aura that once surrounded Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and complete the elevation of Modi to the status of India’s new supremo.

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The Supreme Court is the last pillar of Indian democracy but it knew an adverse finding against a sitting prime minister would hasten the collapse of the entire edifice.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty.

The Supreme Court of India has taken several questionable decisions in recent years. 

But its June 24 judgment dismissing Zakia Jafri’s appeal against the court-appointed Special Investigation Team’s exoneration of Narendra Modi from his share of the responsibility – as chief minister – for the 2002 Gujarat riots, and therefore of responsibility for her husband and their relatives’ death in the Gulberg society massacre, is the most questionable of them all. 

Questionable may well be an understatement: a better word could be ‘destructive’. For with this judgment, the Supreme Court has destroyed whatever faith civil society had retained in the fairness of Indian jurisprudence. For not only did Justice Khanwilkar and his fellow judges dismiss Zakia Jafri’s petition with two contemptuous words – “without merit” – and noting caustically that “the present proceedings have been pursued for [the] last 16 years”, they devoted a significant amount of their judgment to vilifying Teesta Setalvad, founder of Citizens for Justice and Peace and Jafri’s adviser since 2006, Sanjiv Bhatt and R.B. Sreekumar, two officials of the State Intelligence Bureau whose testimony Mrs Jafri had been relying upon in her quest for justice. 

Nor did the learned judges stop there, for in a key paragraph they virtually invited the government to prosecute these three on the grounds that it was they, not Modi’s Gujarat government, who had concocted ‘a larger conspiracy to keep the pot [of Modi’s culpability in the Gujarat riots] boiling”. And they did this when Bhatt and Sreekumar were not even petitioners in the case and Teesta’s own locus as a petitioner it refused to accept! This attack on members of civil society who were not even appearing before the court, could well be a precedent not only in Indian but global jurisprudence.

The learned judges’ intemperate recorded judgment is not the only worrying aspect of this case. For the judgment is 416 pages long, but the Gujarat Police arrived in Mumbai to arrest Setalvad within a day of its being given. The arrest of Sreekumar and the re-arrest of Sanjiv Bhatt, to discrediting whom the judges had also devoted more than 50 pages of their judgment, followed within hours. 

Did the Gujarat Police have speed readers in its service, or was it, perchance, able to somehow access a copy of the judgment before it was pronounced? However improbable this is, the mere fact that the suspicion exists, and is being voiced, highlights the depths of distrust that have now developed between the highest court and ‘l’etat civile’ – civil society – that, has been protecting individual rights and constitutional freedoms in other democracies since their inception, and has been doing so with increasing vigour in India as the danger to it from Modi-ism has developed over the past eight years. 

On June 28 , three days after Teesta’s arrest, former Supreme Court Judge Madan Lokur asked in these columns, “Did the Supreme Court intend or suggest that Teesta Setalvad should be arrested?” If it did not then it was incumbent upon it to say so. But the court has remained silent till this day, thereby reinforcing the suspicion that this was indeed what the three judges on this bench had in mind. Through its silence, therefore, the court has made itself a party to the wholesale destruction of habeas corpus – the right of citizens to freedom until proven guilty of a crime punishable by imprisonment – that is the cornerstone of democracy and has been under especially heavy attack since the Sangh parivar came to power in 2014. 

Why has the Supreme Court stooped so low? Ever since judges began accepting lucrative post retirement posts after giving judgments that were to this government’s liking, civil society has begun to suspect the worst. Justice P. Sathasivam, a highly respected chief justice of the Supreme Court with several benchmark judgments to his credit, had set the ball rolling when he accepted the governorship of Kerala 16 weeks after he stepped down from the court in 2014. In April 2013, Justice Sathasivam had quashed the FIR against Amit Shah in the Tulsiram Prajapati fake encounter case and ordered that it be treated as a supplementary chargesheet filed for the killing of Sohrabuddin and Kauser Bi. Since Shah was already on bail in the latter case, this was a major relief for him as it meant he could not be arrested again as the CBI had wanted to do. Did Sathasivam not realise that when he accepted the governorship of Kerala, he would be reinforcing civil society’s fear that Modi and Shah were intent upon suborning the highest court of the land? 

Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi strengthened this fear when he followed in Sathasivam’s footsteps and accepted nomination by the Modi government to the Rajya Sabha with equal celerity. Civil society’s suspicions hardened still further when former CBI director R.K Raghavan, who had been kept on as the head of a redundant SIT for another five years, was appointed India’s high commissioner to Cyprus within five months of resigning from it on ‘health grounds’ in April 2017. Raghavan had accepted these sinecures despite the fact that his own SIT had commented adversely on Modi keeping the three senior-most civil servants who had attended the controversial late night meeting at his home on February 27, 2002 in post-retirement posts through the entire period of the investigation, to shut their mouths. 

