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WHAT should have been a proud moment for show-casing India’s democratic credentials paradoxically brought out the worst in our political class. The Supreme Court decision in the Best Bakery case directing a retrial and fresh investigation, a sacking of the public prosecutor and a shifting of the case from Gujarat to Maharashtra is unusual, for rarely have we witnessed such a clear admission of the breakdown of the judicial machinery of the state. In more civilized times this would have led to the resignation of the Gujarat chief minister, failing which the government should have been dismissed.

But Narendra Modi lived upto his reputation as a statistical outlier. Unrepentant about his continuing failure to institute a sense of security in the state’s beleaguered and ‘terrorised’ minorities, he went on the offensive and instead blamed the ‘liberal’ media and meddlesome do-gooders for not letting the state settle down. Evidently, justice for ‘victims’ constitutes no part of Modi’s Garve Gujarat. Nor, despite invocations to raj-dharma, for his senior colleagues in the party who both continue to defend him and remain blind to the institutional damage to what was once the country’s fastest growing state.

Gujarat, in many ways, is a continuing story of denial. Defenders of Modi may have a point when they claim that the aftermath of all major communal conflagrations have been no different. From Malliana in the early ’70s to Gujarat 2002, no notable has suffered the consequences of alleged involvement in rioting. Nevertheless, the brazenness with which the investigation, prosecution and judicial machinery has been subverted does mark a new low in India’s politico- institutional culture.

Even more shocking was the death of 22 indigent women and children in Lucknow, the prime minister’s constituency. Everything about this incident – organizing a free distribution of saris by an acolyte of Lalji Tandon, Atalji’s election agent, a few days before Vajpayee was to file his nomination in wilful disregard of both the ‘moral code of conduct’ as also the restrictions on assembly (Section 144) in force; throwing saris to poor women in a manner reminiscent of throwing alms to beggars if not food to stray dogs; the claim by the administration that it was ‘unaware’ of the function, this despite week-long advertisements in the local press – smacks of callousness. If tramping underfoot the ‘dignity’ of indigent people was not disgusting enough, the manner in which the bodies were stacked in the mortuary van is sufficient indication that for our officialdom and the political class the poor do not count as human beings.

Just look at the way everyone involved denied complicity and worse. Lalji Tandon shifted the blame to the organizers, claiming that he did not even know them, as blatant a lie as we have heard in recent times. His party claimed that since this was not an ‘official’ function, they cannot be held responsible. Also, since their candidate had still to file his nomination papers, there was no technical violation of the election code.

More surprising was the reaction of Mulayam Singh Yadav, UP Chief Minister. Taking, what he perceived as the high road, he appealed to all concerned not to politicise the issue, that what had happened was ‘unfortunate’, a ‘tragedy’, adding that ‘such things happen’. Maybe what he really intended was to shift the blame to the victims, their greed for free goodies being responsible for the stampede and death. Or possibly, since compensation has been announced to the families of victims, this should be the end of the matter.

Expectedly, other opposition parties, those with neither the BJP-NDA or the Samajwadi Party, jumped into the fray. This seemed too good an opportunity to embarrass the prime minister. Yet, the differential stances of the Congress, which hinted at the complicity between the SP and the BJP, and the CPI(M) which foregrounded the role of the BJP tagging on the SP only as an aside, makes clear that neither the victims nor the political culture which makes such tragedies possible are of concern.

Both Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, in different ways, reflect the coarsening of our democratic political culture and discourse. With interest increasingly shifting to ‘feel good’ and highlighting positive stories, the poor and the marginalized may even be losing their value as electoral vote banks. Without holding any brief for the earlier populism, at least the less well-off were not seen as a drag, holding back progress. As long as our elite, and our political representatives, continue with their myopic worldviews, denying the poor their dignity and agency, there is little likelihood of ‘India Shining’.

Harsh Sethi