The hard ride back to ‘India’

It will be quite the task for a putative non-BJP government to undo the damage the current regime has done to the "idea of India"

Bajrang Dal and VHP activists stage a threatening demonstration in Ghaziabad after communal violence in Haryana’s Nuh, 2 August 2023 (Photo: Getty Images)
Bajrang Dal and VHP activists stage a threatening demonstration in Ghaziabad after communal violence in Haryana’s Nuh, 2 August 2023 (Photo: Getty Images)

Avay Shukla

The run-up to the 2024 elections has begun. Motivated pre-poll surveys are popping up everywhere to confuse us on a daily basis. The Opposition has formed the Indian Nationalist Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), whose future looks as precarious as that of the country it is named after.

The BJP’s own 38-party alliance (not including the Enforcement Directorate, CBI and IT department) appears to be more FIR-based than ideology-based. Rahul Gandhi is girding his loins and buying new sneakers for Bharat Jodo Yatra 2. Mr. Modi has already declared himself a winner in 2024, and the Supreme Court has just made his job easier by giving the redoubtable Mr. Mishra of the ED another extension of 45 days.

The satta bazaar, our indigenous political stock exchange, has not yet started giving odds on the winner, but the nation is in for a tough time even if the Opposition alliance were to form the government. Let us consider some of the implications if this last possibility were to come true.

Every predecessor government invariably leaves behind some desiderata that the succeeding regime has to clear up. But what the NDA will bequeath is a veritable mountain of debris, not only in metaphorical terms but also in terms of demolished houses and mosques, trammelled laws and basic rights, unemployed youth, denotified forests and scrapped cars.

Removing this debris to revert to the status quo ante will be no less arduous than the Twelve Labours of Hercules or asking the Chinese to revert to pre-Galwan days. The danger, however, is that the new government may not want to reverse some of the NDA’s disastrous contributions to our shaky democracy. Let me explain this peculiar dilemma with reference to two observed phenomena.

First, over the past 10 years, the NDA has knocked federalism out of the ball park like a Babe Ruth homerun. It has done so by the coercive use of central investigative agencies like the ED, CBI and NIA, the central paramilitary forces, the creative misuse of governors, the unholy exercise of executive discretion through institutions like the Reserve Bank of India and finance commissions, amendments of rules to subvert and intimidate the All India Services and arm twisting the judiciary to have its way as it intrudes on State territory, figuratively and physically.

Second, constitutional and autonomous institutions—the Election Commission; various commissions relating to human rights, women, scheduled castes and tribal welfare; regulatory authorities; universities and other education-related councils; the UPSC; banks—have all been packed with fellow travellers of the ruling ideology and these have been brought to heel.

They serve the interests of the hegemonic ruling party, not the citizens of the country, ensuring it continues to have such a stranglehold on power that dislodging it becomes almost impossible. This twin-track policy has made it easy for any ruling dispensation to impose its ideology and policies on the entire country, even to insidiously shape the future.

The NDA has done all the dirty work in developing this template— so will the new dispensation be able to resist the temptation to forego this power? Will it be tempted to continue these policies to keep the BJP, in turn, at bay?

The temptation to do so would be great. The saving grace of a coalition government would be its being inimical to practices that centralise power. It may not be easy going even where the new government wishes to roll back some of the more pernicious elements of the present regime.

Take those three pillars of administration: the civil services, the police and the judiciary. All three have been corroded to the point where they bow to the diktats of the ruling party and not those of the Constitution or the rule of law.

The civil services, state and central, especially in the cow belt, have drunk deep of the majoritarian potion and have begun believing in the insidious narrative of a Hindu rashtra, a Vishwaguru-led super power, a plutocracy-driven economy, putting the minorities ‘in their place’ and the erosion of rights as a necessary concomitant to ‘progress’. (Remember Mr. Amitabh Kant’s “too much democracy” obiter dictum?)

Being a member of various IAS groups, I can see this happening before my eyes. These are the bureaucrats of Amritkaal, not Patel’s India. Can they be reprogrammed by a new dispensation?

