jekyll and hyde

R L Stevenon’s classic of 1886, “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, described the duality of character in the same person, manifesting itself in strange ways that were difficult to understand. Had Stevenson been alive today to witness the happenings in Indian politics, he would have found the present day political leaders having attributes similar to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the two characters he had created more than 130 years ago, though, in Stevenson’s work, transformation of Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde was an unconscious psychological one, whereas the present day political leaders are fully conscious about it and they do it deliberately to further their self-interest.

Covid mismanagement:

‘‘Curfew at night, lakhs of people at day rallies”, a senior political leader recently exclaimed at the ways of the UP government in Covid mismanagement (https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/lucknow/varun-gandhi-bjp-up-night-curfew-7692625/).

No one in the country wishes to go back to relive the traumatic days of the second Covid wave during mid-2021, when virus-stricken patients lost their lives, waiting in long queues for admission to over-crowded hospitals and when the near and the dear of the deceased waited in still longer queues for entry to crematoriums. No wonder many, feeling utterly helpless, released hundreds of dead bodies of their dear ones into the flowing waters of River Ganga.

The irresponsible way our leaders took part in the election rallies in W.Bengal and organised Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand in 2021 is a grim reminder of the superspreaders they created to accelerate and intensify the deadly second wave.

Now that India is facing another wave of Covid, this time in its new avatar of the fast spreading Omicron, one would expect those at the helm of affairs to be prudent enough not to repeat the mistakes they had committed earlier and take preemptive measures to contain its severity.

As usual, the Union Home Ministry has invoked its authority under the national disaster management legislation to direct the States to be vigilant and the citizens to comply strictly with “Covid-appropriate behaviour”, implying that each and every one of us should wear a mask, maintain “social distancing” and not gather in large numbers. This is of course the right thing to do.

The Prime Minister, in his Mann Ki Baat addresses to the nation during the last quarter of 2021,  urged the people again and again to follow the Covid guidelines strictly. Ahead of the festival season in the concluding months of the year, he said, when the whole country would celebrate ‘Maryada Purshottam,’ Shri Ram’s victory over untruth, people should also remember the fight against Covid. He talked about the power of self-awareness and self-discipline as the two qualities needed to fight Omicron.  (https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/india/mann-ki-baat-to-defeat-omicron-our-effort-as-citizens-important-says-pm-modi/videoshow/88502086.cms & https://www.indiatoday.in/india/video/mann-ki-baat-pm-modi-covid-protocols-vaccination-1857420-2021-09-26). Such homilies are no doubt unexceptionable.

From these utterances, one would expect that the PM, his colleagues in the government, his party compatriots and the leaders of the other political parties too, in view of their avowed commitment to people’s welfare, would set an example to the public in the matter of strictly complying with the Covid norms. However, walking the talk is not considered a necessary virtue by the opportunistic, worldly wise political leaders of India, who believe that it is their divine right to rule, even if it is at the cost of the people’s welfare. If it becomes necessary, they do not even hesitate to sell their souls, as the mythical Faust did, in the 16th century German folklore, when he sold his soul to the demonic Mephistopheles, in exchange for worldly pleasures.

That is exactly what happened in the last few days. UP is due to have Assembly elections in February-March, 2022. Considering the importance of these elections for the subsequent Parliament elections in 2024, political parties have converged on the State like hungry vultures, holding massive rallies in competition with one another, throwing the Covid norms to the wind. They have not hesitated even a moment in compromising the people’s welfare, when it became necessary for winning elections.

Fortunately, videos of the election rallies in which our leaders harangued the large gatherings could be seen by the people all over the country. The following reports contain such videos.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zo65UY08MAU

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/elections/assembly-elections/uttar-pradesh/up-elections-2022-amit-shah-launches-attack-on-samajwadi-party-in-hardoi-rally-coins-abcd-acronym/videoshow/88544319.cms

These videos show how some of these leaders do not even care to wear masks, leave alone comply with the other Covid norms. Many of them wear only invisible masks of deception!

The Allahabad High Court, concerned at the likely impact of those pre-election rallies on the spread of Omicron and its consequent threat to the people’s health, made a gentle appeal to the PM to stop the rallies and a similar appeal to the Election Commission to do likewise. (https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/elections/assembly-elections/uttar-pradesh/consider-stopping-up-rallies-polls-allahabad-hc-urges-pm-modi-and-eci-amid-omicron-surge/videoshow/88465669.cms). There is an all pervading sense of superciliousness about India’s political class. They apparently feel confident that they do not have to obey a court advice, as evident from the fact that none of them has so far refrained from organising the rallies.

Incidentally, when these political leaders blatantly violate the covid norms, they should know that they are not only infringing the directions under the disaster management legislation but also Sections 269 and 270 of the IPC  (“endangering lives by spreading infectious disease”). What they are doing therefore is patently illegal.

When the Omicron wave sweeps the country, triggering yet another ill-planned lockdown that will surely disrupt the lives of lakhs of hapless migrant workers, the political leaders who are adept at making failures look like successes, will put the blame squarely on the States. They view federalism as a convenient vehicle to take credit for something that they do not deserve and shift the blame to the States which are in no way responsible for it.

