Democracy: A halfway journey (25 November 2017)

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 25 2017)

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At the Tata Literature Live! festival in Mumbai last weekend, on the occasion of Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary, I asked former Union minister P. Chidambaram what her 1980 electoral victory revealed about democracy in India. What, after all, did it say of us that less than three years after the catastrophe that was the Emergency, voters were more than happy to bring back a prime minister who had subverted the Constitution in the interests of naked political survival? Some of the answers are well known: that the Janata Party coalition, which ruled between 1977 and 1980, proved to be the very embodiment of shambolic government, carrying on an Emergency in all but name, thereby inviting public anger. Or that Mrs Gandhi, through her tireless energy (including that historic elephant ride to Belchi village in Bihar after a horrific massacre of Dalits) and by asking forgiveness for her regime’s excesses, reclaimed public respect.

My discussant, however, pointed to a simple fact—the poor beheld in Mrs Gandhi someone who recognized their plight and not only spoke directly to them but also served as their voice. And so, after having punished her for the gravest error of her career, they were prepared to trust her again with their future.

Democracy itself and the brutal smashing of national ideals were not an electoral issue even in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency. To begin with, while the north voted Mrs Gandhi out of power, she won overwhelmingly in the south. As Shoaib Daniyal noted in Scroll.in some time ago, in percentage terms “more people voted for Indira Gandhi in 1977 than (Narendra) Modi in 2014”. The Hindi belt too was less concerned with the battering of the Constitution than with more directly suffered campaigns (nasbandi, or male sterilization, being particularly notorious), for which retribution through the ballot box was Mrs Gandhi’s reward. Indeed, as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Subramanian Swamy recalled 17 years ago in The Hindu, in the 1977 elections, some opponents even feared she might actually come back to power since it was assumed that “the illiterate masses would not be moved by the issue of democracy, and thus the polls (if she were so returned) would legitimize the Emergency”.

That did not happen, but it can be safely stated that undermining the Constitution was not what brought Indira Gandhi down. Nor, in fact, was contrite, belated affection for democratic values the force behind her restoration—if she regretted her authoritarianism, in 1980 she would not have, in a single day, dismissed nine opposition state governments in a flourish of vindictiveness, weeks after returning to office.

The Shah Commission’s report—which Mrs Gandhi suppressed—in addition to serving as a catalogue of the worst of the Emergency, also warned that the ease with which these were carried out exposed the weaknesses of our institutions and officialdom’s uncertain commitment to democratic ethics. “Commandments of good conduct, good behaviour and morality got muted,” it notes, “when self-preservation was at stake.” When unlawful orders were issued, they were executed “mechanically” by the state’s machinery, even when blatantly against every constitutional principle or legal provision.

The reality, then, was that for all our rapturous public professions about democracy in India, it was not a commodity that held assured endurance—to quote Daniyal again, “the actual suspension of democracy might have made no difference at all with voters” in 1977 were it not for terribly designed and disastrously implemented campaigns that accompanied the Emergency. The very fact that 70 years after independence, India still upholds draconian colonial-era laws that belong in the dustbin of history is proof that while we are a democracy, democracy here is an endeavour that is defined by degree more than by uncompromising exactness.

It was B.R. Ambedkar who declared that “it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing its form, by merely changing the form of administration and to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution. Constitutional morality,” he added, “is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it.” Democracy, he concluded, was “a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”.

Poverty, the endurance of caste, gaps in mass education, alongside a whole inventory of other problems, not least of which is political avarice and sections of the press prone to crawling, all dilute democracy as was theoretically envisioned. Without commitment to the values that underpin it, democratic exercises become a matter of going through elaborate forms without achieving the actual substance. And when less and less people in power care about that substance, the whole enterprise becomes a sophisticated fiction which we all blindly trumpet, against growing evidence to the contrary. The press, for instance, is thriving, but when much of it functions as cheerleaders for those in power, it serves something quite different than the cause of democracy.

Parliamentary records quote a Lok Sabha legislator from Assam in 1996 declaring: “Prime Minister (A.B. Vajpayee) and many leaders of the BJP have been trying to explain the growth of the BJP from two members, to become the major opposition party and now to become the largest single party and the formation of the government. They have explained it as growth. But very humbly I want to say to the hon. Prime Minister that all growths are not healthy, some growth are called cancer.” While this is not to target the BJP, the point is that shoring up numbers democratically without also shoring up the basic virtues that sustain the ideal intent of democracy is a nation-defeating exercise.

Democracy, in India, is still, after all, a journey more than a destination, and while as a people we will be able to absorb pauses and, indeed, even reverses in that journey such as the Emergency, we must always be alert to the inhospitable combination of forces, across party lines and social conditions, that is ever looming. As someone once said of liberty, eternal vigilance alone is the guarantee of democracy. And where many people cannot afford such vigilance or even demonstrate wilful disinterest in doing so, those who possess even a fragment of hope for the future of this country have a duty to step in, asking the questions that must be asked, and doing all that must be done. In that alone lies a way out, and the promise of finally reaching the destination that our founding fathers envisioned and in which lies India’s salvation.

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