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Shrinking space for dissent
By M. Zeyaul Haque

Over the last few months, democracy has received a setback in India as tolerance for dissent has visibly decreased.

M. Zeyaul HaqueLast fortnight, the Prime Minister observed that in view of an emergency– like situation in the country, the Opposition should refrain from asking too many uncomfortable questions. The Opposition (and the country as a whole) was not satisfied with the government’s reply to questions regarding transparency in defence deals.

The most glaring example of the Union government’s insensitivity to people’s desire for transparency in defence deals came on February 6 in the Prime Minister’s remarks at an election rally in Punjab where he referred (with unseemly disregard for norms of political decency) to Congress President Sonia Gandhi as a videshi mahila (foreign woman). The provocation for this patently unfair remark came from Mrs Gandhi and her party’s insistence on transparency.

This new tenor of vituperation raises several questions of decency in public life. It may unleash unsavoury exchanges of the type in which the parties invariably question each other’s patriotic credentials. On earlier occasions, politicians have gone to the extent of ferreting out the Prime Minister’s prison record of his student days, questioning his patriotism. Let us hope this time round we are not treated to such unedifying spectacle.

On the occasion when he was obliquely questioning the patriotism of the videshi mahila, he made it a point to issue a generous certificate of patriotism to George Fernandes. "He is a patriot," the PM said regarding Mr Fernandes. The implication was that people asking pertinent questions about the coffin deal for the martyred army men were committing an unpatriotic act. If this is so, then the non-NDA MPs and a majority of Indians are traitors. Incidentally, the government did not show the CAG’s report regarding defence purchases even to the Chairman of Public Accounts Committee lest it dents the patriotic credentials of Mr Fernandes.

Regarding this videshi mahila label, one must say that this is an utterly uncalled for resurrection of a dead issue.

To most Indians, born after August 15, 1947, Soniaji is not a foreigner, but one of our very own. If at all she is a foreigner, she is in the mould of Mother Teresa and Annie Besant – someone whom we would always see as an Indian. Stirring xenophobia is something that should be left to lesser lights of the Sangh. The PM has to remain the statesman he is.

Coming back to the growing intolerance of dissent, one must remember that the same Mr Vajpayee as a young MP used to lambast one of the tallest Indians and the first Prime Minister of the country, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, during the Chinese war in 1962. The democrat that Pandit Nehru was, he never resented Mr Vajpayee’s relentless criticism even though the situation was far more grim than today’s "emergency-like situation." 

It is the same set of people ruling the country today who raised the Bofors gun deal issue inside and outside Parliament. This issue was used to demolish Late Rajiv Gandhi’s reputation. When these people were in opposition, it was quite patriotic to talk about irregularities in defence purchases. Despite the brouhaha over Bofors, it was this gun that saved the day for the country at the freezing heights of Kargil. The Late Mr Gandhi never doubted anybody’s patriotism for their asking uncomfortable questions.

Over the last few months, the feeling is growing that a fascist culture of political intolerance is stealthily creeping in upon us. An example of how ruthlessly the government has been dealing with its critics is that of Tehelka. Its head, Tarun Tejpal Singh, has been hounded viciously. Even his father, a former army man, has been harassed. The company’s financiers, First Global, have been virtually forced out of business. Umpteen government departments have summoned them more than 200 times. This is government vendetta at its worst. Democracy is the real loser.

The media should have known better. After all, it was the same set of leaders who watched merrily from their dais when media persons were savagely attacked and beaten up by kar sevaks in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. Obviously, the Sangh did not like the presence of the media to record their deeds. Even the anti-press clauses of POTO were dropped only after vigorous protest from the media.

POTO or no POTO, we witness a dangerous shrinkage of the space for dissent. Now that the BJP-led NDA is in power at the Centre, it may not realise what it means for democracy. They will begin to understand what they have created once they sit on the Opposition benches. The loser, in any case, is democracy.
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