Corrosive agenda at work

Print edition : June 12, 2015

Bharatiya Janata Party workers taking out a procession in Jaipur in May 2013 against corruption under the Congress regime. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Visitors at an exhibition at the National Museum in New Delhi in December 2014. Photo: S. Subramanium

Y. Sudershan Rao, Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research. Photo: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

Shailesh Gandhi, former Central Information Commissioner. Photo: NAGARA GOPAL

Romila Thapar, the distinguished historian. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Parvin Sinclair, who resigned as Director of the NCERT last October.

Over the past year, the government has successfully undermined important cultural institutions through ideological favouritism in key appointments and anti-corruption bodies through sheer neglect, belying all expectations of the BJP emerging as a modern right-wing party.

IN FEBRUARY 2014, top Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Ravi Shankar Prasad formally delineated Narendra Modi’s anti-graft policies at a press conference in New Delhi. The conference, which was held at the peak of Modi’s electoral campaign, raised many people’s hopes as the BJP leaders not just condemned the then political dispensation—the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II government—but spelt out a positive and detailed agenda for governance if the party came to power. The three leaders talked about “innovative” ways of governance and how Modi would enable faster decision-making and back the decisions by strengthening and refurbishing anti-graft institutions to contain corruption. Underlining the need to strengthen institutions such as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), the Lokpal, the Central Information Commission, and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), Sushma Swaraj said: “The UPA had a hostile attitude towards various established institutions. The PAC was not allowed to effectively function. The JPC [Joint Parliamentary Committee] on the 2G allocation scam came out with a report which damaged the credibility of the parliamentary institution. The CAG was repeatedly attacked in Parliament. It was this confrontationist attitude of the UPA that resulted in the loss of certain working days of Parliament, particularly when it came to investigating several scams in the government.”

The twin agendas of the BJP reverberated in most of Modi’s speeches during his electoral campaign. The BJP claimed that to usher in governance reforms and development, its first priority would be containing corruption by strengthening these institutions. A scam-ridden and uninspiring UPA-II government at the Centre then forced many political experts in the country to view the BJP as evolving into a modern right-wing party and, more importantly, as a political alternative.

However, a year after the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won the elections on this twin plank, the state of anti-graft institutions is worse than ever. Most of these institutions are headless and in a state of disorder, and the NDA government has also resorted to its age-old tactic of appointing individuals belonging to the parochial Hindutva stable to head the country’s important cultural institutions.

Anti-graft Institutions

The promise to have a strong Lokpal at the Centre is still hanging in the air as the government has shown no interest in appointing one. The CVC, a statutory body to address corruption in the government, and the Central Information Commission are also functioning without heads, which effectively means that the NDA government has been functioning without any accountability for the last one year. The government’s main investigative agency for financial issues and black money, the Enforcement Directorate, has not had a regular director since July 2014. One must recall that recovery of the black money stashed away in foreign lands was one of the main election promises of the BJP. Similarly, for the first time in over two decades, the Election Commission of India is functioning with only one member, Syed Nasim Zaidi, after V.S. Sampath and his successor, H.S. Brahma, retired in January and April this year, respectively.

While the government is justifying the situation by saying that it is only a delay in appointments, opposition parties see it as an attempt to weaken the corrective institutions of the country. “The Prime Minister, during his election campaign, promised transparency, but in a U-turn, his government has made sure through the absence of a Chief Information Commissioner [CIC] that the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office], the Cabinet Secretariat, the Ministry of Defence, the Supreme Court and the High Courts are not accountable under the Right to Information [RTI] Act. Do citizens no longer have the right to question their government?” Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party, said in Parliament.

