January 19, 2020
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Napoleonic Democracy

A pre-poll PM candidate hurts the polity, promotes personality cult

Napoleonic Democracy
Illustration by Sorit
Napoleonic Democracy

The elevation of Modi as field marshal of the BJP for leading them into electoral battle was undemocratically decided. But is it against the spirit of parliamentary democracy? And the Congress’s crown prince has spurned his crown thrice even when it was offered on a platter. Clearly, cabalism has replaced party democracy—despite former CEC T.N. Seshan’s order in the George Fernandes case that party constitutions must be followed. Anticipating Modi’s elevation, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) has already pre-emptively broken free of the bjp’s embrace.

Should such exaltations be allowed to convert India’s election into an American-style presidential polls? We know the US election is a wasteful democra­tic exercise: it starts half-way through a presidential term; each state follows its own counting procedure (winner-takes-all, proportionate votes); a decision of the US Supreme Court allows money power to dominate the process.

India’s Constitution does not envisage American-style campaigns. Nothing prevents a party or a coalition from nominating a possible leader. But that is not how it should work constitutionally. Except in the Xth Anti-Defection Schedule and, limite­dly, the Representation of the People Act, pol­itical parties are not mentioned. Individual MPs are elec­ted from constituencies. After the results, the MPs constitute parties (Xth Schedule). Supposedly, they elect their leader. Whether a coalition or single party, a PM’s cabinet has to command a sufficient majority and is collectively responsible to the Lok Sabha (Article 75). It follows that the process of declaring a PM candidate begins after the election. In a coalition, this is even more fundamental.

Modi’s enthronement, amidst dissent and without reference to the NDA, is pre-emptive. Ultimately, it is for the parliamentary party to select a PM. L.K. Advani was right in saying that these matters have to be decided by the party. But he overlooked the fact that it’s a post-poll decision of the party or group. Of course, after the election but before Parliament is constituted, the anti-defection law doesn’t apply to a party or coalition selecting a PM. The pre-poll party should not decide what is squarely the constitutional responsibility of the post-election party.

No doubt, every party has the right to declare its ‘prime’ candidate. No one can stop it. But such selection requires a democratic participation by the rank and file, not by a bickering clique of elders. But what the declaration of future king-emperor PMs does is that it exchanges personality for issues, national or local. Parliamentary polls work on the premise that democracy is built by the people from the constituency level. To eclipse this process is to undermine the very basis on which our democracy rests.

Is all this illegal? The answer is no! But a constitution is not merely words—it represents inner working principles which some jurists (eg. Professor Baxi) have called the real constitution. The real constitution places people (rather than cabals) at the centre of the electoral process.

Political thinkers tend to agree with the Crossman thesis that, in its actual operation, the parliamentary system is becoming presidential in approach. The collective res­ponsibility of the cabinet has been eclipsed by the rise of prime ministerial power. Of this, perhaps, the most odious example was Mrs Thatcher, but she has Indian parallels. Oddly, Manmohan Singh seems much more a collegial PM, despite what people say of his domination by the party leader. Howe­ver, the Crossman thesis operates once the party or coalition actually governs.

It might not be wrong to give a glimpse of who the top boss could be. But Modi’s anointment shows a moral and political bankruptcy that has devalued the local democratic process through money and muscle, all fired by a mindless media feeding mass politics. Literature on the ‘crowd’ suggests that mass participation in politics isn’t democracy. Such histrionic politics is reflected in Gustav Le Bon’s The Crowd. Mass politics based on a personality is precisely what happened in the inter-war period in Germany and Italy. The electoral equation becomes ‘lea­der = crowd’, rather than the democratic process.

In India, parties pursue victory at all costs, using methods fair or foul to get mass endorsement at the expense of local democracy. The answer to Modi (who is not the first, but the most manipulative example) is to urge the average citizen to ignore ‘Modistic’ glitter and use his vote to further the democratic process.

Indian democracy has been strengthened by the panchayat amendments, which gave power to the people. The people are not a ‘crowd’, but entitled to make choices. If they don’t choose good sense over the populist charms of Modi, they would be preparing the grounds for fascism.

(Dhavan is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court)

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