Transparency in governance:

The PMO website (https://www.pmindia.gov.in/en/quest-for-transparency/) underlines the importance given by the PM to “Quest for Transparency” in the following words:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi firmly believes that transparency and accountability are the two cornerstones of any pro-people government. Transparency and accountability not only connect the people closer to the government but also make them equal and integral part of the decision making process”.

It is interesting to see how transparency and accountability in governance have improved over the years since such a far reaching statement was made, how enhanced transparency has “connected the people closer to the government and how the people have been made an equal part of decision making process”.

To cite one example, PMCARES Fund came into existence in March, 2020, through a Deed of Trust executed by no less than the PM himself, not in his personal capacity but in his official one. The Trust Deed created a Public Charitable Trust with the Union Defence, Home and Finance Ministers as the ex-officio Trustees. Its official address is that of the PMO, with Under Secretary (Funds) as its contact point.

According to a reply given in response to an RTI application, the Fund is “completely financed by donations received from individuals/organisations/PSUs/CSR (Corporates)/foreign individuals…. not at all financed by the appropriate government and administered by private individuals as trustees”, to justify that PMCARES Fund is not a “public authority” as defined in Section 2(h) of the RTI Act (https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/pm-cares-established-by-government-but-rti-doesnt-apply-says-document-2343550). The person in the PMO who framed the reply is apparently not aware of the fact that all PSUs are deemed to be the arms of the government as envisaged in Article 12 of the Constitution. Even otherwise, a public trust that is administered by the highest public functionaries of the country in their official capacity cannot use its Trust Deed as a fig leaf to remain opaque about its functioning.

Hopefully, the judiciary will intervene and interpret the provisions of the RTI Act so as to bring PMCRES under public scrutiny.

For a government that preaches transparency as the cornerstone of good governance, even if there is no statutory obligation to reveal the details of its functioning, it should have voluntarily and spontaneously come forward to make a public disclosure of the details of those contributing to the Fund, the contributions made by them and the manner in which they have been utilised, keeping in view that such contributions would not have come spontaneously, but for the fact that the Trust is headed the PM himself.

Communalism:

The 2019 BJP election manifesto vowed among others that the party, if elected, would “defeat communalism”, a laudable promise to the voters.

Once elected on that basis, what followed has been truly distressing. In fact, communalism has since become one of the main planks of electioneering in India today. Every other issue is wantonly given a communal colour for cornering votes.

To cite an example, the recent reports originating from Haridwar in Uttarakhand (https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/haridwar-hate-speeches-case-against-religious-leader-who-led-haridwar-event-made-hate-speech-2683266) not only show the activists of one religion indulging in toxic and vituperative statements against the members of another religion, inciting violence, but also the local police officers seemed sharing their feelings (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUfCdk7rylY).

Communalism poses a serious threat to the national integrity. Today’s political leadership routinely and very often uses the social media to comment on each and every incident of far lesser importance but, strangely, it has nothing to say on the Haridwar hate utterances, which tend to disturb the peace and imperil the security of the nation.

Those who are responsible for hate speeches that promote communal disharmony are liable to be booked under Section 505 of the IPC.

In Martin Luther King’s words, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal”.

Cooperative federalism:

The 2014 BJP election manifesto said, “Team India shall not be limited to the Prime Minister led team sitting in Delhi, but will also include Chief Ministers and other functionaries as equal partners”. What we witness today in Indian politics is far from this stated objective. The States are rarely taken into confidence in decision making on subjects of national importance, which affect the States as much as the Centre. For example, the Centre took a unilateral decision to bring the three farm laws, without consulting the major stakeholders, especially the States and the farmers, leave alone the Members of the Parliament. The same was the case with the Electricity Bill that would allow the Centre to intrude into the legislative domain of the States. Even in the case of the public sector enterprises for whom it was the States that acquired lands in the first instance, the Centre announced a far reaching policy in 2021 to privatise them, without any consultation with the States. These are but a few examples of how the Centre has made a mockery of the federal system of governance that is a part of the basic structure of our Constitution.

The cultural and socio-economic diversity among the different regions in India does not permit the party in power at the Centre to govern, without enlisting the support of the States as its equal partners. The sooner it realises this reality, the better it is for the well being of the nation.

Role of the institutions and the civil society:

While it is unfortunate that, in the name of democracy, that our political leaders should continue to compromise people’s welfare to remain in power, what they are doing is also patently illegal and detrimental to the integrity of the nation and its security. The Constitution has provided enough laws and institutional safeguards to contain those trends. It will indeed be a tragedy if those safeguards become dysfunctional. What distresses the nation today is the deafening silence on the part of the Constitutional bodies that could have intervened!

In the ultimate analysis, the political parties and their leaders should realise that their self-centred approach cuts at the very root of our democratic systems that allow them to come to power in the first instance. They should also realise that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”.

In the long run, it is the innate wisdom of the people that will decide the future of such political parties and their leaders.

E A S Sarma is a former Secretary to Government of India


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