How reformer Manmohan became a xenophobe

Twenty years after he emerged in our lives as a practising politician, Manmohan Singh appears to be happily dismantling the very attributes that endeared him to the chattering classes—or allowing those around him to do so.

For one, as the 2G and CWG scams show, “Mr Clean” has wilfully turned his nose away from the stench of corruption asphyxiating his government, while blithely letting the attack dogs in his ministers to tear into independent institutions like the election commission and comptroller and auditor-general—and the media.

There is dark talk of the return of “estate tax” that is widely believed to have paved the way for the reforms that he unleashed in 1991, in this year’s budget. And now the original reformer who opened the nation’s doors to the world and taught us to trust “the other”, is talking of a “foreign hand” behind the protests at the Kudankulam nuclear power project.

The irony is too heavy to be lost: a government that is seen to have surrendered to the “foreign hand” behind the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, a government that is seen to be the chihuahua of global finance giants, is turning against a citizenry fearful of what reactors can do to their lives and livelihood, post Fukushima.

Behind all this is the dire message: Agree with me, agree with what we do.

Or else.

***

In the Indian Express, the commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes that the prime minister’s remarks show a diminishing space for dissent in our democracy.

“On the surface, Indian democracy has a cacophony of voices. But if you scratch the surface, dissent in India labours under an immense maze of threats and interdictions. What is disturbing about the prime minister’s remark is its construction of what dissent is about.

“The idea that anyone who disagrees with my views must be the carrier of someone else’s subversive agenda is, in some ways, deeply anti-democratic. It does away with the possibility of genuinely good faith disagreement. It denies equal respect to citizens because it absolves you from taking their ideas seriously.

“Once we have impugned the source, we don’t have to pay attention to the content of the claims. The necessity of democratic politics arises precisely because there is deep, good faith disagreement. Reducing disagreement to bad faith betrays a subconscious wish of doing away with democratic politics.

“This has serious consequences for dissent. Our actions and rhetoric are sounding increasingly like China’s. The state, when challenged, will often resort to all power at its disposal to pressure organisations and institutions. Make no mistake about it: seriously taking on the state is still an act of bravery in India….

“The prime minister unwittingly showed what a banana republic India can be. If a few crores here and there, given to NGOs which have no instruments of power other than their ability to mobilise, can bring this country to a standstill, then we are indeed in deep trouble.

“Banana republics are more paranoid about dissent than self-confident democracies.”

Illustration: courtesy Keshav/The Hindu

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