Tuesday, April 23, 2024

What India is missing from Narendra Modi?


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By Dr Nsungbemo Ezung

In two months from now, Narendra Modi will be achieving the unique feat of becoming the first non-congressman to serve as India’s Prime Minister for two consecutive full terms, and he is also hoping that at the end of the 18th general election, he will become the first since Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, to become prime minister for a record third consecutive term. But what the people belonging to the world’s largest democracy were missing for the last ten years was an open and free press interaction/conference from the current prime minister. This press interaction is one of the most sacred duties that the leader of a government in democracy owes to the citizens, and the last time it happened was in January 2014 when the then outgoing prime minister Manmohan Singh hosted a press event in New Delhi that had lasted for more than an hour where he answered 62 questions coming from different journalists.
Taking questions from the press is a pre-requisite responsibility of elected leaders in a democracy. This represents accountability by the leaders to the citizens who had elected them and whom they represent. Accountability and transparency, among others, are two very important features of the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy; the very model which was adopted by the founding fathers of modern India to be a system of governance for the country. Following this Westminster model, the Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) formed an integral part of any business session in the House of Commons in the United Kingdom (UK). These PMQs are held every Wednesday when the House is in session where its prime minister, on behalf of the government, is constitutionally obligated to take questions from the Members of Parliament (MPs) who have the freedom to demand an answer from the prime minister on a range of issues of concerns for the nation and the world. The prime minister in turn has the responsibility to give the right answer to the members, who are posing their questions on behalf of the people they represent. No one else from the government is supposed to take the question on behalf of the prime minister/government unless the latter is on official leave of absence. It means that the prime minister as the head of the government is even responsible and answerable for the performance and actions of his/her cabinet members and the entire ruling dispensation. The UK’s PMQs Session and the performance of the prime minister in the session is one important platform from which the credibility of the head of government is determined and held to account, and it also gives an opportunity to the citizens to assess the ability of the prime minister to lead the government and the country.
The PMQs Session represents the best of British parliamentary democracy. The vibrancy of British democracy as reflected in the PMQs is further aided by the regular press interactions and conferences of the prime minister thereby taking the responsibility of accountability and transparency beyond the parliament. This practice signifies that the purpose of democracy is not only about seeking the support of the people at the time of election and keeping them in the dark about the work of the elected representatives and government until the next election. People, who are the real custodians of power in a democracy, need to be informed and people have the right to hold the leaders they have elected to account. And one best possible means to deliver this privilege to the people is through the model of the UK’s PMQs Session and the Prime Minister’s regular press conference.
Indian democracy too is not a stranger to this phenomenon of accountability. The tradition of accountability to the citizens by the elected representatives has been the hallmark of Indian democracy since its inception. BJP’s first prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is fondly remembered for never being hesitant to take questions from the media and hosting press interactions regularly during his time as a head of government.
This tradition was sadly set aside since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, and one is no longer certain when this glorious tradition of democracy will revive again in India. Prime Minister Modi has been shielding himself from accountability as he persistently refuses to hold open and free-for-all press interactions during the last 10 years of his rule. Instead, what India has been witnessing in the last decade was just plenty of dramatic monologues, containing many series of rhetoric, coming from the prime minister in front of either a cheering crowd or a silent audience.
In a democracy, not entertaining questions from the media and journalists are equivalent to being non-toleration towards political dissenters or political opponents. It is not expected that a head of government of the world’s largest democracy kept the media at bay for such a long period of time. This amounts to undermining the freedom of the press which is a serious threat to democracy. Can India as a democratic country demand that Narendra Modi host at least one open press conference before the start of the ensuing general election?
The past decade of BJP rule had gone with the citizens of India failing to avail the privilege of seeing their prime minister held to account in the public domain. Can the ruling party now assure the citizens that if elected for the third consecutive term, apart from all other many poll promises, the country will see a new era of democracy where a press conference by the prime minister will become a regular feature and that the tradition of free interactions between the prime minister and fourth pillar of democracy will be revived? Democracy is not only about conducting elections at regular intervals; if that is the case, citizens in a democratic country will become just a tool to be used by politicians for deriving political powers with the citizens getting nothing in return. Elections in democracy should reflect the will of the people, and the government of the day should ensure that the promise of democracy to the citizens should be delivered. The exercise of democracy in India can never be complete as long as the head of government refuses to answer open and unscripted questions both from the people’s representatives and the press.


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