Posts Tagged ‘Constitution of India’

The Seven Pillars of Authoritarianism

  • “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” – Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, United Kingdom, August 1914
  • “I have often felt a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people, which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality…” – Goethe
  • “The river of fire flowed past the French Embassy whence, with heavy heart and filled with foreboding, I watched its luminous wake.” – Andre Francois-Poncet, Ambassador of France to Germany, quoted in William Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an autobiographical account of the exploits of British army man T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole in the 1962 David Lean starrer Lawrence of Arabia) draws its title from the Book of Proverbs. In todays’ world, the growth of authoritarianism in liberal democracies across America, Europe and Asia bring to mind the fateful words of the British Foreign Secretary, except that what we are increasingly witnessing is the feeble flickering and extinction of liberal democracy across the globe. This is by no means a Black Swan event; rather it reminds one of the frog getting roasted in increasingly hotter waters till it is too late to avoid the scalding. The path to authoritarianism is paved with the cobblestones of the veneer of democracy. What explains the inability of significant sections of the population in many liberal democracies to learn from past history? The answers lie in the seven modern pillars that support authoritarian structures.

  1. The need for an authority figure

Voltaire’s famous statement “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” can be paraphrased into its twenty-first century version “If a strong man does not exist, it is necessary to create one”. Human beings are exposed to authoritarian tendencies right from infancy – the family, education system, job hierarchies, religious dogma, fear of the police, etc. Independent thinking is punished at different stages of life, sometimes severely. Repeated chastisements, perceived or real, at the hands of an authority – father, teacher, boss at work, policeman, God – convince a very large section of humanity that it is better off submitting to a “superior” force. The myth of the need for a “strong” leader is built on the gradual erosion of religion as an institutional authority over the past four hundred years. With no traditional belief to cling to, the modern human has shifted his/her allegiance in the past few decades to either the different versions of Marxism or to those claiming to provide alternative spiritual paths.  The greater danger arises when this unquestioned submission to an authority figure transmutes into blind reverence, more so when the authority figure is a political leader. Dr. Ambedkar’s prescient warning of the dangers of going down this path find resonance in what goes on in a number of democracies around the world today: “Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

  1. Narrative based on a mythical past and a glorious future

The majority group which brings the leader to power needs to have a point of reference in the past when it was a dominant force and exercised firm control over society. Centuries when other groups exercised political and economic power have created bitterness in the minds and hearts of this group. Hence the hearkening back to a past that was perfect, one where milk and honey flowed in the land of one’s birth. The invader is blamed for all the infirmities that apparently hobble the majority community and prevent the nation from attaining its true pedestal in the world. This emphasis on the perfect past is buttressed by the contention that a glorious future awaits citizens of a culture who are proud of their superior heritage.

  1. Cashing in on insecurity and fear of the “other”

The failure of the neoliberal framework to address the problems of inequality and joblessness has led to disenchantment with existing governing elites and the yearning for a messiah who can lead the flock to the Promised Land. The messiah paints a picture of the rosy future s/he will bring about. Since the objective conditions that obtain in the economy and society are unlikely to bring about any appreciable improvement in the economic conditions of the populace, recourse is taken from the outset to identify an entity which is the ‘enemy’ of the dominant group that the messiah claims to represent. This ‘enemy’ could be one outside the country’s border, such as a hostile neighbour. But history and current events point to many instances where this ‘enemy’ is a group within the country’s borders, which aligns with the perceived ‘enemy’. This group is often a minority population, based on race, religion or ethnicity, which is accused of having received favoured treatment from political dispensations of the past. To these are added other sections of the ‘discredited’ elite, often liberals, intellectuals and academics.

