Will or Kill : Flurry of Hurried Bills

Is it the government’s will and deliberate intention to push through laws that are crucial in public interest? Or is this another way to kill the opposition parties, which seem bloodied and bruised after their recent ‘hattrick’ defeat in the three assembly elections?
By Alam Srinivas
  • A powerful socio-political narrative is emerging, poised to aid BJP in national elections, potentially conveyed through subtle memes or speeches
  • Modi liberated Indians from colonial legal constraints, discarding outdated laws and introducing modern replacements, notably in criminal and telecom legislations
  • Historically, attention centered on the influential role of Nehru and Gandhi families shaping the first seven post-Independence decades
  • The Broadcasting Bill, pending in Parliament, closely resembles Information Technology Rules, aiming to curb hate speeches, fake news

A grand socio-political narrative is emerging. Although the thought behind it was not always deliberate and planned, and it sometimes occurred randomly and coincidentally, it will help the BJP in the forthcoming national elections. Possibly, the storyline or the main theme will be articulated and disseminated in an oblique manner, through memes on social media or sudden mentions in election speeches. Probably, no BJP leader, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will completely describe its main plot, along with hundreds of subplots. But it will always have a giant presence.

The idea of the narrative is structured in the brains of a few strategists, like the Prime Minister and RSS ideologues. It is an idea of a nation, an idea of an idea, an idea that India is within reach of a zenith in the new global politico-cultural-economic order, as it was thousands of years ago. Even a few hundreds of years ago, before the Western Renaissance and Industrial Revolution took off, and energised Europe and the US, the wealth, power, leadership, and values and morals were in the clutches of Hindustan, along with China. This may happen again by the end of this century.

One can contend, although not with much confidence because of the dozens of other factors involved, that the idea of this grand narrative was one of the reasons that pushed the Modi regime to gush through crucial laws during the last winter session of Parliament. It was done with great aggression, which included the suspension of nearly 150 opposition MPs from the two houses, or two-thirds of the strength of the opposition in Parliament. It was done with great fanfare, like the grandiose statements made by the BJP leaders and cabinet ministers after the passage of the three new acts related to criminal laws.
Days after the stormy and controversial winter session, Home Minister Amit Shah, speaking at the Sant Sammelan, organised as part of International Gita Mahotsav, said: “The BJP believes that the great culture of this country should be taken forward, and policies should be formed after taking inspiration from the culture of the nation. The laws and policies of the country should have the essence of India’s land, and for that, the BJP had set several targets.” Read between the lines: the new laws were steps to re-establish India on the cultural, religious, political, economic, and moral map of the world.

It was evident that there was a sudden rush to push, a giant hurry to scurry through a flurry of bills, just months before the national elections, and weeks before the Election Commission (EC) electoral code kicks in. It is because of the EC’s code that the ruling regimes are unable to announce any new policies, or enact new laws, immediately before the national elections. It is due to this code that Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will be forced to initially present an interim budget in 2024, and hope that her party comes back to power so that she can unfold a full one a few months later.

THE COLONIAL ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Since no one is even acknowledging it, forget about talking about it, let us take the risk of presenting this new political message. Framed in a simple lingo, it presents a visual of how Modi has successfully broken and unshackled the colonial chains, which still bind Indians legally. There were several Acts and laws that were 100-150 years old, which were still in force, and which reminded us of the horrible, exploitative past. These included the various criminal laws, or the Indian Telegraph Act that influenced the telecom sector. The Prime minister has ripped them apart, and replaced them with new modern laws.

Including the laws passed during the winter session of the Parliament, Modi’s two regimes enacted more than 250 of them, both major and minor, and big and small, during the past 115 months. Nearly 1,500 of the old laws were repealed or removed; some of them were replaced and substituted by new ones, as was the case with the criminal and telecom laws. In fact, a recent government report has concluded that another few hundred of the existing Acts can go as they are redundant for New India in the 21st Century. The report added that the Center and States can easily axe more Acts.

