J.P. Nadda needs to ensure that members of his party do not proceed to the police station but reach out for a conversation with individuals with whose views they disagree, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat
Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao initiated the “Look East” policy in 1991, which anticipated the quantum increases in trade that occurred afterwards. Not just for India but for the world, the Indo-Pacific became the focal point of global growth, overtaking the Atlantic. Despite, or perhaps because of his skill in navigating India away from the Brezhnevite economic policies of the past, those who most destructively targeted Rao were from his own party, who functioned in the cool shade of approval of Sonia Gandhi, who soon grew to dislike the Prime Minister for reasons that must await an accurate biography of the lady who occupied the centre-stage of Indian politics for nearly two decades without holding any position within the Government of India.
The civil war within the Congress Party between those who favoured Rao and the others who thought Sonia should replace him ensured the defeat of the party in the 1996 Lok Sabha polls and the rise to the front rank of the BJP. It must be said about Atal Bihari Vajpayee that he never forgot the debt owed to Sonia for helping to ensure the end of the years of Congress Party Lok Sabha majorities, and was unfailingly kind to her. The “Look East” policy gained some traction, but sniping from an unsympathetic President Clinton and the reality of the size of the Indian economy being puny at the time stood in the way of any diplomatic or commercial breakthrough with Southeast Asia. Soon after he came to power as the head of the first government to have a BJP majority in the Lok Sabha in 2014, Narendra Modi conceptualised and carried into effect the “Act East” policy. At the same time, relations with the Middle East and the US were also made a priority.
“Act East” is an idea that was overdue. India and Indonesia, for example, are natural partners, and the MEA needs to take the initiative in getting the Quad to expand to Quad Plus, with the addition of Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. This will not be possible at first, but security agreements similar to those entered into between Washington and Delhi could be worked out individually with the three as a prelude to their coming on board in a Quad Plus. While the Quad will remain limited to four, the “Plus” would in time include France, Germany and the UK as well, thereby putting in place an alliance designed not to provoke a war but to prevent adventurous and expansionist powers from launching a conflict against any smaller country in the neighbourhood.
While the US will remain by far the bigger economy for a long period, India is unlikely to be replaced from its perch as the world’s most populous democracy. Universal suffrage was followed from the start, including the essentiality of equal rights to women. There have been significant transitions from a government to the other, and all have taken place peacefully, including in 1977, when a 2-year hiatus in democracy ended with the declaration of Lok Sabha polls. The result was less a reflection of the economic performance of the government headed by Indira Gandhi than it was a reaction to the denial of freedoms.
The people of India are proud of democracy and loyal to its concepts. Hence such judgments of the Supreme Court as the striking down of Victorian-era laws on lifestyles or diluting the draconian nature of the Information Technology Act that from its inception during the Vajpayee period began the period of reversal of the spectacular global growth of the industry in the period when everyday laws (which themselves are more than sufficient in numbers) and not special legislation was applied to the IT sector. To take another example, if the draconian legislation passed by the UPA after the Nirbhaya horror (where a perpetrator escaped a severe sentence on a technicality in a manner that would not have been possible in the US or many other countries) has worked in curbing such barbarism against women, the same is not evident. Such crimes remain, as does alcoholism in states that have enforced Prohibition in the belief that liquor or even dietary preferences can be altered through legislation speedily passed rather than through the slower but organic process of conscientisation.
The time will soon come when there will be more vegetarians in the US than in India, and not because of laws regulating diet either. Prime Minister Modi acted not a moment too soon in decriminalising some of what is legally criminal in India that is regarded as a civil dispute in other mature democracies. The late Ram Jethmalani as Law Minister sought to carry such a process forward, but soon afterwards, lost his portfolio in a reshuffle. It is time to complete the work that Ram initiated.
There has been enormous unflattering coverage of India in global media. It is understandable that media in the PRC trash the situation in the country, as the Chinese Communist Party seeks to show that democracy does not work, especially in a country of 1.4 billion people. What is unfortunate is that the mainstream press in democratic countries that are potential and existing allies of India are sometimes even more harsh in their assessments than even Chinese media. At their most charitable, the subtext of what they say in their columns is that India may look like a democracy, but does not act as a democracy.
That a friend for decades, Vinod Dua, had to go to the Supreme Court to get relief from the incomprehensible charge that he is guilty of “sedition” is what drives misperceptions causing the demonization of a democracy that is an essential partner in the battle against the global alliance between Extremism and Authoritarianism. The BJP has a capable and affable President in J.P. Nadda, and he needs to ensure that members of his party do not proceed to the police station but reach out for a conversation with individuals with whose views they disagree. A battle of opinions, of ideas, is normal and indeed central in a democracy. The rise of Narendra Modi from CM to PM was not stopped or even slowed down but was made certain by the barrage of ugly personal attacks made on him during each of his 13 years in the job. There is a lesson in this for the BJP.