In 1651, Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan propounded the Social Contract, the political philosophy that we, as individuals, abdicate certain freedoms so that the government is able to provide order, justice and security for all.
Inherent in this social contract is the promise of reciprocity viz. in return for this relinquishment of autonomy, the government will work to advance the greatest good of the greatest number.
Over the past five years, India has witnessed a souring of this contract which provides the very basis of legitimacy for any government. The government has limited private rights and behaviour while extending State control over the lives of private citizens. This pattern, paradoxically advanced as national interest, is clearly identifiable in its legislative and policy priorities, illustrated by the following five examples.
First, the right to privacy. For the first time in recorded history, the world’s largest democracy argued audaciously before the Supreme Court (SC) against its citizens enjoying this fundamental right. Privacy, it argued, is an elitist concern. Fortunately, the SC disagreed unanimously. Despite the fact that it lost, the government is now drafting a privacy law that will regulate various facets of this new fundamental right, indubitably cribbing, cramping, curtailing and circumscribing its true effulgence.
Second, the recent amendments to the Right to Information Act dilute the citizens’ right to hold the government accountable. The RTI was a transformative law that significantly reduced the unequal imbalance between the individual and State. The recent amendments strip the autonomy of RTI agencies and bring them effectively under government control. They downgrade the benefits for top posts (which, in turn, will ensure a reduction in applications from qualified individuals). More important, they alter the previously fixed term to one at the mercy of the central government. The latter is an effective death knell to neutrality since it is a guarantee that officials who are less than pliant will have shorter terms. In the first Modi government, eight out of 10 posts in the Central Information Commission remained vacant for a significant time with no attempt being made to fill them. To cripple and weaken an institution is to render it effete, and hence, to control it.
Third, the National Register of Citizens is a state activity that provided no visible benefits at great personal cost to citizens. The haphazard manner in which the documentation was processed, with vast differences between the first two drafts and the final list, was criticised by all, regardless of political affiliation. The inexplicable exclusion of even officials who had served the country, as also the indiscriminate and hurried appointments of questionable quality to Foreigners Tribunals is also indicative of an exercise in enhancing State control.
Fourth, the stripping away of property rights contained in the 2013 new Land Acquisition Act. Barely six months into office, in its first tenure, the government tried, by ordinance, to eliminate key safeguards protecting citizens from forced acquisition. The government was compelled to withdraw the ordinance in the face of nationwide protests. However, in an act of Constitutional subterfuge, the BJP-led state governments passed local amendments which the Centre actively encouraged, as a flagrant and deliberate means, to bypass the central law.
Fifth, Aadhaar was intended to make service delivery smooth and eliminate leakages. How linking it to private bank accounts and mobile phones serves these purposes remains a big mystery.The SC again disagreed with the government and pruned the State’s carte blanche demand for its use (limiting it to State-sponsored schemes). Pensioners, medical patients and students were at the receiving end of this ill-enforced move but the government refused to even acknowledge their hardships.
This list is far from exhaustive. The constant abuse by BJP supporters of the law on sedition (to muzzle free speech), the exceptionally selective performance of police functions, the undiluted and biased tax and agency terrorism leading to capital flight on an unprecedented level, are all symptomatic of a much larger disease. Along with demonetisation, these are all examples of a State concerned with expanding its own writ through fear and retribution.
For a government which repeatedly assumes the right to issue certificates of nationalism, one is hard-pressed to find examples of the government expanding the spectrum of rights available to those who constitute the nation. A comprehensive scheme to beat the backlog of over three crore pending cases, so that individual litigants are not bankrupted, would have been a great legacy. Increasing the value of the Indian passport from its current position (below São Tomé and just two ranks above Rwanda) would have opened newer opportunities for Indians overseas.
For once, the government should stop asking its citizens what they can do for it and instead answer what it has done for them.
Abhishek Singhvi is a Member of Parliament,National spokesperson, Congress and a senior advocate. Muhammad Khan is an advocate in the Supreme Court
The views expressed are personal
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