Thursday, January 30, 2014

President’s Warning Shot – Voters Must Take Heed

Dr. A Surya Prakash, 
Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The Indian President’s speech on occasions like the Independence Day and the Republic Day is seen by people as something of a ritual that the Rashtrapati performs year after year. This is so because what dominates these speeches is dull, uninspiring prose packed with officialese and platitudes. Far from connecting with the people, these speeches only end up emphasizing the disconnect between the Head and State who lives in this grand palace which majestically overlooks Rajpath, and the Aam Aadmi (the common man).

But, President Pranab Mukherjee’s address to the nation this Republic Day was distinct. It had the stamp of a person who has rich political and administrative experience, is deeply worried about India’s welfare and democratic well-being and has no qualms about calling a spade a spade. More, importantly, it was strongly rooted in the country’s contemporary social, political and economic reality, was non-partisan and contained a very strong message for the country’s electors who have to make an all important decision in May, 2014.
As stated earlier, every one of Mr.Mukherjee’s predecessors has delivered these customary speeches that are religiously broadcast by All India Radio and Doordarshan, but few, if any have ever had the gumption to speak on behalf of the people and to honestly reflect the mood of the nation, even if it means hurting the incumbent government or the coalition of parties that are currently in power. The Rashtrapati showed that he had his finger on the pulse of the people and was aware of the growing sense of hopelessness among the citizenry when he said “we do feel angry and rightly so, when we see democratic institutions being weakened by complacency and incompetence. If we hear sometimes an anthem of despair from the street, it is because the people feel that a sacred trust is being violated”. He then turned to the one big issue troubling all Indians – corruption – and spoke on behalf of every citizen when he said “If Indians are enraged, it is because they are witnessing corruption and waste of national resources. If governments do not remove these flaws, voters will remove governments”.

That the President had chosen to speak his mind became obvious when he talked of the dangerous rise in hypocrisy in public life. Obviously referring to the reckless promises that politicians make in order to garner votes and the terrible implications that these promised freebies have on the economy and the finances of governments, he said that elections do not give any person “the licence to flirt with illusions”. “Those who seek the trust of voters must promise only what is possible. Government is not a charity shop. Populist anarchy cannot be a substitute for governance. False promises lead to disillusionment, which gives birth to rage, and that rage has one legitimate target : those in power”.

The President has warned that this rage will abate only when governments deliver and that those in office must eliminate the trust deficit between them and the people. They must also understand that every election comes with a warning sign: “Perform or Perish”.

Never before has a President cautioned politicians about the consequences of public rage as he has done in his recent address. Though many feel that his reference to “populist anarchy” is particularly directed at the Aam Aadmi Party, it would be unfair to think that the President operates on such a small canvass. Obviously, the President is troubled by the tactics of the Delhi Chief Minister, who prefers street agitations to a decent day’s work at the Secretariat. But, there are many others politicians who have infringed age-old rules of governance in this country. One has to only look at the reckless populism of the Manmohan Singh Government at the Centre or the Akhilesh Yadav Government in Uttar Pradesh or the Siddaramaiah Government in Karnataka to realize that the AAP is only the new kid on the block. There are older, much seasoned players who have taken to this dangerous path to garner votes and brought about terrible economic consequences for the nation.
Further, never before has a President displayed such bluntness in analyzing a contemporary political situation in the country. Mr.Mukherjee, it would appear, has done this because of several reasons. First, he is deeply disturbed by the sloth, inefficiency and corruption that is now all pervasive and is now clearly eating into the vitals of the country’s democratic system; Second, unlike many of his predecessors who read out speeches drafted or approved by the government of the day, the President has chosen to speak on behalf of the people, rather than on behalf of “his” government; Third, going by the overall tone and content of the speech, it is obvious that the President is troubled by the prospects of yet another fractious mandate and its implications for the nation and for the survival of the democratic system itself. Therefore, he has chosen the right occasion, just three months prior to the Lok Sabha poll, to warn all citizens of the consequences of a fractured mandate and appealed to them to vote for stability.

That the President is distressed by the prospect of political instability is obvious when he says the coming election is a momentous one. It is not just another year and another election. He says “2014 is a precipice moment in our history. We must re-discover that sense of national purpose and patriotism, which lifts the nation above and across the abyss”. He has also spoken about the urgent need to provide jobs and opportunities for the youth. But says a fractured government which is hostage to whimsical opportunists will be an “unhappy eventuality”. He warns that in 2014, such an eventuality could be “catastrophic”. Therefore, he tells every voter: Don’t let India down.

By saying all this, the Rashtrapati has echoed the concerns of 1.3 billion citizens, and shown that he is in touch with the Aam Aadmi and that he will speak his mind on behalf of the Aam Aadmi, irrespective of what it does to a few individuals holding public offices. He has sound advice for the Aam Aadmi as well. He says, democracy is like the physician who heals himself. It has the “marvelous ability to self-correct” and therefore, 2014 “must become a year of healing after the fractured and contentious politics of the last few years”. One only hopes the electorate will value the sage counsel of Mr.Mukherjee next May and give India “mukti” from the unstable and corrupt politics of the last decade.     

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