Some weeks ago, I took a step back from duties of almost two decades as president of the Congress party. I thought this would relieve me for sometime at least from having to appear before an audience, a task that was always a stressful one. Public speaking does not come naturally to me. Perhaps that is why I was once described as more a “reader” than a “leader”. But Aroon Purie and his colleagues are persuasive and this is a very prestigious conclave in a city that reflects the spirit of the Indian enterprise. So, here I am, just a Congresswoman now, speaking for myself.
Your theme this year is the big churn, and I have been asked to share my thoughts on Reimagining India.
True enough, the whole world seems to be in the grip of an epic upheaval. Technology and connectivity are colliding with inequality and insecurity. Societies everywhere are being rapidly and profoundly changed. This is true of our country as well. Our people are increasingly impatient, ambitious, aspiring and aware. Our institutions are still evolving and need to be revitalised. But you will surely agree that governance in the decades since our Independence has seen a continuity and direction rooted in the legacy of our founding fathers and the few mothers, founding mothers as well. We always seem to forget the founding mothers.
Yet today, we are presented with an alternative and indeed regressive vision of who we were as a people, what we are and what we should be. This reimagination is based on a distorted perception of our history and it is a fatally flawed view of what we will secure our future.
Ours has been an open, liberal democracy. It has been representative and participative. It has been fuelled by political competition with due regard to rules, traditions and conventions. Our open, liberal democracy has strengthened the bonds of the unity without imposing uniformity. Our republic has not just been accepting of different points of views, but has encouraged debate and discussion. It has allowed for disagreement, dissent and protest. It has demonstrated its capacity for dialogue and compromise. For years, our public discourse has been anchored in decency, reason and argumentation, and not in invective innuendo and abuse. What has made our democracy precious is conversation, not monologues; accountability, not shunning any form of public questioning and interrogation.
But ladies and gentlemen, our country, our society, our freedoms — all are now under systematic and sustained assault. Make no mistake about it. This is a well sort-out project long in the making to refashion the very idea of India. It involves rewriting history, falsifying facts, slander nation-builders and fanning prejudice and bigotry.
I would like to ask, if I may, was India really a giant black hole before May 16, 2014? Did India’s march to progress, prosperity and greatness begin only four years ago? Is this claim not an insult to the intelligence of our people? This deliberate unwillingness to acknowledge and commend what our country has achieved is nothing but arrogance. This cynical running down of our past accomplishments, which have been a huge collective endevaour of the people of India, is nothing but conceit. It is not here a matter of taking credit. It is simply a matter of recognising India’s strength and strenuous efforts over the past decades. This is not a political forum, but it is a forum where politicians too come and speak on national issues. So, I will share with you my growing anguish and indignation.
The question we must ponder is this: What has been happening since 2014 both in substance and style? We should all be seriously concerned that how the foundational principles and values of our Constitution are being willfully shredded. Callous remarks about changing the Constitution point to a deliberate attempt to subvert the essence of India that it enshrines. Provocative statements from the ruling establishment are not random or accidental. They are part of a dangerous design. The evidence of this new and deeply troubling direction is there for all to see. Fear and intimidation are the order of the day. Alternative voices are being silenced, literally in far too many cases through violence, even murdered. The freedom to think for oneself, to differ and disagree, to eat according to one’s choice, to meet or marry, according to one’s wishes - all this and more is under attack. Where amity and harmony were encouraged, religious tensions are being fuelled. Vigilante mobs and private armies have been let loose with state patronage.
There is shocking insensitivity to atrocities on Dalits and women. Our society is being polarised with an eye to winning elections. So, what is happening to the India that we inherited and that we have cherished? But ladies and gentlemen, something even more sinister is taking place. The Indian tradition and way of life has, for centuries, been many-streamed and all-encompassing. That is being subverted. Our very social DNA is being re-engineered. The resulting churn will unleash pent-up frustrations, resentment and anger with devastating consequences. Individuals can mesmerise for a while, but our republic needs impartial and robust institutions. Long-standing precedents that have stood the country well are being violated. Parliamentary majority is being interpreted as a licence to stifle debate and bulldoze legislations. Political opponents are being targeted through the misuse of investigative agency. The judiciary is in turmoil. Civil society is being silenced. University and students are being straightjacketed.
Much of the media is being coerced away from the way from its proper watchdog role, which is surely to expose misgovernance, scams and frauds.
RTI was brought in to enhance transparency and fight corruption. Today that law is in cold storage. The RTI and RTI activists are being killed. Aadhaar was to be an instrument of empowerment. It is being turned into an intrusive instrument of control. We want to be a knowledge-driven society. But just look at how the scientific temper is being mocked. The noise of politics is the music of democracy. Yet, that very noise is now being muffled. The pretext is to make India a Rs 10-trilion dollar economy. But yes, of course, we need to move fast. But fast F.A.S.T. can not stand for First Act, and Second Think. Acronymites can be very contagious.
We have seen time and again in the way decisions have been taken whether they have to do with the economy or our relationships with the neighbours or the handling of vital security issues and cross-border terrorism.
Ladies and gentlemen, forgive me for asking too many questions. I only have two left.
Does maximum governance mean minimum truth? Does it mean that alternative facts take the place of uncomfortable reality?
Take jobs, for instance. Everyone knows that the employment situation is grim. But all of a sudden, we are told that 7.5 million jobs were created in 2017. This claim, of course, has been widely debunked. But, does that really make a difference? No, it doesn’t. Because as soon as one myth is demolished, another takes its place. I don’t need to remind the audience of how the narrative kept shifting as demonetisation took the economy downriver or the chopping and changing that went with the GST, a reform that was first stymied and then implemented in stubborn haste. Or, the belated recognition, although half-hearted, of growing farmer distress.
Friends, it is not my nature to be a voice of gloom and doom. But we need to see things as they are and not to be taken in skillfully packaging and lavish marketing. And, I do feel encouraged; I am encouraged, in fact, because people are now beginning to question this reimagining of India. Reimagining India must entail a re-dedication to the core values and guiding principles of our Constitution in letter and spirit, in precept and practice. Practice is what really counts. We need to reaffirm our resolve to protect and strengthen institutions and institutional processes. We need to acknowledge that while economic growth must be rapid, it must also be inclusive and sustainable.
Most of all, we need to replenish the well springs of liberalism and pluralism that for so long have sustained our society. And finally, ladies and gentlemen, we have so much to be proud of. India is a great country. It is a wonderful country. It belongs to all of us. Let us protect it and cherish it with all our might.