The Rashtrapati misled on Rashtrapita: Government made the President selectively quote Gandhiji

The annual address by the Hon’ble President has traditionally offered both Houses of Parliament an opportunity to listen to the accomplishments of the government of the day and serves as a report card on the work that has been achieved in the previous year.

What do we expect from any government?: security, development, conditions to promote growth and the well-being  of our country and people, and to fulfil the aspirations of our young society. All of us in this House waited eagerly for an honest and comprehensive account of the challenges and success of this government in the last year but were sadly given an exercise where facts gave way to fiction, an address whose soaring rhetoric was clearly divorced from the abject reality of our country’s worrying social and economic situation, a concerted effort to mask the failures of the much advertised flagship schemes of the present government and an address where grandstanding and propaganda were deployed effectively to mask the way in which this government has embraced failure, mediocrity and a dearth of solutions and ideas to take India forward.

But beyond all of these aspects that we are now used to from this government, the fact that the address failed to even tangentially speak to the constitutional and political crisis that our country is facing amid nationwide protests was not just disappointing but an abdication of any moral responsibility by the ruling dispensation.

There were of course the usual mentions and the expected omissions:  there was the mention of India’s progress on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index (and expectedly, no mention of our shameful fall in the Democracy Index, the Global Competitiveness Index, the Peace Index and even the Press Freedom Index).

There were the ample mentions of the illusory promise of a $ 5 trillion economy by 2024 (but no mention of our lowest growth rate in four decades or the alarming fall in private consumption, rising inflation affecting all of us, record unemployment, plummeting investments or agricultural distress). For such an economy—and I am sure the Rashtrapati should have been informed by the government—a $ 5 trillion economy requires, according to every economist, a growth rate of 12 per cent every year. Even our Finance Minister only claims a nominal growth, in the future, of 10 per cent, from which you need to subtract inflation; the Consumer Price Index in December 2019 was 6.7 per cent. You look at these numbers (and our present growth rate) and you’ll realise that $ 5 trillion economy is a pipe dream.

And of course there was the usual lip-service paid to Skill India, Digital India and Start-Up India but no mention of Stand Up India (since you are so busy banning standup comedians). And no admission that your government’s schemes should really be renamed Sit Down India, Shutdown India and Shut Up India.

To take just one example, this government holds the world record for the largest number of internet shutdowns and in J&K the longest communications blockade and internet suspension of any country in the world.

Now frankly, the President was required to make extravagant claims about various government schemes—in health, in women’s security, manufacturing, fisheries and so on—which are belied by official (and available) facts and figures. There was absolutely no acknowledgment of the failures to achieve targets, there was no remorse for the 27 protestors killed by the police, the mounting non-performing assets, the record pollution levels in our air and our water, the complete neglect of fisherfolk and coastal communities—frankly, these are communities that have been devastated by natural calamities, such as hurricanes, floods, coastal erosion as well as depleting fish stocks, and the government just randomly announces a target that bears no relationship to reality and makes the President utter it. Then the prolonged detention of political leaders in J&K was not mentioned; the dramatic increase in the number of infiltrations across the LoC since August (according to government figures not cited by the President); or even the marginal increase in defence allocations that we heard from the Finance Minister, which are not even enough to match the rate of inflation.

The fact is there are so many examples of poor governance by this government in the last year that it is very clear that their clarion call sabka saath sabka vikaas sabka vishwas, honestly reminds me of what Napoleon said about the Holy Roman Empire—that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. Na sabka saath hai, na vikaas hai, na vishwas hai.

All of these aspects pale in comparison with the larger crisis that is holding the future of the India we cherish, hostage. In these last few months, under this government, we have witnessed a fundamental assault on the democratic, secular and constitutional fabric of India that our forefathers—giants like Mahatma Gandhi-ji, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Dr Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and so many other giants of the Independence movement — gave their lives for. Even as they have driven the economy into doldrums, the present ruling dispensation has become, in their phrase, a tukde tukde gang. They are dividing this country into tukdes: Hindus versus Muslims; Deshdrohis versus Deshbhakts; Raamzaade versus, well, main bholunga nahin; Hindi speakers versus non-Hindi speakers; Us versus Them.  

In 1947, we had a partition of the Indian soil. In 2020, this government is giving us a partition of the Indian soul.

Just starting with what has happened within the walls of this house, with the passing of far-reaching legislation such as the disembowelling of the RTI Act, the draconian UAPA Bill, the Jammu and Kashmir Re-organisation Act, and the CAA, plus the declared intention by the Home Minister to launch a nationwide NRC, and of course the statements made by members of the ruling party outside the House—which I will not quote since it would demean the dignity of this House—makes it clear that we are facing an  existential threat to the future of our democracy and the freedoms that we have taken for granted since our Independence from colonial rule over 75 years ago. To you, that is the Old India, and you want to replace it with the hollow façade that you have dubbed as ‘New India’.

In the Old India, fought for by the blood of our forefathers and birthed in the crucible of our national struggle, the fundamental premise that was ultimately forged was that of access to a historically inalienable set of right and freedoms—prime was the freedom to choose. The freedom to choose what government you wanted, the freedom to choose what set of convictions to hold, the freedom to choose what to wear, what to eat, drink and speak, the freedom to move freely within the sovereign borders of the republic and the freedom to choose how and in what manner you would bow your head before your understanding of the force that guides the cosmos. All of these were freedoms enshrined in our Constitution and embedded not just in the letter and spirit of the law, but into the lived experience of India and its peoples.