  1. Working towards the leader

The task of the leader to achieve complete control is facilitated by factotums who anticipate every wish of their leader. The system operates on a logic where the leader does not have to spell out his/her wishes. Very often, the leader may not even be aware of the undemocratic excesses that are executed in his/her name. With the media being muzzled or playing to the tunes of the ruling regime and its leader, the ‘truth’ is often hidden from view. The political and administrative machinery strains its sinews to project the image of the leader as omniscient and omnipotent, even without any compulsion being exercised on it. Such ‘‘workers’’ fall in three categories. The first comprises those who blindly revere the leader. Nothing s/he does can ever be wrong. In this grouping are often those who have the intrinsic need for domination by a strong authority figure. It is not surprising that many who started their lives as ardent Marxist followers reach the extreme right wing recesses of the polity in their later years, as their need for authority trumps the use of reason and skepticism. The second group are the rank opportunists, who have perfected the art of switching masters during their tenures in politics, the bureaucracy, mass media or other civil society institutions. In the third category fall those who fear the adverse consequences of opposing the diktats of the state or voicing their opposition to patently illegal acts by organs of the state or non-state actors. When these three attitudes permeate those in the ruling elite, a situation develops where the decisions of a small coterie at the apex will be blindly obeyed without the rationale being questioned. This may well see repeated flip-flops in decision making, as inadequately thought out policies are first rushed through, then rolled back and finally implemented in a revised, piecemeal manner.

  1. Only doing my job, not aware of the larger picture

The Eichmann syndrome is very much visible in sections of the bureaucracy, including the police, which reassure themselves that they are only following orders. What they conveniently overlook is that these orders often violate not only existing laws but also constitutional principles, as well as eternal human values, which are the bedrock of a democracy. The political theorist Hannah Arendt has termed this phenomenon the “banality of evil”. Adolf Eichmann helped organise the deportation and mass murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime. As I have brought out in an earlier blog (The Evil That Men Do Lives In Them), “…Eichmann was no more than a mediocre bureaucrat executing as efficiently as possible the orders he received from above. It is chilling to contemplate that the Holocaust was the product of the thoughtless actions of numerous individuals: there was never any reflection by them on the consequences of their actions, no stirring of what we term as “the voice of conscience”. The Magistrate who blindly signs a proforma detention order or the police officer who registers a case on directions from others without ascertaining the true facts are symptoms of this malaise. The history of the forced sterilisations carried out by the bureaucracy and police in different parts of India during the 1975-77 Emergency period is still fresh in memory.

  1. Looking the other way

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” A democracy unravels through the indifference and inaction of the bulk of its citizens who rationalise their failure to protest or stand up for the truth by pointing to their insignificance and their inability to make any difference to the current state of affairs. This preoccupation with the future of oneself and one’s near and dear leads to a situation where the violation of the democratic rights of others and the emasculation of independent institutions charged with safeguarding democracy do not raise even a whimper. Such silence is seen as tacit support by those who seek to alter the democratic framework of society and emboldens them to pursue their goal of absolute control. It is reflective of modern societies that their educated, “intellectual” elites have little acquaintance with the Constitutions of their respective countries, leave alone having heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is as though overweening consumerism has consumed all the finer elements that comprise human existence.

  1. Destruction of the system of checks and balances                                             

            A major fallacy in many liberal democracies today is the mistaken perception that elections equal democracy. In actual fact, a democracy is better defined by the events that occur in the interregnum between two elections. Chief among the characteristics that constitute a democracy is the independence of institutions that act as a check on the arbitrary exercise of executive power — the judiciary, media and other statutory bodies that conduct elections and monitor the actions of the executive in different spheres. What marks out present day authoritarian regimes from those of the twentieth century, notably Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China, is their ability to control and manipulate independent institutions within the facade of a seemingly functional democracy. Elections are held regularly, there is a judicial system in place and the executive appears to function within the four corners of a constitutional structure. Institutional capture by the state (what some authors have termed as colonisation of the state) is revealed in the insidious manner in which independent institutions function. Whether motivated by adulation (for the ideology of the ruling dispensation), fear (of possible reprisal by the state) or anticipatory collaboration (in the expectation of future rewards), institutions hitherto deemed to be independent comply with the wishes of the government of the day. Ultimately, it is individuals who determine the strength of institutions and their ability to withstand the pressures of the executive. When individuals are compromised, either through blind belief, fear or prospects for self-advancement, institutional health suffers. Such a development during the tenure of a particular regime has its deleterious effects, which continue into the future and imperil the continuance of liberal democracy in a country.

Epitaph for liberal democracy?

            It is significant that the written Constitutions of the two largest democracies in the world — the United States of America and India — start with the words “We, the people”. Implicit in this is the clear assertion that it is the people of the country who have resolved to govern themselves in accordance with the provisions laid out in their Constitution. Both Constitutions stress the liberty of the Individual. In fact, the cornerstone of both the Constitutions is the centrality of the Individual, as against the age-old practice of giving the privileges of the social order primacy over individual rights. Securing these rights requires a vigilant citizenry, aware of and watchful over any transgression on these hard-earned rights. As the foregoing paragraphs bring out, it is the individual who will determine the character of democracy. When the individual chooses to forego this privilege, won after centuries of arduous struggle, it can truly be said that the death knell of twentieth century liberal democracy has been sounded.

