India needs a People’s Charter - a referendum of the type of India people want

An apolitical mass movement is imperative, given that India’s secular democracy and constitutional freedoms are facing an existential threat 

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 India’s secular democracy and constitutional freedoms

Democracies ought to give voice to the people, but their voice is seldom heard since the elected representatives are mostly inaccessible. A fractured Opposition that cannot overcome petty ambitions is in no position to highlight public concerns effectively. Frustration has been rising sharply in India over the past two years. Etched on people’s souls are indelible memories of the migrants’ ordeal, oxygen shortages, mass cremations, and floating bodies. Skyrocketing prices, unemployment, and poverty are all coalescing into widespread exasperation.

A substantial section of the mainstream media parrots only government propaganda to mask its blunders and distracts attention away from people’s problems. Given the government’s abysmal record people have little faith in its promises and grandiose schemes.

Parliament logjams, purchasable legislators destabilizing of elected governments in various states, authoritarianism, and cover-up of frauds through subverted institutions characterize our dysfunctional political system. People are now in a state of despair and disillusionment.

This should not have happened since India’s Constitution has sound institutional safeguards. It had served well during the early decades due to visionary leadership and upright politicians. Distortions crept in later with political turbulence starting with the Jaiprakash Narayan’s agitation, the Emergency imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, Punjab insurgency, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassinations, and the Mandal Report protests.

Tyranny of the majority

The Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the Sangh Parivar, seized the opportunity to pursue its long-cherished Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation) goal. The rath yatra (chariot campaign), led by then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) LK Advani in 1990 and the Babri Masjid demolition two years later whipped up a religious frenzy, and created a deep communal polarization that helped the BBJP gain power at the center and several States.
 

Post-independence, the RSS had denounced the Indian Constitution.  In court depositions, it has argued that ‘aastha’ or faith overrides the Constitution. Claiming to represent the ‘aastha’ of one billion Hindus, even though they were never homogenous, it ignores the ‘faith” of 270 million minorities.

India’s democracy has become tyranny of the majority, manufactured through communal and caste polarization and a flawed electoral system. The BJP has blatantly subverted constitutional watchdogs by planting committed Hindutva adherents. A Rajya Sabha seat to former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi signaled to the judiciary and bureaucrats the benefits of toeing its line. It bulldozed through Parliament farm, labor, and other vital bills without discussion.

The BJP has embarked on a dangerous privatization spree of infrastructure, railways, airports, and public sector Undertakings on specious grounds. Privatization generates efficiencies only if there is free-market competition. By manipulating the system to favor its crony capitalists, it has created a duopoly, which kills competition. They will control the entire value chain and prices by leveraging their deep pockets, and earn windfall profits while squeezing consumers.

Apolitical mass movement

Hapless people are now venting their rage fearlessly on social media, something unthinkable earlier due to fear of draconian laws. No wonder the government is desperate to control social media platforms. Pent-up anger, unless channelized, is fodder for anarchy and revolutions. Sadly, India does not have Gandhiji (Mahatma Gandhi) who had forged a powerful, non-violent mass movement against the British.

Since the government controls the narrative using 'lapdog' media and intimidation, there is a need to bypass this stranglehold to reach the people directly. A “People’s Charter” that embodies their concerns and demands would help channelize their angst and give them a sense of purpose.

Replacing Tweedledum with Tweedledee is no solution unless the malaise in India’s political system is rooted out entirely. The top priority should be on restoring the independent institutions to their original pristine character. Total transparency, ruthless accountability, and unfettered rule of law must be the central theme of the Charter.

An apolitical mass movement is imperative, given that India’s secular democracy and constitutional freedoms are facing an existential threat. 

People’s Charter

Key elements of the People’s Charter must include:

- Restore secular democracy, repeal undemocratically passed laws and guarantee all freedoms

 - Guarantee unfettered functioning of the judiciary, Election Commission, media, and all independent watchdogs

 - Ensure total accountability through a judicial commission that investigates all frauds

 - Form a Constitutional Reforms Commission to draft legislation that guarantees against subversion of the constitution, and recommend essential democratic and administrative reforms, for the government to implement in a time-bound manner

 - Undertake a cathartic purge of organizations and religious bodies that propagate hatred and violence

The foregoing elements are only an illustration of the overall aim and theme of the Charter. Eminent constitutional experts and organizations like the Association for Democratic Reforms should refine this Charter after consulting influencers from different segments. They must then promulgate it widely, exhorting people to vote only for those political parties that unequivocally accept the Charter and its timely implementation.

The People’s Charter would be like a referendum of the type of India people want – an inclusive and equitable democracy that guarantees all freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, or a Hindu Rashtra, which promotes patriarchy, caste discrimination, and obscurantist orthodoxy, or a pseudo-democracy where oligarchs and semi-literate politicians control everything.    
 
(The writer, an Indian Army veteran, is Professor of International Business Strategy and Management, Charlotte, North Carolina, US. The views expressed are personal and not necessarily shared by editors of South Asia Monitor. He can be contacted at 30foxtrot@gmail.com)