June 02, 2024

It is All About the Constitution

AS the last phase of polling is about to be completed, there is no doubt that the Constitution of India and its protection has been one of the main issues in the Lok Sabha election. Right from the beginning, the leaders of the INDIA bloc of parties had pitched the defence of the constitution as a central theme in their election platform.

This had a major impact on a large number of people who had experienced the various facets of authoritarian rule in the country in the past one decade. The “Constitution in danger” theme of the opposition coincided with Modi’s call for 400 plus seats for the BJP. The threat of changing the constitution got reinforced with various leaders of the BJP arguing that 400 seats or a big majority is required for changing the constitution. 

As early as on March 9, BJP MP, Anant Kumar Hegde stated that the specific reason the BJP is aiming for more than 400 seats in the Lok Sabha is that it could have a two-thirds majority in parliament to change the constitution.  Similar views were echoed by Lallu Singh, Faizabad BJP MP, Jyoti Mirdha, the BJP candidate from Nagaur, and Arun Govil, the BJP candidate from Meerut.

The opposition campaign that this is an election to protect the constitution got further traction from these statements of BJP candidates during the campaign.  BJP leaders, particularly Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, soon got reports about how the threat to the constitution is getting a receptive audience, particularly among dalit sections, who revere Dr Ambedkar as the architect of the constitution.

That is why Modi began aggressively countering the opposition charge. Before the first phase of polling itself, Modi declared that the constitution is the holy book for the party, that the constitution is the Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharat, Bible and Quran for the government and went to the extent of saying that “Even Babasaheb Ambedkar cannot change it”. 

The shrill tone and counterattack that it is the Congress and the INDIA bloc which would change the constitution was a giveaway; the charge of the INDIA bloc had hit home and hence the guilty reaction.

The other aspect of the “constitution in danger” that upset Modi was the accusation that the change in constitution would lead to the scrapping of reservation for the SC, ST and OBCs.  This fear was articulated by a spectrum of voters while talking to the media.  Modi sought to counterattack by giving a communal turn to the issue of changing the constitution.  In speech after speech, Modi declared that the INDIA bloc wants to change the constitution, so that the reservation for SC, ST and OBCs can be given to Muslims based on religion.  Both Modi and Amit Shah cited the 4 per cent reservation given to Muslims under the OBC category in Karnataka and in Telangana. A constant theme was that the Congress and the INDIA bloc would take away not only reservations but also the property of Hindus to be handed over to the Muslims.

But the effort to paint the reservation given to Muslim groups, who were declared backward and given OBC status as religion-based reservation was a spurious one.  In the case of OBCs, Articles 15 (4) and 16 (4) of the Constitution set the criteria for backwardness, irrespective of religion.  Muslim groups, who were identified as socially and educationally backward by the State Commission for Backward Classes, after a scientific survey, were included in the OBC category in many states.  In fact, Modi himself had claimed credit for 70 Muslim groups getting OBC status in Gujarat in an ANI interview two years ago. 

The reality is that a substantial section of people have got energised to vote against the BJP because they believe that the Modi government represents a threat to democracy and the constitution.  That is why there is a sense of disquiet about the outcome of this election and what will happen thereafter. 

Ten years of the Modi regime has eroded all the constitutional bodies and institutions of the State. The manner in which the Election Commission has conducted itself during the election has raised apprehensions about whether it can ensure fair play and supervise a free and fair poll.  The abject failure to curb the inflammatory communal electioneering of the prime minister; the reluctance shown in providing comprehensive polling figures and doing so only after the matter went to the Supreme Court and the general failure to enforce the model code of conduct have all provided grounds for these fears.

Just days before the final phase of polling, the government has given an extension of one month to the chief of army staff, General Manoj Pande, who was to retire on May 31.  This is an unprecedented step.  No army chief (except once in 1975) was given an extension. If the appointment of the new chief of army staff was not announced before the retirement, an acting chief of staff is appointed till then.  In this case, the new chief of staff would be appointed by the new government.  There is no explanation whatsoever why this has been done, nor is it clear if the Election Commission had given clearance for this extension.  This has given rise to all sorts of speculation about the post-poll scenario.

Finally, Narendra Modi himself has put his fealty to the constitution into question. In the last stage of the election campaign, Modi has made the peculiar claim that he is convinced that it is the Paramatma who had sent him to serve the country and the people. He has made it clear that he is answerable to no one, but God.  Now that he has decided to spend 48 hours in meditation at the Vivekananda rock in Kanyakumari during the last phase of polling, it remains to be seen whether his future actions will be constitutionally-mandated or divinely ordained. 

(May 29, 2024)