Pummelling India’s democracy

October 30, 2017


FEW visiting heads are given the kind of adulation that leaders from China and Singapore get when they come calling, either to address trade meetings or to give speeches to august institutions in New Delhi. That’s when you will hear the upper classes bemoaning the chaotic nature of India’s democracy — it’s not even a “functioning anarchy” as some put it — and openly express their yearning for a strongman who would magically set right the besetting problems of misgovernance. Singapore’s autocratic leader Lee Kuan Yew was a particular favourite and it was routine to hear his fan following, specially businessmen, lament that India suffered from too much democracy; it needed a strongman to prise the country out of its rut.

Narendra Modi was an answer to their prayers. That’s why years before the Gujarat chief minister Modi came out into the open about his larger political ambitions, businessmen were rooting for him to be the prime minister. It was a chorus which included Ratan Tata, head of the Tatas, who continues to be Modi’s staunch fan despite the demonetisation mess, the economic downswing — or the social upheaval unleashed by the storm troopers of his Hindutva party.

In a recent newspaper interview, the head of India’s most respected corporate houses, explained why he continues to support Modi. When the Tatas’ Nano, small car factory had to quit Singur in West Bengal after widespread protests against the company in 2008, Modi offered him a location in just ‘three days’ along with a huge soft loan and other sops to get the project to Gujarat. Farmers in Sanand who protested against their land being taken over were also quickly bought out.

BJP governments, at the centre and in states, have been chipping away at the democratic laws and values of the Republic.

Who wouldn’t love a politician of such extraordinary efficiency, and one who could take his own decisions without having to consult cabinet colleagues or bother about farmers’ concerns? Besides, he was a rare politician who could bypass his own state industrial policy and waive the rule that a project should recruit 85 per cent of the workforce locally. The fallout of that decision lingers. Nine years later, there is continuing agrarian unrest in the area where the Tatas and other auto firms operate. The scramble is over water resources, desperately needed by farmers but supplied mainly to industry. All the same, Ratan Tata says Modi is offering the people a new India and must be given that chance.  

The complexities of democratic functioning in India’s pluralistic society, the art of balancing competing interests, the notion of providing a fair deal to all, specially the vulnerable segments, doesn’t seem to come easily to the BJP. Democracy, in their view, is an impediment to their goal of creating a Hindu nation in which the religious majority rules supreme even if it uses the democratic discourse and practices to achieve its end.

The BJP’s distrust of India’s secular democracy flows from the ideology of the right-wing Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) whose ideas have been shaped by its most influential mentor, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. Revered by the rank and file as Guruji, and most notably by Modi, Golwalkar says in his Bunch of Thoughts that the concept of democracy “is, to a very large extent, only a myth in practice. In the absence of men inspired with the right spirit, democracy deteriorates into ‘mediocracy’”. The right spirit is, of course, to be found only in true Hindu nationalists.

Many of the current crop of BJP chief ministers are drawn from the RSS cadres and it is from such states that regressive laws that cut at the very roots of Indian democracy have been emanating. Haryana, for one, is headed by Manohar Lal Khattar who has been a fulltime RSS leader for the past 40 years. Soon after taking over as chief minister, Khattar demolished a cherished pillar of India’s three-tier system of democracy, the panchayat or village administration, by prescribing minimum educational levels for those contesting such elections.

In one fell swoop, the rule disqualified close to 56pc of the rural folk from taking part in the most crucial elections. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court in a much criticised decision upheld the Haryana law, forcing several hundred posts to remain vacant, while thousands of candidates were elected unopposed, making a mockery of the people’s right to choose their representatives. Neither the state nor the BJP has offered a convincing rationale for enforcing such a regressive measure that throttles grass-roots democracy. But Golwalkar though would doubtless have applauded. He believes that “enlightened people alone will be capable of electing the right type of representatives”. The common people, on the other hand, if uneducated and ignorant, “can easily be swayed by the baser appeals of selfishness, parochial interests and vulgar inducements”.

As BJP-ruled states become the laboratories for fashioning the new rules of governance in saffron India, a slew of increasingly anti-democratic measures are being unleashed by different chief ministers. The most egregious of these was placed on the table by Rajasthan which sought to protect its public servants — bureaucrats, judges and magistrates — from corruption charges. No inquiry or reporting by media was to be permitted on corruption cases unless the state government allowed it. Protests by politicians and journalists have stalled the outrageous bill with Rajasthan referring it to a select committee.

In a country where the struggle against corruption has been agonisingly slow, this was one in a series of regressive measures. A major setback was the law passed by central government which provides anonymity for corporate donations to political parties. Moved in the Lok Sabha as part of finance bill, it was a shrewd move by Modi since other parties were only too happy to have the cloak of secrecy to settle over their finances. Transparency is just one aspect that is in regression. Much else is changing in the New India where the basic tenets of liberal democracy — such as inclusiveness, fairness and equity — are also being redefined. What is taking shape is inchoate but it could well be Golwalkar’s idea of India.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.


Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2017