Monday, July 14, 2014

Thiruvalluvar has changed to Gundappa. That apart, new UPA is like old BJP, new BJP like old UPA

Every BJP voice praised the budget. Every Congress voice rubbished it. So what's new? We sometimes get the feeling that nothing changes in Delhi. Those of us who insist on seeing change can indeed find it. Government staff now reach office on time, like the trains famously ran on time some time ago. P. Chidambaram quoted from Thiruvalluvar in his budget speech; Sadananda Gowda quoted from G.V. Gundappa -- that's change. Arun Jaitley quoted from nobody -- that too is change. In substance, however, politics remain unchanged and unchanging.The Congress in opposition behaves exactly like the BJP in opposition behaved. The BJP in power behaves exactly like the Congress in power did.

The similarities range from rowdyism to appointments to policy positions. It was natural for the Congress to oppose the railway budget. But look at the way they did it. A posse of party activists tore off the Railway Minister's nameboard from the gate of his house and one MP trampled on it, patriotically. This was after the first day's session of the Lok Sabha was repeatedly adjourned following Congress-led mayhem. About this time last year (August to be precise), what was dubbed as "BJP hooliganism" had led to repeated adjournments of both houses of Parliament. An entire session of the last Parliament was demolished by protesting BJP members. The Congress has begun to return the compliment, making it clear that the choice before the people is between hooliganism and hooliganism.

The railway budget itself was a demonstration of the new Government being indistinguishable from the old one. BJP's senior leaders justified the steep pre-budget increase in rail rates by saying that they were merely implementing rates that had been worked out by the previous Government. Was the new Government elected to implement the decisions of the old? Ministers would have won more goodwill if they had admitted the truth -- that power has its own compulsions; you are free as a bird when in opposition, but your hands are tied when you are in government.

No one knows this better than Arun Jaitley. As the most respected voice of the opposition, he had demanded that the Henderson-Brooks report on India's 1962 China war be made public. But now, as the most respected voice of the Government, he had to announce that declassifying the report would be against the national interest. Opinions may differ on that. Books have already revealed details of the horrible bungles and ego clashes that led to India's Himalayan humiliation. But we have to grant Jaitley the right to reverse gear now that he is the Defence Minister.

Turn to operational imperatives and we again see similarities between the Gandhi era and the Modi era. Concentration of power in one central authority was the mantra then, it is the mantra now. Indira Gandhi turned stenographers and family retainers into rulers of India because they were implicitly loyal to her. Sonia Gandhi appointed a family favourite as the Principal Secretary in the PMO over the Prime Minister's own choice. Narendra Modi used the ordinance route (his Government's first ordinance) to get his handpicked officer as Principal Secretary.

Modi has not gone -- and perhaps will never go -- to the extent that Indira Gandhi went to subjugate the Supreme Court. But his sidelining of Gopal Subramaniam, nominated by the Supreme Court collegium for elevation to the bench, invited a strongly worded warning from the Chief Justice of India. Subramaniam was the amicus curiae whose reports led to the Supreme Court transferring the Sohrabuddin fake encounter murder case from the Gujarat police to the CBI. And the CBI investigation led to the arrest of Amit Shah, then Gujarat's Minister of State for Home. Three lawyers had argued on behalf of the Gujarat Government in that case. All three have now been given Government appointments -- as Attorney General, Solicitor General and Additional Solicitor General. A lawyer who represented Amit Shah in the cases has since been recommended for elevation by the SC collegium itself. Wonders never cease.

Interestingly, criticism of the Government in such matters has elicited response only from lower levels of the BJP leadership, the top remaining deafeningly silent. This, too, is reminiscent of the Congress policy of brazening out on issues that matter to the establishment. Remember the likes of Ottavio Quattrochi and Robert Vadra? It looks like parties may come and parties may go, but the people remain where they are. Perhaps it's time to dissolve the people and elect a new set.