The former CIC, Shailesh Gandhi, in an open letter to the media, also questioned the government’s intentions in not appointing a CIC. He alleged that the “delay” was a pre-emptive action taken by the government to render the RTI Act “dysfunctional”. Gandhi was appointed to the Commission in 2008 and served the institution until his retirement in 2012. He was instrumental in delivering many landmark judgments. “Six Commissioners had disposed of 22,351 cases in 2011, whereas in 2014 seven Commissioners disposed of only 16,006 cases. In 2014, the Commission got 31,000 cases and now has a pendency of over 38,000 cases. It is evident that at this languorous pace of working, RTI will slowly become like the Consumer Act, mainly in existence for Commissioners. Citizens must wake up from their slumber and focus on getting Commissioners who will dispose of over 6,000 cases a year and give clear signals that they won't tolerate tardiness,” he said.

He blamed the government for deliberately scuttling the RTI Act because it thinks transparency is a hindrance to good governance, and said that in such circumstances, the government may appoint a CIC who is a mere pawn in the hands of the rulers.

These assumptions may not be completely off the mark as in February 2015, in an unprecedented step, the PMO decided to block public access to wealth declarations made by Ministers. These details were available online for anyone to see but are now password-protected and can only be accessed by authorised personnel. National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) member Anjali Bhardwaj said: “The CIC happens to be the adjudicator for the PMO. In the absence of a CIC [a post that has remained vacant since August 2014], we cannot even file a complaint against the government.”

The matter of vacancies in important institutions has garnered a lot of public attention. A public interest litigation (PIL) petition filed by the lawyers Prashant Bhushan and Pranav Sachdeva in the Delhi High Court said: “Due to non-appointment of the Chief IC since August 23, 2014, the appeals and complaints relating to the important authorities including the CVC, CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation], President’s Secretariat, PMO, Cabinet Secretariat, Supreme Court and High Courts, Lok Sabha, CAG, DOPT [Department of Personnel & Training], UPSC [Union Public Service Commission] and Staff Selection Commission are not being heard and there is a vacuum of jurisdiction at CIC for more than 100 authorities/departments, as even no officiating arrangements for CIC have been made.”

The court sought an explanation from the government. The government has assured the court that due processes for appointments were initiated in May.

Cultural reprogramming

The laxity shown by the Modi government in anti-graft institutions seems to have been compensated for by the active role it is playing in changing the character of cultural and educational institutions, giving the impression that the BJP is far from becoming a modern right-wing party as anticipated by some liberal intellectuals.

Consider this. One of the first acts of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) after Modi assumed power was to derail the 10-year-long project of curriculum framing the UPA-I government initiated in 2005. As soon as Smriti Irani took charge as HRD Minister, she instituted a high-level inquiry against Parvin Sinclair, Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), for alleged financial irregularities in the purchase of paper and pulp for school textbooks, following which she resigned. Parvin Sinclair, a mathematician of repute and educationist, was appointed by the UPA-II government as the Director of the NCERT and had been the chief of curriculum framing since 2005. NCERT sources told Frontline that she resigned out of humiliation as the HRD Ministry stopped funds, adding that the feeling at large among the NCERT board members was that the Ministry wanted to derail the curriculum framing project in a covert way and that the charges against Parvin Sinclair were frivolous.

Clearly, the Modi government is not repeating the mistakes of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government, which openly espoused Hindutva ideals in the school curriculum, but is instead taking an indirect route to transform school education. This is evident from the way the Modi government is arbitrarily removing or transferring esteemed intellectuals and cultural figures from various institutions.

Rewriting of history textbooks to suit Hindutva ideals has always been on the Sangh Parivar’s agenda. Appointing Hindutva demagogues to important posts of cultural organisations, therefore, is top on the NDA’s agenda. In the past one year, many such appointments have taken place. In one such appointment, Y. Sudershan Rao, a historian without any significant publication in the discipline of history and notorious for his anti-Muslim sentiments, was made Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). Rao, in one of his first moves, disbanded the advisory committee of the council’s internationally reputed journal, The Indian Historical Review. The committee comprised renowned historians such as Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Richard Eaton, Muzaffar Alam and Satish Chandra. It was created so that an independent group of historians could oversee the journal and ICHR members could get a wide opinion on what to include in it.

