Ram Jethmalani is a senior politician and eminent lawyer.
Freedom of expression goes missing
India is ranked 140th in the world in the Press Freedom Index 2013. India’s position in 2004 was 120.
BJP leader Subramanian Swamy addressing a press conference at the party office in New Delhi on 21 September. PTI
must confess that I wasn't exactly surprised when I learnt that an organisation called Reporters Without Borders has ranked India 140th in the world in their Press Freedom Index 2013. India's position in 2004 was 120. Several countries in Africa and Latin America, toward whom we act condescending and superior, are rated higher than us.
It is a sad fact that slowly and imperceptibly freedom of expression, which differentiates a democracy from autocratic or totalitarian forms of government, has been eroding in our country. The suspension of fundamental rights, and crackdown on the freedom of speech and expression during the Emergency, particularly of the media, was a Constitutional shock. But it was then a much simpler and less capitalised media, mostly print and radio, and easy to suppress. Post Emergency, the media saw a period of spectacular growth and resurgence, as its streams multiplied. The satellite age with its 24x7 reporting, the limitless Internet and information highway, has changed the entire concept of the freedom of expression, the handling of which indicates the true liberalism and maturity of a democracy.
The New York Times in February 2013 wrote a scathing piece called "India's Speech Impediments" about how "the government either stands by and does nothing to protect freedom of speech, or it actively abets its suppression". Government's intolerance of freedom of expression appears to become particularly heightened during the various literary festivals that are becoming a regular feature now, whether it is about Salman Rushdie or Ashis Nandy. Every literary festival of the last few years has been a disaster, so much so, that Salman Rushdie, a regular victim of our vote bank politics, went to the extent of calling our literary atmosphere as one of "cultural emergency". The NYT article aptly sums up the attitude, "In India today, it seems, free speech is itself an atrocity."
Another event has taken place very recently that appears to confirm a lurking suspicion that an unwritten emergency has firmly been put in place by the UPA government for gagging freedom of speech and expression, particularly among the media.
My good friend Dr Subramanian Swamy, after merging his Janata Party with the BJP, held his maiden press conference, in New Delhi on 21 September 2013. The press conference was to focus on the state of our economy, why it has gone so dangerously wrong, and what measures should be taken to undo the economic disaster that has been unleashed in our country during the decade long UPA rule.
Dr Swamy, as usual his brilliant and scintillating self, explained very simply and specifically about how our economy has been consciously allowed to reach its present crisis situation of reduction in growth rate, rising unemployment, high inflation, decline in savings, and the unprecedented, continuous decline in the value of the rupee. Foreign exchange reserves have dropped to USD 227 billion, with the danger of reverse short-term capital outflow (the "hot money" that presently has become the greater share of our FDI), by panic cashing of Participatory Notes, hawala operations, and rigged short-selling of the rupee abroad. The balance of payments situation is critical, with much higher imports than exports; the current account deficit as a ration of GDP is at 4%, the highest since 1990. In this scenario, Dr Swamy forecasts that by mid-2014, the government will be on the verge of default of payments. He also informed the nation that while the rupee dropped only by Rs 4 to a dollar between 1999 to 2004 in the NDA regime, it has dropped by a Rs 23.42 during the last nine years of UPA rule.
But what was most enlightening in the press conference, was the information that Dr Swamy boldly and daringly came out with, regarding the Rupee's swift and continuous descent. This was something that financiers, stock market operatives and media channels would certainly have been aware of, particularly the economic newspapers and channels. But clearly, there is an unwritten rule that they dare not talk about it or show any curiosity. After all, however much we might pretend, regardless of our democratic trappings, we are still a half feudal culture, where in real fact freedom of expression is also half baked.
Dr Swamy very clearly described the causes for the rupees continuing slide as, a) the hawala operations siphoning off rupees to illegal foreign accounts, and creating further demand for dollars, and b) return of this money for investment in India through participatory notes. He had a simple and tough solution for it: arrest the hawala operators, who are well known in the finance world, under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act; prohibit Participatory Notes; monitor visits of business visitors to the UAE, Singapore and Macao and other countries with secret banking, to check their actual business interests. This alone, he believes will bring the dollar down to Rs 40.
Regarding the larger macro-economic, budgetary and resources issues, Dr Swamy gives a solution, after my own heart. He suggests that the Rs 70 lakh crore of Indian money that is stashed abroad illegally, should be repatriated by nationalising every illegal account of Indians in 70 countries that permit secret banking, like Switzerland, Cayman Islands, Macao, Lichtenstein, etc. Whatever percentage of that amount returns, it will be more than adequate to provide for all our infrastructure and development requirements, provided that the corruption pathways are cleaned up. Dr Swamy's suggestions for reversing the economic crisis are novel, bold and perfectly doable, provided there is political will. I support him completely and assure him that I will pursue this in every way I can.
No one can contradict Dr Swamy's assertion that there would be no shortage of revenue if our rich natural resources, such as spectrum, coal blocks, natural gas, thorium, etc., are auctioned through fair means. The total revenue from income tax of Rs 2 lakh crore would become redundant and can be scrapped, something that will bring great relief to the middle and professional classes who suffer most harassment from it. And yes, he adds that short selling of the rupee has regularly been going on in Singapore and Dubai, by some relatives of politicians, with tacit assurance from the Reserve Bank that they will take no steps to prevent its decline. And so it would appear. Nothing prevented the Reserve Bank from injecting even a small part of its foreign exchange reserves into the market to protect the rupee. But they remained passive. What Dr Swamy has stated in his press conference was an open secret. But he has had the courage to state it aloud. Can there be worse economic crimes committed against the nation, and protected by the government?
Dr Swamy must have sent deathly shivers down the spines of India's plunderers. It cannot be a coincidence that the press conference was completely blacked out from television, and only scanty references were made to it in some national dailies. In a mature democracy with real freedom of the press, Dr Swamy's assertions and suggestions would have been debated intelligently in public, by dissenters and supporters alike, torn to shreds if they were untenable or false, and accepted if they were true and reasonable. But the panic suppression of the press conference, and closure of all discussion, has fully exposed the unwritten emergency and media gagging that prevails in our country. However, mercifully, what could not be expunged was the YouTube version.
India's position in the Press Freedom Index will slip down a few more positions.