July 06, 2020
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History Will Judge Modi Govt On How It Handles Critical Issues

What the new government needs to do so we won’t have to write the obituary of Indian democracy

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History Will Judge Modi Govt On How It Handles Critical Issues
History Will Judge Modi Govt On How It Handles Critical Issues

One of India’s most bitter campaigns is over. Everyone would be curious about how the government handles the bruised, ‘post-conflict’ political system. Economists would have a wish list ready and policy experts would be itching to write new policy papers. Think-tanks would be eager to discuss goals for the next decade. But beyond these important matters, the present mom­ent requires a perspective about our collective existence, renewed adherence to the foundational principles on which the nation is premised and a determination to rededicate ourselves to the constitutional framework. The government would, of course, be expected to take care of routine governance in a capable and people-friendly manner, but the government’s true test would hinge on how it comprehends and handles the real tasks before it.

Therefore, the prime minister will need to go beyond the partisan, the personal and the short-term. History will not judge this government on the number of days Parliament met, the number of laws enacted, the billion dollars it lured in investments, nor on its fiscal prudence or next-gen economic reforms. Similarly, the PM will not be judged on the number of his Twitter followers, the miles he travelled, the hours per day he spent on public activity or the acronyms he coined. The judgement will instead be based on the handling of four critical issues. But, first, two caveats: one, we talk of the PM chiefly because he is the face of the government, but we also hope the PM remains just that—the chief executive—and does not imagine being a Shehenshah; and, two, the challenges listed are not merely governmental challenges, but must become the citizens’ agenda.

Crisis Of Institutions

The government must first resolve to address the crisis of institutions and evolve a robust respect for institutional autonomy. This would require a complete renunciation of whataboutery. True, most governments in the past have interfered with the functioning of various institutions, but what we now witness is more than ‘interference’—it is systematically und­oing the idea of rule-bound INS­titutions. From universities to the RBI and from the police to the military, the unsavoury downgrading of institutions has become a new style of governance.

We also witnessed the failure of two otherwise revered institutions—the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the judiciary. The ECI was not seen to be steadfastly ensuring free and fair elections, and the judiciary, entrusted with protecting the sanctity of foundational principles of constitutional democracy, was seen blinking. As these constitutional bodies wavered, lesser mortals like the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate could easily be employed in the service of the ruling party. Recent months also witnessed a deep injury to the non-political character of the armed forces and cynical use of military actions for partisan political gains. While regulatory institutions like the RBI have been targets of political interference, we have also witnessed the corrosion of fairly regarded data-gathering institutions just to suit the official discourse. There is a larger malaise behind this phenomenon of institutional decay.

There’s a larger malaise behind institutional decay. Do our governance practices adhere to the logic that informs the Constitution?

Do our governance practices adh­ere to the logic that informs the Constitution? That is the central question. The Constitution is not just a poem on democracy; it is an essay on rule of law. While our public discourse keeps reciting the poem, our public practice casually holds rule of law in contempt.

Ironically, when rule of law is compromised, two arguments are proffered—popular wish and welfare. This is how a seemingly democratic argument is employed to undermine democracy. In this thinking, democracy and institutions are seen as necessarily antagonistic. Institutions are seen as anti-people—particularly when their actions and choices do not find acceptance from a partisan viewpoint. While the decision in triple talaq case was upheld as a great pro-women ruling, the Sabarimala decision was seen as intervention in age-old practices. Similarly, the judiciary upholds the right to information generally, but also resorts to ‘sealed envelope’ jurisprudence repeatedly. Such duality of approach to and by institutions ultimately leads to anti-people governance.

Therefore, restoring the principles of rule of law and consolidating institutional autonomy would have to be an urgent priority.

Character Of The State

The second area where a change in perspective is needed is the character of the Indian State and the state-citizen relationship. Contrary to what the Constitution designed, the Indian State has been assuming a more and more undemocratic character. The State is undeniably the repository of physical coercion. But democracy tries to limit the exercise of coercive power. As a result, democratic states face the dilemma of retaining stateness in terms of extracting obedience and, at the same time, imposing constraints on exercise of coercion to ensure obedience.

When conflict zones take shape within the territory ruled by the State, this dilemma becomes all the more complex. The Indian State has faced this dilemma for long, but, in recent times, whether the Kashmir unrest or popular dissent elsewhere, the emphasis seems to be more on display of coercive power. This is where the government must make democratic choices. Because, often, the political elite determine whether the balance would tilt in favour of coercion or of democratic restraint.

Take the case of Jammu and Kashmir. The intended failure of coalition government in the state gave the previous government an orchestrated opportunity to generate support for a statist-militarist approach. Physical control over the space called Kashmir characterises this approach. Whether it is in J&K or the Northeast, the central concern is that Indian State’s relation with many regions has become only regulatory or militarist in nature. The BJP’s ideological objection to a review of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the sedition law symbolises increasing legitimacy of the idea of a strong, militarist state. Theoretically, this idea is premised on limiting the scope of what constitutes citizenship and, in practice, it tends to convert citizens into ‘subjects’ by restricting freedoms.