The shock aroused all over the world by the Supreme Court’s latest dismissal of Zakia Jafri’s petition are therefore understandable. But assuming the worst about the Khanwilkar bench’s judgment will serve no purpose because it will only hasten the catastrophe that civil society fears the most. This is the collapse of the last pillar upon which the battered remnants of our democracy still rests. 

To understand this fear it is necessary to look at the case from the judges’ point of view. Zakia Jafri’s plea was not about the Gulberg massacre. The Supreme Court had monitored this, and eight other specific cases. The Gulberg trial had resulted in 24 convictions and 32 acquittals. Zakia Jafri’s first information report (FIR), which she had submitted first to the Gujarat police after the riots, and when it took no action, to the Gujarat High Court, had accused the decision makers in the government of Gujarat of actively conspiring to let the riots happen. The wording of the FIR was explicit:

“I beg to bring to your kind notice the deliberate and intentional failure of the State Government to protect the life and property of innocent denizens of this countrythrough a well-executed and sinister criminal conspiracy amongst the accused above named, that resulted in the breakdown of Constitutional Governance in the State… since 2002, when a mass carnage was orchestrated by the most powerful in the State Executive using pressure and connivance of the State Administration and Law and Order Machinery there …..”

Heading the list of 62 conspirators was Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat, and since 2014 the prime minister of India. This petition created a serious problem for the Supreme Court: How to avoid a truly serious “judicial overreach” that would destroy the position the court had built as the final guardian of citizens’ rights when these were threatened by actions of the executive or enactments by the legislature. 

This role was not spelt out anywhere in the constitution, but had been created by the court itself as India’s democracy had matured and in some respects soured, in the decades that followed. The constitution had spelt out the original, appellate and advisory jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in Articles 132-134 and 143-144. Its appellate jurisdiction allowed it to entertain appeals in civil matters in cases that ‘involved a substantial question of law of general importance’, and in criminal matters if a high court had, on appeal, reversed the order of acquittal of an accused and sentenced him to death, or had withdrawn for trial before itself any case from a subordinate court. 

These were highly restrictive clauses, but their severity was mitigated by a clause that allowed the Supreme Court to give ‘special leave to appeal’ if it was satisfied that a case warranted it. It was under this last, omnibus permission that it had assumed the role of protecting the rights of citizens as the shortcomings of Indian democracy began to surface. Its adjudication under this provision transformed the court from being the court of final appeal on points of law, usually affordable only to the rich and powerful, into the final guardian of the rights and freedoms that have been guaranteed to the people in the constitution. 

In two memorable lectures given under the auspices of the Palkhivala Foundation in 2007 and 2017, Harish Salve, a former solicitor-general of India, traced the origins of judicial activism to what he labelled “the Krishna Iyerisation” of jurisprudence in India in 1970s. In Salve’s words, “before him the Supreme Court was the Supreme Court of India. Justice Krishna Iyer made it the Supreme Court for Indians”

In his 2007 lecture, Salve highlighted four pivotal issues on which the Supreme Court did this. A decade later he identified three more. But in 2007, and again much more forcefully in 2017, Salve also warned that judicial activism could create its own perils. Chief of these was that the more citizens came to rely upon it to enforce the rule of law and ensure justice and equity in governance, the greater would become the risk of popular disillusionment if it failed. 

But Salve also did not hide his concern that ‘where the Court steps in too often, it builds up hopes that it will not be able to deliver’. ‘The court has neither the sword nor the purse’ he warned. ‘If popular will turns against it, the institution (will be) destroyed’. He placed the blame for this squarely upon the legislatures and the central and state administrations, accusing ‘those in power (who) cannot arrive at a consensus on (abiding by the spirit of the constitution and) keeping the judiciary above suspicion.’ 

With the BJP’s ascension to power at the helm of the Union, the abuse of citizens’ rights became normal so the chasm between the executive and the judiciary widened rapidly. Zakia Jafri’s appeal to the Supreme Court in 2017 made it unbridgeable because its principal accused was now the Prime Minister of India. This put the Supreme Court in an impossible position: Not entertaining her petition would have further eroded the confidence of the public in the judiciary’s guardianship of its rights. But reopening the case would create a constitutional crisis. 

