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Between farce and fear

January 21, 2019

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The writer is a journalist based in Delhi.
The writer is a journalist based in Delhi.

AT a recent gathering of friends in Coimbatore, the centre of attraction was a Sri Lankan political research scholar who almost didn’t make it to the get-together. Her visa was delayed till the last moment for unexplained reasons and threatened to dampen our spirits. But arrive she did finally and to a double celebration since she landed on the day the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka ruled decisively to end a six-week crisis that had threatened to destroy the country’s rule of law.

Since October, when President Maithripala Sirisena had created a grave constitutional crisis by deposing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replacing him with a rival party leader and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the dramatic turn of events in the neighbouring state had kept us riveted. If ever there was a non-military coup this was it, and the fast-changing developments appeared to portend the worst for the oldest democracy in South Asia. But fortunately for Sri Lanka, Sirisena’s attempts to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections were blocked by the judiciary and the steadfastness of most parliamentarians who had refused to switch sides.

It appears that Sirisena had scented a change in the political air — mistakenly as it turns out — simply because Rajapaksa had won local elections and appeared to be in the ascendant again. In a brazen subversion of democratic norms, Sirisena appointed Rajapaksa, an aggressive Sinhala nationalist and the architect of the bloody war that ended the Tamil Tigers’ insurgency, prime minister. Only, he could not muster the numbers.

In the assault on democracy across South Asia, India is no laggard.

The Sri Lankan crisis underlines the fragility of democracies in this region but it’s also an object lesson in how democracy can be safeguarded even in seemingly impossible situations. That is, as long as institutions remain robust and civil society rallies to the cause. Our friend from Colombo provided an inspiring account of how citizens had swarmed the streets and kept all-night vigils at the residence of the ousted prime minister to foil the Sirisena-Rajapaksa conspiracy. But that alone could not have saved the day if the judiciary had not held firm. After all, South Asia is littered with disastrous examples of civil society failing to stop illiberal and illegal regimes from flourishing. As our researcher friend kept reminding us, Sri Lanka just got lucky in preserving the constitutional order.

Given the many imponderables, it does seem that luck played a big part. What if Rajapaksa had been able to cobble together the numbers he needed? What if the Supreme Court had not upheld the rule of law as courts frequently fail to do? What if the lawmakers had defected to the highest bidder as often happens in India when political parties have to spirit away their entire contingent of elected representatives and sequester them in distant locations to prevent them from being poached?

Right now that’s what is happening in Karnataka where the state government is in danger of being felled if an unprincipled lawmaker or two defects to the opposition. Since it came to power at the centre, the BJP has made a fine art of cobbling together governments in states where it has fallen woefully short of the required numbers.

If the ruling Awami League in Bangladesh uses violence and repressive measures against the opposition, in India, the BJP government of Narendra Modi continues to eviscerate India’s democracy with his contempt for political convention and institutions. Looked at from three critical aspects, institutional autonomy, civil liberty and the prevailing political culture, India’s democracy has been slipping noticeably. The relentless hollowing out of institutions to suit its majoritarian agenda has left its mark on the way government functions — incompetently and in a shambolic mess.

For sheer farce it was hard to beat the goings-on in the country’s premier investigation agency, CBI, where Prime Minister’s Office was trying to remove the director by appointing a deputy to spy on him. Ostensibly, this was done to stymie an investigation into the controversial Rafale fighter jet deal signed by the prime minister. Political interference in key institutions has resulted in internal conflicts and left them in dangerous disarray, exposing them to public ridicule.

The bureaucracy, the judiciary, police and the media have all been politicised to such a degree that dissent and debate have become a risky proposition. Sedition cases have shot up since 2014 when Modi swept to power, with writers, well-known academics, lawyers and students facing the brunt of political displeasure.

As the government swings between farce and terror, India is witnessing outright absurdities. In the latest instance, 10 students of Jawaharlal Nehru University have been charged with sedition for allegedly shouting anti-India slogans three years ago. But what can one say when the government has found even a book criticising its plan to link rivers in the country seditious? An added irony here is that the author, an environmental campaigner, wrote the book during the time he was jailed for protesting against a drilling project.

The most dangerous of the BJP’s ploys has been in subverting the opposition. Recently, in a fraudulent act, the party was able to bring about a constitutional amendment to provide a 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education for the economically backward among upper castes without much discussion. It was a shrewd move that forced the Congress and most other parties to back the move although it strikes at the very basis of the constitution which guarantees equality.

With general elections looming large, it was the fear of being branded as anti-poor that may have prompted the opposition to support the amendment, which is unlikely to pass a legal challenge. That the BJP government could get the support of other parties to endorse such a cynical electoral move indicates how vulnerable India’s system is to such machinations. If Pakistan faces serious threats to its democracy from the street power of religious groups, as the blasphemy cases have shown, here it comes from the manipulative skills of the ruling party in using the very institutions of democracy to kill its spirit and ideals.

As religious majoritarianism and hyper nationalism eats into the politics of South Asia, it’s doubtful if nations will get as lucky as Sri Lanka did in ­safeguarding its democracy. Perhaps not even Sri Lanka again.

The writer is a journalist based in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2019