Last week there were two developments, seemingly separate, which reiterated that our politicians are completely out of sync with the new Indian reality.
First was the sordid episode involving the unfortunate trapped in the natural disaster in Uttarakhand. Not just Narendra Modi, the much-discussed Gujarat chief minister and the political face of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the next general election, but heads of other states, including Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, arranged help only for those who belonged to their respective states; some rival politicians from Andhra Pradesh even came to blows over claiming credit for the rescue operation.
In one single action, ironically humanitarian, our politicians implicitly signalled that ethnic roots are more important than being human, or for that matter your nationality: Indian. (And it is not just people from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh who are trapped in the picturesque hill state; even foreigners, some of them trekkers, were caught similarly unawares.)
Wonder how these politicians identified their so-called own? On the basis of the language they spoke? What if someone spoke Telugu, Gujarati (a large chunk of the bureaucracy in Gujarat is from Kerala and hence fluent in the language of their adopted home state) and Marathi; or just two or just one language; would they be bailed out or branded a shyster and left behind? What if they were Gujarati, spoke the language but lived in New Delhi? Or would they demand to know their surname? I know of two colleagues and two friends, all coincidentally from Bihar, who only use their first name; so would these politicians have left them behind?
Looked at in any way, it is a no-brainer. In the rapidly evolving new India, ethnic roots are increasingly blurred, especially when we look at the youngest generation—the one that defines India’s demography: 65% of India is estimated to be less than 35 years of age—especially those born of migrant parents. My own parents come from Kerala, but adopted Delhi a little after Independence; so I have what our non-resident Indians love to flaunt: a dual citizenship. You can’t ask me to choose between either Kerala or Delhi.
I am not unique. Thanks to better connectivity—especially low-cost air travel—Indians are increasingly exploring the topography of their country in search of a better future. So a large chunk of the urban-born generation is being born ethnically confused, but our politicians showed last week that they have the ability to detect their own.
This zero-sum approach was visible yet again when later in the week news surfaced that the government was considering an ordinance to overturn a ruling by the Right to Information (RTI) authority which brought political parties under its purview, implying that they will be mandatorily required to disclose information if it was sought.
As Mint reported on 3 June, the Central Information Commission (CIC), in a controversial interpretation of the law, ruled that political parties will, if queried, have to disclose sources of funding as well as details of expenditure. The CIC argued that since political parties were substantially funded indirectly by the Union government and have the character of public authorities under the RTI Act as they can be considered to perform public functions and hence be required to make disclosures.
The otherwise divided polity has suddenly closed ranks. An emboldened government swung into action and has proposed an ordinance, even though the monsoon session of Parliament is just weeks away, to rewrite that segment of the law which the CIC interpreted to deliver its path-breaking order.
Without going into the merits of the case—opinion is deeply divided and depends on who you speak to—it is a matter of concern that the legislature has decided to exercise its nuclear option (the power to rewrite laws) to protect itself. If they so firmly believed in the fact that this was indeed an unfair order then they should have, like the rest of us, moved high court to overturn it. The haste with which Indian polity has moved suggests that it has lots to hide; in politics the maxim is always a case of what you are seen to be doing, rarely what you are doing. At present, given the extended season of alleged scams in high office, the public perception of politicians is circumspect, to say the least. The revelations by Gopinath Munde, BJP’s strongman from Maharashtra, have only reinforced this perception. Munde claimed that he spent nearly Rs.10 crore on his last election campaign, while his submissions to the Election Commission pegged them at Rs.19.36 lakh.
Introduction of RTI was a benchmark moment. It was meant to signal greater scrutiny of public office. The present government has been itching to blunt the scope of the RTI, but has been thwarted so far. Now they sense a fresh chance.
Like in the case of the Uttarakhand rescue mission, the proposed misadventure on RTI would only further alienate politicians from the general public. An unhappy electorate does not make for a happy government. But, are Indian politicians listening?
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org