Earlier this year, the journal’s editor, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, a reputed historian, also resigned in protest against the way Rao was running the ICHR. Rao has claimed that he will focus his attention on Hindu epics and fund research on Hinduism. Historians feel that the debates Rao is focussing on have already been resolved within the discipline and that the ICHR needs to focus on new areas of research on a par with international standards instead of reviving the Sangh Parivar’s agenda in the area of history.

In one of its most outlandish appointments, the government named the general secretary of the Kisan Morcha, Naresh Sirohi, a man with no experience in broadcasting, as the principal adviser of the soon-to-be-launched DD Kisan channel. The Kisan Morcha is the BJP’s farmers’ wing. Similarly, the government last year announced the setting up of a Hastkala Academy on the premises of the Crafts Museum without talking about the future of the museum itself. Dipali Khanna, who rejuvenated the Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts by initiating many successful programmes and exhibitions, did not get a second term, and the IGNCA is headless at present. Kalyan Kumar Chakravarty, an Indian Administrative Service officer who has extensive experience in running cultural institutions such as the National Museum and the IGNCA, was removed arbitrarily as the head of the Lalit Kala Akademi, the apex body to support the visual arts. The government has taken full control of the Lalit Kala Akademi now, which many see as having compromised its autonomy.

More recently, Venu Vasudevan, the man who successfully turned around an insipid National Museum, was transferred to the Sports Ministry. Vasudevan started the much-acclaimed Yuva Saathi programme, under which college students were trained as guides for visiting school groups at the museum. The Path Pradarshak programme he started trained volunteers who could give a tour to visitors in 90 minutes.

Before Vasudevan joined the museum, its six crucial galleries had been shut for years. Four of these have been opened and three additional galleries are in the process of opening later this year. Many exhibitions, which had ceased in the museum, were successfully curated during his tenure. A group of artists, historians and intellectuals of the country, which includes names such as Gulzar, Girish Karnad, Lalit Kala Akademi chairperson Ashok Vajpeyi, Romila Thapar, and the art critic Ranjit Hoskote, have written to the government against Vasudevan’s transfer and urged it to let him continue as Director of the museum which, according to them, is transforming for the better under him.

An official in the Ministry of Culture told Frontline: “Minister [of State for Culture] Mahesh Sharma’s plan is to appoint fresh faces as heads of the country’s premier cultural institutions by the end of May. There at least 10 vacancies to be filled. Among them, the National Archives, the Gandhi Smriti Darshan Society and the IGNCA are the most important ones.”

In the first week of May, the government reconstituted the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Society with 34 members, including BJP supporters such as the economist Bibek Debroy, the journalists Swapan Dasgupta and M.J. Akbar, and Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy.

It must be noticed that most of the recent appointments in institutions apart from the cultural organisations have been made from organisations such as the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) or the India First Foundation, which are known to openly support the Sangh Parivar. Ajit Doval, National Security Adviser, Nripendra Misra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and Debroy, a permanent member of the Niti Aayog, are a few who are from the VIF who have now been given plum posts in the government. Set up in 2009, the VIF is affiliated to Vivekananda Kendra, which was founded in 1972 by Eknath Ranade, former general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.

As is manifest, the Modi government has neglected anti-graft institutions and has been focussing its attention on cultural and educational institutions by appointing Hindutva ideologues or like-minded bureaucrats to head them. Many political analysts now feel that such steps can ruin more than reform as they compromise an institution’s autonomy and transform it into a propaganda vehicle. The emphasis of the government is clearly on greater centralisation and larger authoritarian control over institutions, because of which political experts have come to believe that the Modi dispensation is intrinsic to the RSS’ ideological approach. “We must understand how the Sangh Parivar works. It relies on such faulty appointments to get into the capillaries of the system and thereby create an environment where Hindutva as a regime becomes natural. It is not as if the Congress did not indulge in favouritism in appointments, but in that system people from all political backgrounds who had connections in the government could find space. One must realise this crucial distinction between the two systems—that the appointments taking place under the NDA are more of what we can call ideological favouritism. Having Hindutva demagogues without much expertise in subjects can prove really catastrophic not only for our institutions but for the country as a whole,” said Apoorvanand, a professor of Hindi at Delhi University.