It is lamentable that those who have followed us in government, have not had the capacity, the vision or the inclination to uphold this timeless legacy. Instead, in today’s times, that vision of India is questioned by rising intolerance, in which the forces unleashed by our present rulers have appropriated the tools of the state to marginalise and exclude. Though their language is modern, they seek to take India backward, not forward. After all, they made no sacrifices to shape India’s destiny, and to them our country is a plaything for the satisfaction of personal glories and their communal prejudices. Their modern jargon conceals pre-modern beliefs, and it is our duty in the Opposition to pull away the hypocrisy and reveal the darkness lurking beneath.

It was also appalling and distressing to see this government make the president selectively quote the father of our nation Mahatma Gandhiji, whose ideals they have wilfully disregarded, in an attempt to legitimise their desecration of the very national unity Gandhi-ji gave his life for. The President’s Address quoted that the Mahatma said saying “Hindus and Sikhs of Pakistan, who do not wish to live there, can come to India. It is the duty of the Government of India to ensure a normal life for them.” No one disagree with that; the Congress Party supports the Mahatma on this. But then this quote was used to make an absurd claim that the draconian Citizenship Amendment Bill was a fulfilment of the Mahatma’s wishes.

By reproducing a line without its context, not only has the government misled the Rashtrapati about the Rashtrapita but have attempted another affront to a man who spent his lifetime advocating for Hindu-Muslim unity, a man who fought till the very end the idea that religion should determine nationhood, which is sadly the idea that they have embraced.  If they had continued to quote the Mahatma they would have also found his words in the same book that say To drive every Muslim from India … would mean war and eternal ruin for the country. If such a suicidal policy is followed, it would spell the ruin of …Hinduism in the Union. Good alone can beget good. Love breeds love. As for revenge, it behooves man to leave the evil-doer in God’s hands….The idea that India should only belong to Hindus is wrong. That way lies destruction.” It is destruction, to which this government is leading us.

Guided by the Mahatma, we in the Congress Party have historically committed ourselves to sustaining an Idea of India that is fundamentally different from the thinking of those who rule us today. In keeping with that heritage of which we are proud to be descendants, let me remind my friends and colleagues in the House, amidst these sobering times it is easy to forget the value of ideas and our responsibility to commit ourselves to the power of ideas. But ideas are powerful. Ideas speak truth to power; they challenge the status quo. And ultimately ideas have been responsible for taking our country out of darkness before and to our position of pride and greatness in the world, which is now sadly eroding under your rule.

In these times, let us remember that as our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, once memorably noted: “Failure comes only when we forget our ideals and objectives and principles.” That is why we in the Congress have always believed in an Idea of India where the first and the last voice, the ones that resonate loudly and the ones that have been marginalised and discriminated against, are both equally important in determining the future of the country. We are the only party that has historically championed the principle that India is a land that belongs to all Indians, irrespective of caste, religion, region, language, or socio-economic status . “Inclusive India” is more than just a slogan for us: it is an aspiration, an objective and a commitment.

After all, as Nehruji also wrote, “Idealism is tomorrow’s realism”. It is our duty, even in the darkest hour, to keep alive the flame of our national idealism. If we accept without scrutiny, without question, and without challenge, the fallacies and follies of today’s short-sighted and narrow-minded leaders, we will leave for our children a land of injustice, a legacy of trauma, and a country divided and broken. We have daunting battles to fight—against poverty, against malnutrition, against bigotry, against patriarchy, against illiteracy, against discrimination—but we must prevail in this greater struggle for the soul of our nation.

If the government continues down this very slippery slope, no matter how many leaders from history you borrow or whose names you seek to hijack, you will be exposed and history will see you for what you really are—men of straw with limited vision, unable to comprehend the great, diverse, united society you are meant to govern, not divide and break up.

What we want in India is unity. You want uniformity.

We believe in an India that unites our people. You seek to divide us.

We seek to promote consensus, you only demand conformity.

Our ideology binds our people together. Yours separates one Indian from another.

What we need in a new India is the strengthening of democratic institutions at all levels, with transparency and accountability enforced through the Right to Information Act and an active parliament. You seek to weaken these institutions, hollow out RTI, disregard Parliament by treating it as a notice-board for the BJP, and promote one-man or two-man rule.

Our new India must derive its support and strength from all sections of our diverse society. Your new India speaks of one faith and reduces others to second-class status.

The choice is clear. We can have a new India that belongs to all of us, led by a government that works for all of us. Or we can have anew India that belongs to some, and serves the interests of a few.

You can choose a new India that embodies hope, or one that promotes fear. You can support a new India united in striving, or an India divided by hatred.

What we need is an India where our progress takes place in an open society, in a rich and diverse and plural civilisation, in one that is open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world, wedded to the democratic pluralism that is India’s greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfil the creative energies of its people.

The President’s speech sadly fails to live up to these national aspirations and therefore I regret we must reject this motion of thanks.

Text of Dr Shashi Tharoor’s speech during discussion on motion of thanks on the President’s address on February 4, 2020, Lok Sabha

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