The Castor-Chomu dynamics in Indian society

I was introduced to the Castor-Chomu classification of individuals when I visited BITS-Pilani in 1975 to participate in its cultural festival, OASIS ’75. Apparently, the city-bred, convent educated students, whose lingua franca was English and who favoured Western pop and rock music constituted the Castors. In contradistinction were the Chomus, the students drawn from mofussil towns, who were patrons of Vividh Bharati and Hindi film music and communicated with each other to a large extent in the vernacular tongue, especially Hindi. This distinction struck a chord in me, a person who fitted into neither mould. To avoid being accused of a class bias, Castor, for the purposes of this blog, refers to the largely metro-based individual who received education in ‘elite’ institutions in India and abroad, coming from families that qualify as upper/upper middle class, securely employed or possessed of inherited wealth. Chomu covers those from medium to low income families, educated mostly in vernacular medium schools, whose parents sweat and toil to give them access to quality education that will open up remunerative job avenues for their wards. The distinction I employ here resonates with my classification of two elites in an earlier blog, the Lutyens ‘47 gang and the Lutyens ‘92 group (see The Lutyens’ Class Wars).

Although educated in a ‘mission’ school, I was nowhere near constituting part of the Castor elite. I still remember my first appearance for my school team in the Bournvita Quiz Contest when, in reply to a question on my hobbies from that doyen of quizmasters, Hamid Sayani, I mentioned Hindi film music, only to see the opposing girls’ school team dissolve in a fit of giggles at my plebeian choice. This dichotomy continued when I joined St. Stephen’s College (or Mission College) to pursue my undergraduate studies. A significant number of Stephanians were from public schools (a more correct term would be ‘private’ schools) like Doon School and Mayo College. Aping our colonial forebears, those of us in hostels were deemed to be “in residence”. The English-vernacular dichotomy was again quite pronounced: it was more fashionable to attend English debates and Western music shows rather than listen to Hindi film music and Hindi debates. The election for the President of the College Union Society (Stephanian isolation from the rest of the University did not allow for sullying one’s hands in sordid University politics) saw a metro-based candidate pitted against a rival from what we would today call a Tier-2 town. The former could be said to have to have broadly had the support of the Castors and the latter of the Chomus, though in the best of democratic traditions, there was a fair amount of floor crossing and cross voting. As it transpired, the metro man won.

History reversed itself in 1980, which I consider a watershed year in the Castor-Chomu epic struggle. I qualified for the civil services in the first year when a new system of examinations were introduced, which gave candidates from hinterland areas a far better chance of being successful. The Castor-Chomu conflict manifested itself in the Mussoorie training academy during the election to the Presidentship of the Mess Committee. The Castor nominee, supported largely by Delhi-bred and educated probationers lost to his Chomu rival from a second tier town, supported by the officers from small town and rural backgrounds. More significantly, the civil services, in the years to follow, saw the entrance of officers from smaller towns from all over India and a large influx of professionals from the engineering, management and medical fields. The hegemony of the Delhi University history postgraduate in the civil services literally became history.

Even though the social composition of the younger echelons of the civil services underwent a radical change, the veterans were still the old urban-based class, most comfortable with English and tied to each other by the common bonds of an elite university education and membership of a closed Delhi group which had access to the rarefied portals of the Delhi Gymkhana, the India International Centre and the Delhi Golf Club. Coveted positions in the bureaucracy, especially choice foreign assignments, still went to those younger officers who were the protégés of these venerable worthies. Journalism and academia were two other areas where the Castor influence was still evident, with those educated in Delhi’s premier universities dominating the landscape. The bureaucrat, journalist, academic and the increasingly ubiquitous representative of international organisations formed a cosy set which frequented the same watering holes, attended the same seminars and went on junkets abroad, financed by the aforesaid international organisations.