Including the laws passed during the winter session of the Parliament, Modi’s two regimes enacted more than 250 of them, both major and minor, and big and small, during the past 115 months. Nearly 1,500 of the old laws were repealed or removed; some of them were replaced and substituted by new ones, as was the case with the criminal and telecom laws

The presence of a colonial legacy, even as a minor and irritable hangover, a whiff of intoxicating smell, and a sliver of memory that returns every few years or decades will be gone now. The new Indian legal framework will be one that will show the judicial path to other countries. Like the values and morals, and sense of justice, that imbibed the rules and characters of ancient Indian rulers, the new laws will achieve the same objective for the next hundreds of years. India will become the shining beacon of legal light, and the world will follow in her footsteps. This is not mere fantasy anymore.

Several articles, including one in the renowned Economist, detailed the emergence of India as a leading exporter of “e-government technology.” Began the piece (November 2023) in the Economist: “Buried on page 22 of the 29-page G-20 leaders’ declaration (excluding annexures), produced in New Delhi in September and endorsed by the world’s biggest economies, is a section with the anodyne title of ‘Technological Transformation and Digital Public Infrastructure’. It is filled with the sort of forgettable jargon that big diplomatic summits are notorious for producing. It is also something that the world should expect to hear a lot more about in 2024.”

Digital infrastructure, stated the article, was defined as “a set of shared digital systems (that) can enable delivery of services at societal scale.” It included biometric identity systems, digital payments, and digital management, which have revolutionised India in the recent past. Think of Aadhaar cards issued to almost every 1.4 billion of its citizens, United Payments Interface with 10 billion transactions in one month (August 2023), and DigiLocker, “an online warehouse for official documents such as driver’s licence and tax records” that has made “dealing with India’s tiresome bureaucracy easier.”

Now, Indian digital technology, as well as its policies (including laws) are exported to the rest of the world. The protocols, hardware, systems, and processes, which were tested and proved across a giant nation, can be easily replicated in the smaller nations. Think of Africa, Middle East, Latin America, Central Asia, and East Europe. There may be a day when even the developed world adopts them, not only because they are workable, but because they are cheaper and more efficient. We became the global software coders. Now, we can be the world’s digital and e-governance programmers.

SMASHING NEHRU-GANDHI CONSTRUCT

Obviously, a grand narrative cannot spring up suddenly, out of the blue, and during one Parliament session. It has been in the making for nine years, since May 2014, when Modi became the Prime Minister. In fact, in almost every Parliament session since then, the opposition accused the BJP of forcing new laws down the country’s throat, without proper debates and discussions. The only difference in the last winter session was that the disgruntled and loud voices of the weak, and almost-non-existent opposition were further muted, even silenced. The new bills frictionlessly became laws.

In the past, the focus was on how the first seven post-Independence decades were shaped and built by the Nehru and Gandhi families. Each Prime Minister from subsequent generations left her or his stamp. Ever since he came to power, Modi has demolished this structure, brick by brick. He has shattered the carefully-fabricated structures, especially in the legal arena. The new architecture, which replaced the old buildings, took several shapes, some fantastic and some ugly. But the effort was to re-built a new India, with a different look and feel, and with different building blocks, materials, and colours.

Buildings made of stone, glass, and metal are symbolic; they have long-lasting memories. This is why they are routinely preserved or destroyed across the world depending on the nation builders’ wishes, whims, and fancies. In the case of India, one of those memories was that of Kashmir, and Article 370. They reminded Modi, BJP, and RSS that the state, or part of it, was not a part of India. It made them realise that other nations, especially its arch-neighbour-enemy, weaved the narrative on this issue, largely because of Article 370. So, it was deconstructed, broken down, and thrown away.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court gave its blessings. It said that it would not interfere with the laws enacted by governments, as the ruling regime promised to restore statehood to Jammu & Kashmir. Although critics went hammer-and-tongs at the order, the writing on the wall was clear. Kashmir was no longer disputed; it was part of the country. Although BJP ministers clarified that this meant that Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir too was part of India, there was a feeling that we had unintentionally accepted the newly-carved borders due to past wars with Pakistan, in the form of Line-of-Present-Control.