The open rancour that its judgement displays towards civil society activists reflects its extreme discomfort with the position in which it found itself. It could not ignore the fate that had befallen the victims of the Gujarat riots. It could not therefore deny Zakia Jafri another hearing of her case. But it also knew that if it conceded her request for a fresh inquiry, Modi was even less likely to step down for its duration than Indira Gandhi had been in 1975. The risk of another head on clash between the executive and the judiciary that could, this time, bring India’s democracy to a permanent end, was therefore immense. 

This could be the reason why the Khanwilkar bench summarily dismissed Jafri’s appeal. It did this by concentrating upon the process, and not the content of the investigation, and finding no fault with it. It concluded, unsurprisingly, that due process had been followed: The Supreme Court had created the Raghavan SIT; the SIT had submitted a report; the report had been criticised by the court’s Amicus Curiae; the court had sent the report back to the SIT for revision in the light of his comments; the SIT had submitted a revised report indicting some more people but confirming Modi’s exoneration ‘for lack of prosecutable evidence’. This is what the bench finally upheld.

Judgments made in hindsight are seldom of any real value, but one needs to be made because crimes like the one committed in 2002, can occur again in our increasingly polarised communal society. The cause of justice would have been better served if Zakia Jafri had accused the Modi government not of criminal conspiracy, but dereliction of “chain of command responsibility”. 

Command responsibility is one of the oldest precepts of law in the world, for its origins can be traced back to Sun Tzu’s 6th century BC masterpiece The Art of War. It entered into modern international law when it was codified in The Hague Convention of 1899 and updated in the convention of 1907. 

While conspiracy requires proof of commission, establishing chain of command responsibility requires only proof of deliberate omission, i.e a conscious failure to act in accordance with the law. It was used in 1946 after the Second World War, to indict General Yamashita, who was the Japanese governor of the Philippines, because his soldiers committed innumerable atrocities against civilians and prisoners of war. 

The concept was refined to avoid misuse two years later in a celebrated American case labelled the High Command Case, where the US Supreme court decided that for a commander to be held criminally liable for the actions of his subordinates “there must be a personal dereliction” which “can only occur where the act is directly traceable to him or where his failure to properly supervise his subordinates constitutes criminal negligence on his part based upon a wanton, immoral disregard of the action of his subordinates amounting to acquiescence.”

There is a tonne of evidence that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad intended to use the unfortunate Godhra train burning incident in which 59 Hindus perished to launch a pogrom of Muslims the next day, but the entire case of criminal conspiracy against Modi and his principal lieutenants rested upon the remark Modi was alleged to have made in his late night meeting with police chiefs on February 27, 2002, advising them not to prevent the inevitable Hindu backlash that would occur the next day. Whatever one may choose to believe about the motives of the participants in the meeting, legally this case became untenable when all the participants in it claimed that the principal whistle blowers, Sanjiv Bhat, R.B Sreekumar and Haren Pandya had not been present at the meeting. 

So when the SIT exonerated chief minister Modi for lack of prosecutable evidence, Zakia Jafri would have been on much stronger ground if she had launched a fresh case against the Gujarat government based upon a precise enunciation of the chain of command responsibility doctrine. To prove this, all she would have needed to show was that, knowing full well the backlash that was bound to follow after the VHP had taken over the bodies of the deceased, and consciously allowing it to do so, the government had done nothing to prevent it. 

Such a case would have been difficult to disprove because in 2010, Citizens for Justice and Peace – the organisation founded by Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand – had unearthed cell-phone records which showed that “Ahmedabad police commissioner P.C. Pande had spoken to joint commissioner of police M.K. Tandon six times during the period when the latter was present at Gulberg Society and the mob was growing restive. Though Tandon was accompanied by “striking force” equipped to disperse a riotous mob, he left Gulberg Society without taking any corrective action and his departure led to the massacre …”. 

That opportunity has been missed and will return only when Modi and the BJP are no longer in power.

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The new recruitment scheme will slowly change the character of the army and also provide well-trained ‘non-state actors’ to further the political agenda of the ruling Parivar.

PM Narendra Modi. In the background is a train anti-Agnipath protesters set on fire. Photos: PTI and Reuters

In eight years as prime minister, Narendra Modi has made surprise his favoured tool for reinforcing his hold on power. He did this in September 2020 with the farm law amendments. With Agnipath, he has done it again. Its government claims that it is a “transformative military reform”. Supporters say it had become necessary to limit skyrocketing pension liabilities that were preventing the acquisition of modern weaponry. BJP leaders also claim that the 75% of Agniveers who are discharged will return to civilian life imbued with discipline and a sense of national purpose. The country will gain from this. 

