Benching armchair critics of democracy
There is a rarefied view, quite prevalent among both the non-voting classes and the tribe of over-zealous activists associated with what has come to be called ‘civil society’, that holds Indian democracy in very low esteem. According to this belief, politicians are by and large narrow-minded, short-sighted, self-serving, backward looking and venal individuals. Going by this account, Indian politics has emerged as an avenue of opportunity for individuals who should otherwise not be allowed inside our homes. Wouldn’t it be better, these lofty individuals feel, if the noble institution of democracy can be redeemed through the efforts of a small clutch of people blessed with a nobility of purpose. If “simple and innocent” people, intoxicated by an overdose of false consciousness, repose electoral faith in rogues, it becomes the task of the stage army of the good, to rescue the masses from themselves.
Throughout recent history we have become accustomed to these voices of indignation and disgust. Indeed, I would go to the extent of suggesting that the quality of public life has improved quite considerably thanks to the unwillingness of public spirited individuals and small groups to inject a note of wholesomeness into the national conversation. Mahatma Gandhi invariably struck a high moral note, even if his objectives were downright political – a tactic that left his opponents frothing in fury. His disciples maintained this tradition, even when espousing causes that offended contemporary visions of morality. So for that matter did the Naxalites and Jehadis who undertook butchery of fellow human beings to uphold their self-proclaimed monopoly of the truth. Yet, what distinguished the Mahatma from the Maoists or, for that matter, the paternalists of the Raj was that while the former took the route of persuasion, the latter believed in imposition. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, when colonial peoples fought to control their own destinies and forms of Government, the debate was posited as one involving a choice between ‘good Government’ – possible when the White Man acknowledged his larger burden – and self-Government. Where India departed from conventional thinking on the subject was in attempting to twin ‘good Government’ with ‘self-Government’. Other newly independent states conveniently junked ‘self-Government’ for military dictatorships, one-party rule or old-style autocracy.
India’s experiment with democracy hasn’t been perfect. It may well be legitimately argued that the pressures of securing electoral legitimacy forced political leaders to make wrong choices, search for shortcuts and pander to base sentiment. Yet, while this criticism is relevant to understanding why India will never be emulate the Chinese road to economic and social modernisation, the important thing is that sanctity of democratic principles has never been questioned. India has muddled through, often learning from its own mistakes and often perversely repeating them. In showcasing India’s democracy we cannot hide its ugly features.
A fundamental tenet of India’s democracy is the people’s right to choose its rulers and subject the choice to review after a maximum of five years. We can debate the merits of the first-past-the-post system vis-à-vis proportional representation or even a presidential system but the principle of electoral choice and scrutiny is sacrosanct. Our elected governments are responsible for governance, the legislature makes laws and sets standards of Government accountability and an independent judiciary guarantees the rule of law. For six decades, India has stuck to these textbook principles, though there have been occasional strains.
Indira Gandhi and her Left-leaning coterie were among the first to challenge this separation of powers by calling for a “committed judiciary” and some of the Lordships obliged by legitimising the suspension of Habeas Corpus. Since then, however, there has been no real challenge by the executive and legislature to the right of the judiciary to adjudicate without being burdened by the prevailing standards of political correctness. Today, however, the principle stands in real danger of being unsettled by judicial overreach. To put it plainly: the judiciary is encroaching on the executive’s turf.
The Supreme Court judgement outlawing the government’s use of photographs of ministers and even extra-Constitutional functionaries in its public communications may seem an overdue correction by those who feel that the political process is needlessly intruding into both the private and public space. That there is an aesthetic repugnance for full-page advertisements upholding the virtues of individual Chief Ministers is undeniable. But to link this extravagance to the quality and functioning of democracy is unwarranted. To argue that “personality cult” is the “direct antithesis of democratic functioning” may or may not be true. But it would be a sad day if the judiciary takes it upon itself to define the aesthetics of democracy.
I agree that some of the money expended on public communications by governments is crude and could do with better messaging. However, that is for the executive to ponder over and for the legislature to question. If there is corruption in the promotional exercises, the Courts can ask the relevant agencies to investigate but an outright ban on the right of governments to stick their murti puja to the President, Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India (why he?) and “acknowledged personalities” such as Mahatma Gandhi strikes me as a case of over-intrusiveness. Surely the aesthetics of hero worship have nothing to do with the law-which is what should concern the courts. Of course, that is a terribly old fashioned view.
The issue may be trivial but it does point to an emerging phenomenon. Increasingly, activists whose messages and causes have little electoral currency or who are unwilling to run the electoral gauntlet, have got it into their heads that change can be promoted (or, indeed, subverted) by outsourcing executive functions to the judges or those chosen by them. The processes of democracy must not be subverted because a small group believes that our political choices are flawed. The right to remain unenlightened is also guaranteed by the Constitution.