The police, under the present regime, have only reaffirmed their status as the last vestiges of colonialism, whether it be in JNU, in AMU, in Kathua, in Hathras, in Bhima– Koregaon, in Manipur or any of a score of other places.

Their disregard for laws, rights, empathy and even court orders has been encouraged by the government of the day and by the reluctance of the judiciary to assert itself. They have become a power unto themselves. Is it possible to rein them in now?

The judiciary has more or less regressed back to the ADM Jabalpur days—it barks quite often but will not bite; as Alexander Pope said: willing to wound but afraid to strike. It flatters to deceive, but in all seminal matters so far—Article 370, the Places of Worship Act, electoral bonds, EVMs, UAPA detentions, habeas corpus, Manipur, extension of service of the ED director, misuse of money bills—its pronouncements and lack of firm action only appear to have helped the government, not the common citizen.

I can’t explain why this should be so: if it is intimidation, surveillance and pressure, perhaps a new government can cure the rot; but if it is the same sneaking sympathy which the civil services have acquired for the ethno-majoritarian ideology, then any new government will have its job cut out.

However, the biggest challenge before any new government will be how to roll back the clock on the uncaring monster that Indian society has become in these last nine years.

We have become a brutalised civilisation under the tutelage of a government that lacks any modicum of compassion, whether it be for a victim of rape, murder or communal lynching; for the tribal evicted from his forests to enable an industrialist to make a few more billions; for the girl child denied an education because she wants to wear a hijab; for the marginalised landless labourer who cannot get the benefits of PDS or MNREGA because he doesn’t possess an Aadhaar card; for the families evicted from ‘encroached’ lands where they have been residing for decades; or for the petty criminal or accused whose house is bulldozed to rubble without the sanction of any law.

It is an endless list of the suffering for people who no longer exist for India’s elite, middle classes and what journalist Ravish Kumar calls “housing society uncles”. We displayed this in full measure when we threw out the migrants from our cities during Covid, when we fail to show the same level of outrage at the rape and murder of tribal women in Manipur as we had so heroically displayed during the Nirbhaya episode.

This civilisational regression of the last nine years has to be reversed by any new dispensation, for a society which lacks compassion for the poor and marginalised is not fertile ground for the growth of democratic values and the egalitarian spirit.

This, however, is easier said than done, for it requires a towering paragon of moral leadership, which the country sorely lacks. There will be much more inequity and malevolence that a new regime will have to contend with and vanquish—laws that have demolished our rights, despoiling of the natural environment, blatant infringement on privacy, amendments to the UAPA and Forest Conservation acts, the Data Protection Act, the Delhi Services law, the Information Technology Act, CAA and NRC, to mention just a few.

Thousands of dissidents will have to be released from jails. The armed forces will have to be freed from the shackles of a creeping ideological takeover (with, of course, the spineless acquiescence of its top brass, who cannot see beyond the next star on their epaulettes) which is chipping away at their glorious traditions and esprit de corps.

The media, currently a lifeless corpse that gives off more stench than news, will have to be resurrected and allowed to function without fear, favour or financial preference. Some of their hate-spewing anchors will have to be prosecuted for inciting communal animosity over the years.

There will be truth and reconciliation, but there should also be accountability and punishment. And then there are also the various financial transactions, the disinvestment of PSUs at throwaway prices, the contracts, awards and tenders for airports, seaports, slum improvements, highways, defence purchases, mines and power projects—all crying out for inquiry and investigation.

There is a veritable dog’s breakfast awaiting any new non-BJP government, if at all any such dispensation can come into being in spite of the odds stacked against it.

 It will need a strong digestion to ingest this smorgasbord of misgovernance, brutality and religious fanaticism. But perhaps I am getting too far ahead of myself, for the question hanging in the air is: Will all this ever come to pass?

I don’t really know but, as the poet said: Humko maalum hai Jannat ki haqeeqat lekin, Dil ke behlaane ko Ghalib yeh khayaal achha hai.

(Avay Shukla Sis a retired IAS officer. He blogs at

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