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Without fear or favour: A VP ends tenure with a sharp message
Updated:Aug 12, 2017
 
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India’s 12th Vice President Hamid  Ansari, who handed over the baton to M Venkaiah Naidu  on August 11 after a  distinguished 10 years in office, has the  rare distinction  of being  only the second incumbent to have served for two full terms (2007 – 17) ,  the other being India’s first Vice President  Dr. S Radhakrishnan (1952–62).
 
A career diplomat and scholar who has also served as  Vice Chancellor  of Aligarh Muslim University,  Ansari discharged his duties as the Chairman  of the  Rajya Sabha, the upper house  of the Indian Parliament, with a deft mix of firmness and fairplay.  At his farewell he  was praised  by  most parliamentarians  across the political divide for his  legislative acumen and  his abiding commitment to the letter and spirit of  the Constitution.
 
However since the Modi government assumed office in mid 2014,  certain unbecoming  and baseless aspersions were cast on  Ansari  by some elements  of the ruling party. To his credit, Ansari maintained  both his silence and the dignity of the  high constitutional office he occupied.
 
Thus it was not surprising that in his farewell remarks, Ansari referred to being unjustly  accused  on so many occasions that proving his innocence was becoming difficult,  A speech that Ansari delivered  in Bengaluru on August 6 to a local law school has become the latest  lightning rod  for his detractors – though the content is vintage Ansari and will be long remembered for  its magisterial breadth of vision and its incisive interpretation of the Indian Constitution.
 
Dwelling on why pluralism and secularism are essential for the nurturing of equitable democracy  in India, the outgoing VP provided an empirical and interpretative underpinning to his remarks that are irrefutable. Over the last year plus,  the sectarian divide in India has come into undesirable focus and the beef ban is symbolic of this societal  animation.  The minorities – particularly the Muslims and Dalits (untouchables and lower castes in the Hindu social hierarchy)  have been the most affected  and there has been a steady rise in intolerance in  many parts of India. 
 
Highlighting the fact that India’s population of 1.3 billion comprised over 4365 different communities,  of whom a staggering 78 percent are autonomous linguistic, cultural and social categories, Ansari  added that the religious minorities alone constitute 19.4 percent – just under a fifth of the total population.
 
Drawing on a rich discourse on the linkages between democracy, dissent and diversity,  Ansari noted  that in its practice “Democracy has to be judged not by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard. It’s raison d’etre is the recognition of the other.”
 
The BJP’s majoritarian Hindu orientation has caused considerable disquiet among large cross-sections of the country and they have been intimidated into sullen silence or uneasy self-regulation. The rash of vigilantism directed against the minorities or gender related matters is illustrative.
 
Pointing to the normative benchmarks of the Indian Constitution, Ansari cautioned that  “Programmes or principles evolved by political parties based on religion amount to recognizing religion as a part of the political governance which the Constitution expressly prohibits. It violates the basic features of the Constitution.”
 
Over the last decade, a hallmark of Ansari’s  remarks in the public domain have been  the measured,  scholarly turn of phrase and the rectitude with which he has remained within the constitutional propriety of his office.  Referring to his role as the Rajya Sabha  Chairman being akin to an impartial umpire,  he said to deliberate and legislate in an informed and  sagacious manner was an important metric  in a robust democracy.
 
This aspect received mention at Bengaluru  and again the facts marshalled by Ansari are irrefutable.  Noting that in 1953 the number of sittings of the two houses of parliament were 137 and 100 for the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha  respectively, he observed that this has declined to 49 and 52  sittings in 2016.  And furthermore, “over 40 percent of the Bills were passed  with less than one hour of debate.”
 
Reviewing the  substantive functioning of Indian democracy on the eve of the 70th anniversary  of its independence,  Ansari  reminded his interlocutors that the national track record is well below the median by way of equitable representation.  In 2014 women MPs   in India were 12.15 percent of the total and this figure “compares  unfavourably globally as well as within SAARC and is reflective of pervasive neo-patriarchial attitudes.”  
 
Extending this pattern of inequitable representation to the religious minorities, Ansari  spelt out  yet another irrefutable statistic  - Muslims constitute 14.23 percent of the population  but this is not reflected in Parliament.   Of a total strength of   790  parliamentarians , the number of Muslim MPs stood at 49 in 1980 and declined to 23 in 2014.  This works out to 2.9 percent of the  790 Indian MPs in both houses.
 
Specific to the internal security  challenge, Ansari warned there is evidence to suggest that “we are a polity at war with itself” and that the commitment to the Rule of Law is under serious threat.  Reference has been made to the dilution of the efficacy of the institutions of State and  the  dangers of  “ochlocracy or mob rule.”
 
The most salutary caution that the outgoing Vice President dwelt on was the currently contentious  issue  of nationalism.  Recalling  Nobel laureate Rabindranath  Tagore and his views about the "idolatry of the Nation", Ansari identifies the contour of what is emerging in recent years: “More recently an alternate viewpoint of "purifying excluvism" has tended to intrude into and take over the political and cultural landscape. One manifestation of it is "an increasingly fragile national ego that threatens to rule out any dissent however innocent.”
 
Ansari  warned against promoting  "intolerance and arrogant patriotism" and said, that left unchecked, these twin malignancies would have an adverse impact on pluralism and secularism, the precious core values so deeply embedded in the Constitution.
 
Public discourse in India in recent years has been diffident or timid in not unambiguously noting the many distortions and  illusory claims that have been made  by the government in upholding the spirit of the Constitution.  A not so subtly differentiated  class of  the ‘other’  is being  created  and different organs of the state have either been co-opted or compelled to acknowledge this deplorable  gradation.  
 
Ansari concluded by offering a bench-mark that is unexceptionable and non-negotiable within the context of  the normative ecosystem wherein “Citizenship irrespective of caste, creed or ideological affiliation is the sole determinant of Indianness.”
 
A rigorously crafted speech with as many as 34 end notes, Ansari,  in his August 6 speech,  discharged  his constitutional  responsibility without fear or favour to the very end. Neither condescension or disparaging criticism  are warranted.
 
Dr. B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution,  would have approved  of  this rare and  elegantly worded fidelity to its spirit.
 
(C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)
 
 
 
 
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