“Pluralism is not anybody’s gift, it cannot be taken away”: Former vice president Hamid Ansari

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Hamid Ansari was the vice president of India for two consecutive terms, from 2007 to 2017. A career diplomat, he joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1961. Ansari subsequently served in the Indian missions in Iraq, Belgium and Saudi Arabia, and was the ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. From 1993 to 1995, he was India's Permanent Representative at the United Nations. After his long tenure in international diplomacy, Ansari was appointed to the position of vice chancellor at the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, in 2000. He also served as the chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities from 2006 to 2007.

In May this year, in an interview at his Delhi residence, Ansari spoke to the independent journalists Jipson John and Jitheesh PM on foreign policy, the importance of the constitution, the challenges to Indian democracy, and the threat of majoritarianism. “We are an electoral democracy and we conduct the elections very well,” he said. “But are we a substantive democracy? The answer is no. There is a vast difference between the two.”

Jipson John and Jitheesh PM: You have spoken about the importance of the constitution. Do you think that it is under threat today?
Hamid Ansari: I will not use the word “threat” but certain sections of the public are beginning to ask whether it can be recast. So, to that extent, it is a matter of interest to every citizen, including myself. I think [the economist] Prabhat Patnaik in his recent article “Shadow of Fascism” in Frontline has articulated well the present situation. It is looming but we are refusing to accept yet.

JJ and JPM: Recently, you released a book, The RSS: A Menace to India, written by AG Noorani. To what extent is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s ideology in our polity and discourse these days?
HA: It is there. There is ample data in public about RSS activities beginning with details of daily activities in shakhas. [Shakhas are the basic units of the RSS’s organisational structure.] The RSS has a unique feature. It has not proclaimed itself to be a political party. It says it is a cultural organisation. Its constitution says that its objective is serving the Hindu segment of the Indian society. I cannot quarrel with that as long as it is within the framework of the laws of the land. It is the constitution which is the basic law of the land and everything else has to observe it. Our constitution was drafted with great insight and care by people who had experience of public life. They came from all parts of the country. It suited the post-colonial and post-independence period. When we established a democratic political system, many people were sceptical about it, but our system has survived to this day.

JJ and JPM: Pluralism has been the hallmark of our society and nation. But today we see many challenges to this idea. Are you worried about this?
HA: Pluralism is not something which is gifted by somebody to us. Indian society has always been plural. Our constitution makers and political leaders accepted this ground reality and crafted on it a secular, democratic state system. So pluralism is a fact of social life. When you travel from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Tripura to Gujarat, you notice the diversity in the everyday life of Indians. Since pluralism is not anybody’s gift, it cannot be taken away unless you run a road roller and squash everything beneath it.

JJ and JPM: Is there any challenge developing to it?
HA: Some people think of crushing pluralism, but it will not work. It just cannot work. Pluralism is not a matter of choice; it exists and is the essence of the Indian national being.

JJ and JPM: We have been hearing news of people being lynched in the name of transporting cows and eating beef. Attacks against minorities, especially Muslims, are on the rise. You had earlier said that there is a feeling of unease, a sense of insecurity among the minorities. Could you be more specific on why you think that is so? What measures are necessary to address this?
HA: These lynchings and attacks on helpless people are social evils that have been directly or indirectly encouraged by the ruling establishment in recent years. This is not what a government should be doing. What is the objective of being in a society? Why do people come together? It is for [a] good life. Everyone who has spoken or written about correct social behaviour has come to the same conclusion—that you have to have harmony in society. So, if we as a society want harmony, then we have to think of the way harmony can be promoted and sustained.

JJ and JPM: What did you feel when the Bharatiya Janata Party won 282 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, but without a single Muslim member elected to parliament?
HA: The point is that if I am a citizen, then I am a shareholder in society. Therefore I must share in expressing my views on certain matters. It does not mean that if you get five more people elected then things will change dramatically. But creating a public impression that all segments of the Indian public are represented in parliament is very important. Why do we have a lama from Ladakh or somebody from the North East? The same holds for 14.5 percent for the population. It is a huge number. So you must include everyone to make it representative.

In my first term as vice president, the German chancellor [Angela Merkel] came to New Delhi and asked me how the Indian society is organised. My initial answer was lighthearted. I said it is not very difficult, we manage it. She asked me to explain seriously. I said I have only one example to give you. We draw a circle and if it is wide enough everybody is included in it. The moment we restrict the circle, some are in and some are out. Our effort in India has always been to include everybody. If there are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and some other communities, what is the harm? We spend a lot of time in India celebrating festivals. Why? Because it is a nice way of bringing about harmony in society—it has a social purpose. Ours is not a uniform, homogeneous country. This is a unique combination. Why can we not simply continue to live like that? What is the point of saying we will have a philosophy called Hindutva? You can have a philosophy called Hindutva for the Hindus. What then happens to the remaining 20 percent of the population? This is the point.

