The Bharatiya Janata Party’s #MainBhiChowkidar campaign, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with the rest of the party and its supporters have proclaimed themselves to be “watchmen”, is clever.
It attempts to turn the tables on the Congress jibe, “Chowkidar chor hai” (the watchman is the thief), which was itself a reference to Modi’s 2014 claim that he would be a better custodian of Indian taxpayer funds. But how does this translate into real life? Has Modi been a better chowkidar for Indian citizens?
One way of answering that is to take a look at the “chowkidars” of the Indian government: Those institutions that are meant to keep watch on the government and how it functions. On this front, Modi’s record has been quite woeful.
- Lokpal: The Jan Lokpal Bill, a law intended to create a new corruption watchdog for the Indian government, was a major factor in the 2014 election campaign. It was passed that year in the hopes that the Lokpal would act as a check on institutional corruption. Five years later, the government is only just getting around to appointing a Lokpal for India, less than a month before elections are about to begin. Why did it take so long?
- Judiciary: The Modi government picked fights with the judiciary, particularly over appointments, as soon as it came to power. Until the very end, it tried to pick and choose which judges it wanted to see elevated to higher office. It was also during Modi’s tenure that four senior Supreme Court judges held an unprecedented press conference claiming democracy was at stake because of the conduct of the Chief Justice of India, with murmurs of pressure from the government. There were also questions around the death of Special CBI Judge BH Loya and the suicide note of former Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Kalikho Pul, which had many references to the government and the judiciary.
- Central Bureau of Investigation: India’s premier investigation agency saw infighting like never before as the No 1 and no 2 officers of the CBI, both appointed by Modi, decided to level corruption charges against each other. The conflict resulted in a Central Bureau of Investigation teaming raid the agency’s own headquarters. When the Centre finally decided to step in, it did so by issuing what the Supreme Court later said was a patently illegal, partisan order. The officers involved were eventually moved out, but many threads of their allegations remain, and it is still not clear why this happened on Modi’s watch.
- Election Commission of India: The Election Commission, the body that is mean to hold Indian polls in a non-partisan manner, first called the Modi government’s decision to introduce electoral bonds, an opaque instrument of political funding, a “retrograde step” A new Chief Election Commissioner soon after, however, said that the bonds were a “step in the right direction”, without addressing the earlier concerns. This was not the only time the Election Commission was questioned for taking a view perceived as favourable to the Centre, including most prominently in deciding the dates for elections.
- Central Information Commission: The Right to Information Act literally empowers every Indian citizen to be a “chowkidar”. So naturally, the current government sought to amend the law, making changes that activists said would clearly dilute it. The government eventually backed down in the face of public pressure. It has also consistently run the commission under-staffed, which many have argued is a way of diluting the RTI act, even without amending it.
- Reserve Bank of India: The central bank is the custodian of the economy, meant to ensure that it takes a longer view of economic decision-making than the government of the day. Under Modi, the Reserve Bank of India saw the first resignation of a sitting governor since the 1950s, and the suggestion that the government may pull out the never-before-used Section 7 of the RBI Act to force the central bank into doing things, including handing money over to the Centre.
- Rajya Sabha: In some ways, the Rajya Sabha exists to keep a check on the Lok Sabha, particularly on behalf of the states. It is meant to ensure that legislation cannot be bulldozed through Parliament by a brute majority. However, the Modi government has repeatedly made efforts to bypass the upper house. Early on, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley gave many lectures about how the “unelected” Rajya Sabha could have the temerity to question the other House. But later, the government simply decided to put its controversial legislative decisions into Money Bills that bypass the Rajya Sabha.
There have been similar institutional attacks on other portions of government, from the National Statistical Commission to the way the Centre has dealt with the military to its misuse of the Delhi Police. That doesn’t include what has happened to the media, which is also meant to keep a check on government.
The BJP’s “Main bhi Chowkidar” campaign is intended to suggest that the party is egalitarian and to underscore the classist nature of the Congress – whose leaders and supporters ended up lauding a boy who said on a television programme that India can get its chowkidars cheaper from Nepal. But it also serves to reinforce the incorrect claim by BJP supporters that there has not been a single corruption allegation against the government. There has.
Never mind the opinions of actual chowkidars then, the question is whether the BJP’s campaign will catch the public imagination or simply remain an easy way to identify Modi supporters who are not aware of, or who are willfully ignoring, his actual record.