The presence of a colonial legacy, even as a minor and irritable hangover, a whiff of intoxicating smell, and a sliver of memory that returns every few years or decades will be gone now. The new Indian legal framework will be one that will show the judicial path to other countries

Rightly or wrongly, the BJP convinced Indians that the Nehru-Gandhi family was responsible for the rampant corruption. Jawaharlal Nehru, set up the huge public sector, which helped syphon off thousands of crores of rupees. Bank nationalisation, restrictions on foreign money, and curbs on the private sector by Indira Gandhi ensured that 50-70% of the economy remained black. Rajiv Gandhi admitted the giant holes in welfare schemes, as only 15 paise out of every rupee reached the beneficiaries. Manmohan Singh, who was propped up by Sonia Gandhi, was engulfed in mega scandals after massive scandals.
Hence, it became the duty of Modi, and his cabinet colleagues, to enact new laws to weed out corruption from every facet of the country’s society, politics, and economics. The Goods and Services Tax was the best example of how the BJP regimes forced the black economy out of its hidden, even invisible, closets, and nudged businesses to become squeaky clean. This explains why India is among the fastest-growing large economies despite the hammer blows of the pandemic. The truth is that as black turns to white, more of the former is reflected in the GDP, which fosters faster economic growth.

IN THE NAME OF NATIONAL SECURITY

A few years ago, this author wrote a part of a chapter in a book, In the Name of National Security. Through global examples, including some from BRICS nations like India, the book exposed how the citizens’ right to information about their governments, or freedom to such information, was impeded, even stalled, in the name of national security. I gave dozens of examples of how even minor health-related information, or data on government pensions, were routinely rejected under this garb. The same was the case in other nations. This is expected given the wave of new globalised nationalism.

Not surprisingly, many new laws, or amendments to existing ones, find their justification due to this overarching theme, national security. It is one of the main drivers behind the criminal laws; it was the major aspect of the telecom bill. The Broadcasting Bill, yet to be passed by Parliament, is almost the same as Information Technology Rules, which hope to clamp down on hate speeches, fake news, and misinformation campaigns on social media that weaken the national security foundations of the country. Sedition may be gone, but it is replaced by a broader and more amorphous treason.

Indeed, many of the new laws inadvertently expand the scope of national security. In some cases, economic security, and energy security play the same role as terrorism, official secrets, and spying. Now, there are crimes, albeit heinous, where people can be arrested without any paperwork, and kept in prison for up to six months without any judicial review. This is akin to how India, and other nations, treat terrorists and those who aid terror groups. However, as we know, the other side of the nationalism coin, or the second face of Nationalistic-Janus is the over-engulfing national security.

Ironically, national security was the main reason behind the expulsion of the nearly 150 opposition MPs from Parliament during the winter session. The publicly-stated rhetoric was that the MPs were thrown out because they were likely to oppose the key bills, especially the three related to criminal acts. This seems an excuse to critics, since the government had the numbers in both houses to pass these laws. They contend that the main reason was to divert attention, and discussion from the security breach in Parliament, when two members in the visitor’s gallery threw gas-based canisters.

There are other political, especially electoral, benefits in the name of national security. The IT Rules, or the Broadcasting Bill, can provide octopus-like powers to governments to clamp down on opposition or criticism, especially on social media. The telecom laws can enable the regime to take over, or shut down, mobile services if the service providers are in breach of national security. Treason, the new form of sedition, can kill freedom of speech and expression, if it is not handled properly and in a sensitive and sensitised manner. As we have seen, even the laws against corruption can be used as political tools.
When the Parliament passed the new law to elect the Chief Election Commissioner, and Election Commissioners, there were voices of concern. Since the three-member choosing committee will comprise Prime Minister, Cabinet Minister, and Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, the majority will lie with the ruling regime. The Supreme Court recommended the three members to be the Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition, and the Chief Justice, which gave it a modicum of objectivity since the last-mentioned individual would be unbiased and nonpartisan. The dice has rolled in the BJP’s favour, for now.

Alam Srinivas

Alam Srinivas is a business journalist with almost four decades of experience and has written for the Times of India, bbc.com, India Today, Outlook, and San Jose Mercury News. He is working on a new book on the benefits and pitfalls of the Indian Bankruptcy Code.

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