JJ and JPM: Our experiment with democracy is more than 70 years old. Do you see a change or shift in our body politics? What are the challenges we face as a democracy?
HA: It must remain democratic. Challenges will come. Then you also know how to solve the problem. Ours is a constitutional government and a government by rule of law. This is very important. Rule of law means every judgment has to be on the basis of law and the law has to be the same for everybody irrespective of status or origin. We have to stick to the framework given to us by the constitution.

JJ and JPM: How do you look back at your years in office as vice president? From this experience, what kind of changes would you like to see among our parliamentarians and in our polity?
HA: What is the legislature for? It has three basic functions. One is lawmaking, which is normally at the initiative of the government. The second is holding the government responsible and accountable, and the third is debating issues of public interest or public concern. Lawmaking is a complex process. The government has very competent people who can draft. Lawmaking is also based on experience. Someone may be a good lawyer; he/she can make a new law according to existing provisions and emerging needs. But there will be someone like [the environmental activist] Medha Patkar or someone who has an altogether different kind of experience. It is important to take all these experiences into account while enacting law. This can bring about inclusiveness and greater justice.

There was a time in the 1950s and 60s, or even early 70s, when the parliament would meet for 90 to100 days in a year. Today, it meets for an average of 60 days. This means that the time available for lawmaking is reduced. And if there is not enough time, how do you hold the government accountable by discussing its actions? The same holds for discussing matters of public interest. If the parliament does not function and discuss these matters, then all the debates go on to television channels. They have a different motivation. So, parliament must meet frequently and discuss matters.

My personal assessment about our polity is that we are an electoral democracy and we conduct the elections very well. But are we a substantive democracy? The answer is no. There is a vast difference between the two.

JJ and JPM: How important are institutions in a democracy?
HA: Their independence is critical. Our constitution created [the] legislature, executive, and judiciary. Each has to do its work. If parliament is not doing its work, if its duties are not being performed, then that is inefficiency. It is the same for other institutions. Constitutional principles are very clear. There is no ambiguity or secrecy in them. But the principles have to be implemented. This is not being done. This is the problem with our democracy.

JJ and JPM: From your vast experience in public life, what are the urgent policies and measures the country needs for immediate implementation?
HA: A general distress is obvious to everyone in any part of the country. It is among the youth as every year more and more young people come out in search of jobs. But where are the jobs? Agricultural distress has been talked about a great deal. In the initial days of independence, we tried to make our people less poor. All the great steps that were taken in 1950s, 60s and 70s had one objective—to have a society that has less inequality, if not totally egalitarian. That was the objective of each one of our five-year plans. Every political party brings out a manifesto at the time of elections saying the same thing. But does it fit into your policy priorities or not? That is the most important question.

JJ and JPM: According to an Oxfam report, India’s top 10 percent of the population holds 77.4 percent of the national wealth. While the bottom 60 percent just holds 4.8 percent of the wealth. What are the policy measures we need to address this?
HA: The question is, does the government give priority to this issue in its policy. Our policies are well defined. The question is whether you are devoting yourself to this priority or not. My view is that we are not devoting enough to this priority. Why are we not able to create jobs for the young people? The government started with great fanfare about training skills. What happened to it? Engineers came out of colleges but there are no jobs for them. There is an unfortunate situation in our country where PhD holders are applying for class IV employment in the government sector. Surely there is something wrong.

The level of inequality is rising since the introduction of neoliberal economic policies. [The former prime minister] Manmohan Singh’s point of view was that there will be a trickle-down effect. The trouble with trickle-down economics is that sometimes it dries in the middle. It succeeded to some extent but did not succeed beyond it.

JJ and JPM: Do we need to recheck this economic policy?
HA: Absolutely. We need to recheck it. You do not need to be a great economist to understand it. Farmers’ suicides are not fiction.

JJ and JPM: The National Commission on Farmers commonly known as the MS Swaminathan commission submitted a comprehensive report on agrarian distress in 2006 when the United Progressive Alliance was in power. They remained in government for the next eight years. But they neither discussed nor implemented it. The BJP came to power in 2014 with the promise of its implementation. But they too did not implement it.
HA: That is the problem. We have never been short of reports. We have got brilliant people who produce really first-grade reports. But then what happens to their implementation? Often there is a lag in implementation or sometimes there is no implementation. We need to make governments accountable on this count.