Militarist state imaginations discourage any debate on two complex dimensions. One, how do we ensure that elements posing a challenge to the State are kept under control, but, at the same time, the State does not become merely a militarist agency? Two, if we accept that the Constitution upholds the idea of a democratic state, then what should be the extent of non-democratic action against its own citizens and within its own territories?

To overcome the tendency of the State becoming more and more non-democratic, the government must first desist from relying on militarist solutions alone. Secondly, the practice of adopting legislative measures that curtail citizens’ rights needs to stop. Above all, in spite of their use of organised violence, internal challenges must be understood primarily as political challenges.


A Ramjanmabhoomi rally by the VHP, an RSS affiliate.

Photograph by Getty Images

High-Pitched Nationalism

The complications about the State have been aggravated also because of the shrill nationalism that has been gaining currency. The many insecurities ignited by nationalist rhetoric constitute the argument legitimising the excessive use of state power. Sedition, as understood by the colonial rulers, is not only about being disloyal to the State, but also to the more exal­ted category called nation. This adds an emotive element to the justification of the State’s coercive powers. Besides this, the nationalism debate has presented us with two deeper questions.

Firstly, what is the relationship between nationalism and democracy? India’s national movement never had to confront this question because it did not posit the two as dichotomous. In fact, nationalism was seen as a democratising force. As the national movement gained momentum, it ceased to be an elite activity; the nation was owned by the masses who were fighting for it. After independence too, this false duality between nation and democracy never had much purchase. As a result, there was no hierarchy between ­nationalism and democratic rights. The intertwined nature of nationalism and democracy meant that nationalism or the nation were not seen as being superior to various freedoms. Like the false dichotomy of ‘freedom’ versus ‘bread’ during the Emergency, it is now becoming acceptable to differentiate between the nation and democracy, in order to prioritise the former.

Insecurities ignited by nationalist rhetoric constitute the argument legitimising the excessive use of state power.

The other question pertains to the nat­ure of Indian nationalism. Proponents of the claim that India is a Hindu nation refute that the term Hindu refers to rel­igion, but also claim that Hindus, being the majority, must have their stamp imprinted on Indian nationalism. But can nationalism mean ownership of one community over the nation in physical or normative terms? The idea of the Indian nation has not been historically bound by any religion, language or region. Its basis can be found instead in the formation of a political community that sought its realisation through the democratic constitution. This manner of nation formation implied that different groups were to be co-equal partners in the national venture irrespective of their numeric strength and the ­cultural-linguistic-religious differen­ces. Hindu nationalism is at variance with this historical trajectory.

The new nationalism being popularised and inculcated through governmental practice can only be described as majoritarian nationalism, which seeks to replace Indian nationalism, besides complicating the relationship between nationalism and democracy. The twin tasks in this regard would be to preserve the symbiotic relation between democracy and nationalism, on the one hand, and to protect the plural, non-sectarian bases of Indian nationalism, on the other.

Whither Democracy?

It would be surprising if all these developments did not take their toll on both our orientation to democracy and its actual practice. Three things constitute democracy: inclusiveness, pursuit of public or collective wellbeing and search for public reason. In all three respects, India seems to be sliding away from democracy.

It is now becoming acceptable to differentiate between the nation and democracy, in order to prioritise the former.

During the 1990s, the expansion of democracy took place as new groups entered the political arena, new parties emerged, many parties came to share power, voter turnouts inc­reased and some new issues entered competitive politics. At the same time, majoritarianism came to pervade our understanding of democracy. While one version of majoritarianism took the route of sectarian claims over the nation, the other route has been to imagine that majority is the master key to all claims. Both these approaches deny the possibility of inclusivity. As a result, democracy increasingly became an arena of demagoguery where public reason was the first casualty.

Insensitivity to collective wellbeing is not a new feature of India’s dem­ocracy, but converting politics into theatrical performance necessarily postpones the idea of wellbeing, even as majoritarianism redefines the idea of public ensuring that discussions of wellbeing remain stunted. Thus, while existence of poverty and ineq­uality has always overshadowed the democratic potential of Indian politics, contemporary distortions tend to deny the very possibility of the dream of wellbeing. To restore democracy will obviously be a larger political task, but the government must avoid subscribing to the majoritarian vers­ion of democracy and disincentivise distorted, narrow notions of the public.

From samajik nyay (social justice) in the 1990s, political rhetoric has travelled through ideas of aam adami ka saath, achche din and NYAY. But democratic practice has rarely resonated with that rhetoric. It is with this emptiness of our democratic practice that we chart out this people’s agenda. The government is rather unlikely to respond to it. The onus is on ‘we, the people of India’. In the next couple of years, celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the foundation of free and democratic India would begin. Our response to the four challenges listed here would determine whether we would be offering a toast to the genius of democratic India or writing an obituary to it.

(The writer is a retired professor of political science based in Pune)

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