All agrarian movements resulted in political upheavals… PM must learn from history: Ashwani Kumar

Former union law minister and Rajya Sabha MP from Punjab Ashwani Kumar says, "All agrarian movements have resulted in political upheavals, be it the pagdi sambhal agitation of 1907 and the Champaran satyagraha of 1930s. The PM must learn from history and not stand on prestige."

A coalition of all Congress leaders, past and present, can provide a viable opposition to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), said former union law minister and Rajya Sabha MP from Punjab Ashwani Kumar, in a free-wheeling interview with The Indian Express on farmers’ agitation, the declining fortunes of Congress, and the perils of social media.

How do you view the farmers agitation?

The agitation is not only unprecedented in its scale but also has the potential to bring a huge upheaval in the country and alienate the farming community. If the central government doesn’t find an amicable solution to this issue soon, we can have a law and order situation in Punjab. No democratic government in the history has ever been able to resist a revolt or protest spearheaded by the peasantry. All agrarian movements have resulted in political upheavals, be it the pagdi sambhal agitation of 1907 and the Champaran satyagraha of 1930s. The PM must learn from history and not stand on prestige.

Why do you think the negotiations have not yielded any results?

It is true that the central ministers are open to amendments. It is true that the SC has stayed the implementation of the laws and the PM has also made a statement in Parliament that that these laws will not be implemented till a particular time. But the agitating farmers feel this is a ploy to gain time for enforcing the laws on an unwilling community. It is this trust deficit that is coming in the way of a negotiated settlement.

Can the Congress government in Punjab play a role in the resolution?

Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh has been forthright in his support for the farmers cause and has done whatever he could legally do within the framework of the Constitution to extend his support. He has ensured the passage of a state legislation but the governor has so far not sent the laws for the President’s approval. The state’s efforts have thus been stymied by the central government, which has further deepened the distrust between the Centre and farmers organizations.

What about the allegations of an international conspiracy behind the agitation?

It’s an insult to the credulity of the Indians and the intensity of the farmers’ cause. India is no banana republic nor its people so gullible as to be misled into a conspiracy against the national govt.

Congress is in a decline, and opposition from within is only getting stronger. Do you see any hope of its revival?

It is true that we have seen a decline in the fortunes of the Congress in the last few years but it is equally true that this is a historic opportunity for the party to revive itself in defence of the idea of india which is under assault. The fight today is between freedom and fear, inclusion and exclusion, justice and injustice.

The Congress has to get its act together, address its internal weaknesses, and provide credible leadership that can forge national unity. This is the time for all Congress persons, past and present, to come together under one banner and unite a fragmented opposition.

The coming together of leaders like TMC chairperson Mamata Bannerjee and NCP chief Sharad Pawar and several others in an understanding with the Congress would certainly galvanize the forces of freedom.

But will these leaders come under the banner of Congress, and in what capacity?

Sonia Gandhi has provided outstanding leadership in the past and has the maturity and wisdom to take the steps necessary to forge a national coalition of like-minded parties. She has shown the capacity to sacrifice in the national interest, and I am sure she would at the right time take the steps required to marshal secular forces in the country.

There is a growing feeling that the party should look beyond the family.

When Rahul Gandhi resigned and refused to take back his resignation, Mrs Gandhi wanted the party to select anyone else for the post and Rahul preferred somebody outside the family. A committee of senior leaders met over seven days and discussed alternate names, and couldn’t think of any. Each one of the letter writers begged Mrs Gandhi to take over the leadership, and she reluctantly agreed… If Rahul chooses not to accept the office of Congress president, Mrs Gandhi will be able to take a suitable decision in case she does not want to continue for reasons of health or otherwise. The Congress president should be selected through consensus arrived at after comprehensive consultations. I am optimistic about Congress and its ideology, those writing its epitaph are daydreaming.

As a jurist, how do you see these rash of sedition and contempt cases?

Sedition and contempt cases are a brazen attempt to muzzle the freedom of speech and criminalise dissent. The catch phrase is criminalization of dissent.

But ruling party leaders say emergency under Congress was far worse.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Harking back to emergency in defence of the attack on democracy today is a wholly unjust and condemnable invocation of the past..

How do you view the regulation of the social media?

An unregulated social media is as much a threat to constitutional values as the executive. In my hierarchy of values, the right to privacy, reputation and dignity must prevail and it is possible to ensure that the right to free speech is harmonized with these rights through benign and purposive regulations. Social media is the greatest threat to democracy.

Is there a way to insulate the judiciary from the changing regimes?

The independence of judiciary is premised on its insulation from the executive. And the Supreme Court has functioned well in the discharge of its role as guardian of the people’s liberties except for certain aberrations. At the end of the day, institutions are only as weak or strong as the men who constitute them.

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