If that is so, then why has it been met with a storm of protest? Why are the youth of the country, whom it is supposed to benefit, its main opponents? Why is the protest most fierce, and sustained in, Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan? Are these not precisely the states in which the BJP is in power, or has established a firm presence in the past seven years? 

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Despite the setbacks the BJP suffered in the bye-elections of August and September, there was never any serious doubt that it would emerge as the winner in the Maharashtra and Haryana elections. What has come as a surprise is the magnitude of the victory. Not only has it gained an absolute majority in the Haryana assembly, but it has come close to doing so in Maharashtra inspite of breaking its alliance with the Shiv Sena.   The doubling of its share of the vote in Maharashtra, and its tripling in Haryana, confirms its pre-eminence today. The message of these elections is therefore unambiguous: five months after the May elections the ‘Modi wave’ has not begun to retreat.

The reason is not hard to seek. In May the country had been suffering from a recession that had stalled industrial growth and completely stopped the growth of employment for the previous three years. Modi promised to revive the economy  and offered the ‘Gujarat model’ as proof that he could do so. Desperate to see a ray of sunshine in their lives huge numbers of people believed him and voted for the BJP. As a result the BJP’s share of the national vote increased  from below 19 to 31 percent.

Today people continue to believe Prime minister Modi’s promises despite the fact that there has been absolutely no improvement in their condition in the past five months.  They do so because with his common touch, now amplified a million-fold by the media, he has struck a chord in their hearts. The message he has managed to convey is that his government will not make decisions for the poor, he will allow the poor to set their own priorities. So they are prepared to give him more time.

But the ‘Modi wave’ is only a relative one. The BJP’s share of the vote is still only 27.8 percent in Maharashtra, and 33.2 percent in Haryana. Thus it still owes its win to the utter disunity among the secular parties. This is most clearly visible in Maharashtra. The vote of the Congress and the NCP, together,   fell by only 2.1 percent. As had happened in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in December, 11 out of the  BJP’s 14 percent gain in vote took place at the cost of independents and unrecognized parties.  The message this conveys is the same as the one that  the four major state elections in December conveyed: that voters are no longer prepared to waste their vote by giving it to people who have no hope of winning.

The Haryana election has delivered a different, but equally important message. Here two thirds of the increase in the BJP’s vote has come from the Congress. As in adjoining Delhi last December, this is a vote born out of pure  disillusionment. In Delhi  the beneficiary was the Aam Admi Party. In Haryana, since  AAP did not fight the Haryana elections,  it has been the BJP.

For the BJP, the message is clear: the entire country wants a revival of the economy. If the BJP cannot deliver this,  its honeymoon will not last much longer. What is more, were  faith in Mr Modi’s promises tocollapse, the rejection of the BJP will be severe.

For the Congress these elections have shown that unless it makes a herculean effort to pull itself together and present, or at least lead, a credible alternative to the BJP, its vote will keep slipping away.   Its introspection must start with why it has lost every election  since last despite  having poured four times as much money as the Vajpayee government into programmes of ‘inclusive development’.  This introspection is necessary because the collapse of growth is the only reason that the Congress’ pundits did not offer during its soul searching conference after its defeat in May.

Accepting that chasing the phantom of inflation at the cost of growth was the main cause of its election debacle will not set anything right, but it will at least carry the reassurance that such a thing will not happen again were it to come back to power.  However the Congress would do well not to bank upon the BJP’s non-performance to bring it back to power as the default option for the electorate. Mr. Modi’s government has not done anything tangible to revive the economy yet, but it would be foolish of the Congress to hope that it will not do so in the coming four years.

But there are other areas in which the Congress can build an alternative platform that will attract the voters to its banner in coming elections. Among these are the destruction of the nexus that has developed between crime, black money and politics in the last fifty years; empowering the common man against the State by amending article 311 of the constitution to allow people  to prosecute the state for the dereliction of its duties; providing security to the poor through social insurance, instead of throwing money at them in the hope that some of it will stick, and acquiring land for development in ways that will make the owners and users permanent stakeholders in development instead of its victims.

The Congress also urgently needs organizational changes: if there is anything it needs to learn not only from its defeat in May but the absolute disarray in the party since then, it is that the days of relying on the Gandhi-Nehru charisma to win elections, have ended. The current generation of the family neither has the acceptability nor the sheer grit (that Indira Gandhi had in abundance)  to pull the party out of the morass of defeat. The Congress needs a compete remake, and the remake has to start with its present leaders formally  handing over power to a younger generation of central and state leaders who have the long vision, and the perseverance,  to rebuild the party democratically from its roots.

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