Across the Aisle by P Chidambaram: Big, rich and unaccountable

A farmer prepares ‘langar’ at Singhu border to mark the one-year anniversary of farmers’ agitation, in New Delhi (PTI Image)

The rich get big and the big get rich. Once they are big and rich, there is the clear and present danger that they will be unaccountable. John Sherman, a United States Senator (the first Antitrust Act, 1890, is commonly referred to as the Sherman Act) said, “If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life.” Standard Oil and AT & T were broken up in the US. China has cracked down on Alibaba, Tencent and Didi. Microsoft, Google and Facebook face the heat in many countries. Why? Because they have become too big, too rich and unaccountable.

Just as we will not endure a king as ruler, we ought not to endure a ruler who wants to be king. Many countries have term limits on their President or Prime Minister because he/she could acquire absolute power.

Democratic & Rich

Mr Vladimir Putin has found a way to remain the real power whether as President or Prime Minister. Mr Xi Jinping has consolidated his power, abolished term limits and is all set to begin his third term next year. By any definition, both countries are not democracies. Nor have they broken into the ranks of the rich countries.

The top 10 richest countries of the world by per capita income are:

1. Luxembourg, 2. Ireland, 3. Switzerland, 4. Norway, 5. United States, 6. Iceland, 7. Denmark, 8. Singapore, 9. Australia and 10. Qatar. Except Qatar, which is a monarchy, and Singapore, which is a qualified democracy, the other eight countries are full-fledged democracies. I cannot name the President or Prime Minister of any of the eight, except of the US and, with some effort, of Australia. The moral is that a country and its people can be rich and democratic, though led by quiet, reserved and faceless leaders. None of these leaders has, to my knowledge, been accused of hubris or arrogance.

Slide to Unaccountability

Democracy ill sits beside absolute power or disdain for Parliament and the media. There is no place for ‘I know it all’ or ‘I am the saviour’ rhetoric. These qualities are acquired when a political party becomes too big, too rich and unaccountable. The BJP claims to be the biggest party in the world and we know it is the richest in India. It has 300 seats in the Lok Sabha (out of 543) and 1,435 seats in the State Legislative Assemblies (out of 4,036). It is the ruling party in 17 states (out of 28). That makes it too big. The BJP is also too rich. According to the Association for Democratic Rights, in 2019-20, the BJP collected Rs 2,642 crore (out of Rs 3,377 crore for all parties) from unknown sources, including the infamous electoral bonds. In the last round of state elections in five states, the BJP spent Rs 252 crore; of that Rs 151 crore was spent in West Bengal alone!

In the last seven years, the BJP has become more unaccountable. It shuns debate in Parliament; passes Bills without scrutiny by parliamentary committees and, often, without a debate in the two Houses; the Prime Minister religiously avoids Parliament and the media; and the government has no hesitation in using the CBI, ED, Income Tax, NIA and now the NCB (Narcotics Control Bureau) against political opponents, social activists, journalists and students.

Despite being too big, too rich and unaccountable, the BJP has won a string of elections. Where it lost, it had no compunction in buying legislators and forming the government with the help of obliging governors. They have proudly given a name to the sordid exercise — Operation Lotus!

Fear Only Losing

The hubris and arrogance were in full display in the passing of the three farm laws and the obstinate defence of the laws. The laws were made through ordinances and converted into legislation without a debate in Parliament. Farmers protested for 15 months, but the government did not yield. The invitation to farmers for talks was insincere and the talks were political theatre. The abuse and name-calling of the farmers and their supporters (‘Khalistanis, anti-national’) reached indecent limits. The police crackdown was brutal. The response to the Supreme Court was defiant. Throughout, the government was self-satisfied and smug — until the intelligence reports and survey results seeped into the high chambers.

It is crystal clear that the Modi government fears only one thing — losing an election. Petrol and diesel prices were reduced within hours of the results of the by-elections to 30 Assembly seats, where the BJP won just seven. The sudden decision to withdraw the farm laws — taken by Mr Modi without Cabinet approval — was a clear indication that he feared massive losses in UP, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa (where his party rules today) and being blanked out in Punjab. The contrived praise for the PM’s ‘statesmanship’ by his ministers only exposed what a crowd of dumb cheerleaders they had become: Mr Modi was a statesman when he passed the law and Mr Modi was a bigger statesman when he repealed the law!

Democracy may yet survive in India as long the BJP fears losing an election. Even better, an actual defeat in February 2022 may prod the BJP to shed some of its hubris and arrogance.

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