India: Report Card for the Modi Government
Avani Tewari is a 19 year old law student and blogger from New Delhi. In this web dossier she will be blogging her reflection on the main debates in the media after the elections and her personal impression of the political discussion every week.
It has been exactly a month since the Modi government was elected to power. The policies and decisions of the new government have not been immune from debate and discussion. Some of the major points of discussion have been regarding the imposition of Hindi as the national language, appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and the railway fare hike just before the railway budget. These issues are important as they determine whether features of a parliamentary democracy are being followed in as much as in accommodating interests of diverse groups, and ensuring that the three organs of the government: the executive, judiciary and legislature not only function independently, but also check and balance each other if there is a misuse of power.
While still early to make an assessment, the question which came to my mind was whether we have been too critical of the new Prime Minister without even giving him and his government adequate time to even settle down. Could it be that the so called ‘hindu nationalist’ agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the ‘tainted’ past of the new Prime Minister was making us overtly biased in our assessment? Modi himself wrote, "Every new Government has something that friends in the media like to call a 'honeymoon period.' Previous governments had the luxury of extending this 'honeymoon period' upto a hundred days and even beyond. Not unexpectedly I don't have any such luxury," he wrote.
Hindi – a national language?
On the Hindi issue, the cat was set amongst the pigeons with a circular from the Interior Ministry advising bureaucrats to give ‘prominence’ to Hindi while operating official accounts on the social media platforms. This was seen as an attempt to impose Hindi by the new government. The adoption of Hindi as the ‘national’ language of the country has been a highly contentious issue and has been opposed by many states especially from the southern part of India. Back in 1948, when the Constitution of India was being formed there was a huge debate whether Hindi should become the national language of the country. The group in support of this felt that a common language is important for maintaining the unity of the country and therefore India should make Hindi the national language. This argument was criticised by the non-Hindi speaking states who said that this would be an imposition on them and would give an unfair advantage to the Hindi speaking states. The framers of the Constitution adopted Hindi as the official language with English continuing as an associate official language for a period of fifteen years i.e. 1965, after which Hindi would become the sole official language. However, seeing the divisiveness of the issue, the Parliament maintained status quo and resolved the matter in 1967 with an amendment to the Official Languages Act, which allowed for the continuation of English for an indefinite period.
The compromise was, however, reached only after a series of agitations, riots and political movements in many parts of South India, which affected almost the core of India’s unity. Could we afford another such controversy? According to an article in the Hindustan Times, “The NDA government will do national integration a great service if it helps bury the old chauvinistic and widely-circulated chestnut that Hindi is India’s national language. Hindi and English are official languages. India does not have a declared national language, a point clearly stated by the Gujarat High Court in a 2010 ruling. Avoiding chauvinism is consistent with the spirit of ‘cooperative federalism’ and the BJP’s ambition of becoming a truly pan-Indian political party.”
On the other hand, some feel that not only should Hindi emerge as the national language but its use by the Prime Minister would give it the necessary boost. A Zee news article states that, “Modi`s decision to deliver his speech in Hindi and confabulate with representatives of other countries in our national language undoubtedly reveals his love for the motherland.” The article also says that, “Delivering his thoughts in Hindi is not just a means of language proficiency but a way to make the Indian language heard on the International platform. Ironically, nowadays, Hindi is dominated by other languages as it is not considered as a language of multinational companies. So today, it’s our foremost duty, in fact it’s the duty of every Indian, to make Hindi, a language known to the world, even if it is not spoken in other countries.”
To me it is very clear that in a country as diverse as India, with its multitude of languages, religions, cultures etc, any attempt at imposition and without consensus can only have a deleterious and divisive impact.
India and its Judges
The other controversy which erupted during the very start of the new government was regarding judicial appointments. India has had a glorious history of judicial independence, as well as activism, and some of the decisions of the apex court have had a significant impact on keeping unbridled executive powers in check. Separation of powers between the different organs of the government is an important feature of a democratic setup. This theory was first given by the French political philosopher Montesquieu who said that power should be separated between the executive, legislature and judiciary. He also emphasised on the independence of the judiciary from the legislature and executive. The appointment of Supreme Court and High Court judges has always been a highly debated issue in India. The issue again came to the forefront with the appointment of a former solicitor general as a judge of the Supreme Court of India.
In India, the higher judiciary is pretty much in charge of its own appointments as its judges are appointed by a collegium consisting of the Chief Justice of India and four senior judges of the Supreme Court which recommends the names to the government. The collegium system was started only in 1993 and has been criticised by some for being too secretive and lacking transparency.
Recently, Mr Gopal Subramanium, who had been nominated by the collegium to be appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court withdrew his nomination, after it was revealed that his name had been referred back to the collegium for reconsideration, and accused the government of opposing his name as it was apprehensive that he would not toe the government line. The news of the rejection of his candidature was accompanied by leaked intelligence reports questioning his integrity. This has raised questions not only regarding the procedure of appointment of judges but also regarding the politicisation and consequent independence of the judiciary. According to the Hindu, “whether the present legal position that accords primacy to the Chief Justice’s opinion has goaded the executive to find other means of having its way. The present opaque procedure needs to be replaced by an appointments process that is genuinely consultative and transparent, so that the best legal brains are attracted to the bench.” On the other hand, Mr Sanjay Hedge, a Supreme Court lawyer wrote, “When the Judiciary is in charge of its own appointments, something more substantial than a report based on innuendo is required before impugning a candidate’s integrity”
The first month of the new government also saw announcement of a railway price hike just before the presentation of the railway budget inviting criticism of bypassing the Parliament. The opposition took pot shots at Modi’s report card wondering whether the ‘good days’ promised during the campaign was a reference to the rise in prices of rail fares, sugar and petroleum products. While some tough decisions will have to be taken by the new government to restrict economic profligacy, the forthcoming budget will be indicative of the government’s policy and thinking on investment, growth, foreign direct investment and a host of other critical issues. An article in the Asian Age correctly says that, “Mr Modi’s first month in office is that he is still settling down and evolving a blueprint for his government. And, therefore, one must not judge him in haste.”
 The Hindustan Times, “Bury the Chestnut that Hindi is India’s national language”, The Hindustan Times , June 22nd 2014
 Zee News, “Modi Emerging as India’s Putin”, Zee News June 10th 2014
 The Hindu, “Stirring Up a Judicial Storm”, The Hindu, June 27th 2014
 Sanjay Hedge, “Borking Gopal Subramanium”, The Hindu, June 26th 2014
 Bharat Bhusan, “Modi’s Mute Mode”, The Asian Age, June 27th 2014