JJ and JPM: You were in the foreign service for a while. Do you think that India is on the right track in its foreign relations today? Are we losing the spirit of non-alignment?
HA: Well, I am afraid we are doing so. In recent times, the spirit of non-alignment has been sidelined. What is meant by foreign policy? It is a set of policies vis-à-vis countries beyond our borders, which will gain for us security and goodwill. Security is a complex thing that is not just about policemen and guns. Security entails traditional security and non-traditional security. If people are unwell and the atmosphere is polluted, that is also insecurity.

The challenge of foreign policy is always reflected in our relationship with neighbouring countries. Every neighbouring country has a set of problems in relation to India. These have to be addressed. Simply saying “we shall crush them” is not the answer. In today’s technological era, there is very little likelihood of a conventional war. Take the example of India and Pakistan. Both have nuclear weapons. It does not matter who has how many. They have the capacity to destroy both.

I do not agree, nor does any professional diplomat in India or anywhere else agree, with the approach that you must not talk. What do you do then? This is a childish approach, like two school children quarrelling with one another and saying I shall not talk to you. That kind of approach will not work. It may be a policy of assumed toughness. But it does not solve any problems. It is not professional either. We need to focus more on constructive dialogues. If governments stop communicating, how will they resolve issues? So communication between governments has to be a necessity.

JJ and JPM: Jammu and Kashmir was in international headlines after the attack on the Central Reserve Police Force soldiers in Pulwama and the subsequent Indian airstrike in Balakot, Pakistan. How do you look at the Kashmir issue?
HA: First, as far as J&K was concerned, the political exercise that was done immediately after independence was integration. Different princely states acceded to the new union with different status; some joined without conditions and some with conditions. The maharaja of J&K joined with conditions; these were accepted by the government of India and incorporated in the constitution.

[The former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister] Mehbooba Mufti said it well about Article 370—[an article of the Indian constitution that gives Jammu and Kashmir a special autonomous status]—that “it is the bridge between Kashmir and India. If you take away this, the bridge goes down.” Kashmir’s problem is political and the government will have to solve the issue. But the point is that you cannot have a situation in which school boys meet security forces with stones. Something is obviously wrong. The state keeps burning for months.

The same thing is happening in some other parts of the country. The annual reports of the ministries of defence and external affairs talk of an external danger and foreign terrorism. The report of the home ministry too refers to external terrorism but in addition speaks of security problems in the North East and central India and domestic terrorism. So, the issue of security does not emanate from a source called Pakistan. It is more comprehensive. We have to be mature enough to understand it and find ways to address it.

JJ and JPM: The media has a great role in keeping democracy alive. How do you look at today’s media landscape?
HA: It is more or less bad. The state has been putting pressure on the media. The great thing about India, unlike many other countries, is the relative freedom of the media. In some other countries, if you criticise the government, you are jailed for years. Here, we were proud of being a free country. This is changing. There are so many news items that are never published. There was a news item that the Election Commission pulled up the Doordarshan for not giving equal time to all political parties. Why did this happen? At the time of elections, the guidelines given by the Election Commission should be followed by all, for all. If this did not happen in the case of the national broadcaster, then obviously something is wrong.

JJ and JPM: In April this year, around six hundred scientists, artists, writers signed a public appeal asking people to vote wisely. What is your reaction?
HA: People are feeling concerned. Former senior civil servants have written a letter to the president of India. They have expressed their views on other subjects also. They are not novices. They know the country and the rules of the game—each one of them has held very important positions in the government. From this, it is obvious that there is growing concern about the health of our democracy.

JJ and JPM: What is the significance of the 2019 election?
HA: Every election is important, immensely important. The issues which have been highlighted in this election are of two types. One is the basic issue of livelihood—whether it is farmers or it is students, they all have their own set of problems. The fact is that there is distress in the country. The second thing is that people are getting worried about whether we are sliding towards a form of government which is totally different from all the previous governments so far. If you start playing with the curriculum in schools or if you start rewriting the history or if you say that the Battle of Haldighati [in 1576] against the [Mughal] emperor Akbar was won by the Rajputs, then there is something fundamentally wrong. If Akbar lost that battle, how he ruled for decades after that. So these things are worrying.

JJ and JPM: Where does your hope lie?
HA: My hope is that people will vote with their mind and act without getting carried away by irrelevant slogans or spectacles.

This interview has been edited and condensed.