1992 marked the second watershed in the upward ascent of the Chomu. The demolition of the Babri Masjid gave cheer to a large number of Indians who had never been accepted in the rarefied environments of Lutyens Delhi or South Bombay (as it was then). The eclipse of the Congress in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections paved the way for governments that comprised persons removed to at least some extent from the Castor influence. Gradually, those who would, in the normal course of events, have comfortably continued in the Castor group shifted their allegiance to the Chomus. The years 1998 to 2004 saw this internal churn in the Castor group, with a goodly number of educated intellectuals, especially those who felt they had been bypassed in the issue of just rewards in terms of high office and posts in government, moving firmly to the ranks of the party that was seen as espousing and supporting Chomu aspirations to a more exalted position in society and in the political framework.

But it was undoubtedly 2014 that ushered in the decisive shift in the balance of power to the Chomus. The previous decade of UPA rule had witnessed a gradual disillusionment about the Congress party in influential sections of the Castors, who pined for a decisive leader and a party that was not tainted by widespread allegations of corruption. (That they forgot to imbibe the lessons of George Orwell’s Animal Farm is another matter altogether). The last seven years have seen many who would earlier have been visualised only as Castors casting their lot with a party that relies to a considerable extent on Chomu support and makes no bones about its dislike for the descendants of the Castor class, pejoratively referring to them as the Khan Market gang (for those not familiar with Delhi, Khan Market is supposed to be the watering hole of the swish, westernised set of Delhi).

Little wonder then that there have been systematic efforts in recent years to create a new weltanschauung in the Indian psyche. Universities, under enthusiastic Vice-Chancellors, have sought to reframe the academic curriculum, long seen by right-wing academics as overly influenced by liberal and Marxist thought. The Indian middle class from the majority community has been inundated with a surfeit of rhetoric and propaganda designed to stir its nationalist instincts and invoke pride in its cultural heritage spread over millennia. The Central Vista project to redesign and rebuild the entire architecture of Lutyens-designed New Delhi represents the apogee of the aspirations of those who seek to give a specific shape to the Chomu identity. India’s masses will no longer have to genuflect to the symbols created by an imperial power and by those who, though Indian in name, represented the same world view.

As the Castor-Chomu dynamics of politics and social power play out on the Indian landscape, there is only one crucial issue that remains to be kept in mind, namely the Holy Grail that represents the Constitution of India. If Abrahamic religions can be said to rely on a holy book, the Indian nation has come into being on the foundations of this document. Having drawn on the best principles of different Constitutions from around the world and on healthy democratic practices, the Constitution of India came into existence as the result of the informed deliberations of an august body of individuals in the years immediately preceding and following India’s independence. This is a Constitution that is meant to be followed not just in letter, but in spirit. As Dr. Ambedkar stressed in his speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949 “The first thingwe must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives.” He also emphasised the close interrelation of the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity enunciated in the Preamble to the Constitution of India. It is the manner in which citizens of India abide by these cardinal precepts of democratic behaviour, in thought, word and deed, which will determine the future of India as a haven for democracy, in a world buffeted by the storms of autocratic practices.

 

Opposition In Residence

(James Hacker, Minister in Her Majesty’s Government: “The Opposition aren’t the opposition…They’re only the opposition in exile. The Civil Service is the opposition in residence.” – Yes Minister, Antony Jay & Jonathan Lynn)

Politicians in India, at least from Indira Gandhi onwards, have, notwithstanding their pious public utterances, always veered in favour of a “committed bureaucracy”, faithfully executing the dictates of the party in power. The general public, therefore, has this mistaken impression that civil servants mindlessly toe the line of their political masters (I don’t dare use the feminine equivalent). This is not quite the whole truth, at least in the three decades when I was in service from 1980 onwards. Not that we did not have our share of those who were ready to oblige the political executive for a mess of pottage. But there were sections of the civil service that did their utmost to ensure that their political bosses did not get their way in issues that reeked of impropriety or financial wrongdoing.

I have written earlier on the tactics that can be employed to forestall patently illegal requests from the political class (see here). These include (a) let us see, “Parkalam” in Tamil and “Baghoon sangto” in Marathi; (b) making oneself scarce; (c) sending the file into orbit; (d) setting up a committee; (e) recording one’s views on file; (f) asking for written orders; and (g) asking/getting  ready for a transfer. These distracting tactics are not necessarily a reflection of bureaucratic ego or of an innate desire to take no decisions. Mostly, they are intended to give time for reflection on the proposed course of action or to make the vexed issue irrelevant with the passage of time.

Apart from the bureaucratic bulwark against impetuous, risky decision making, there are even more crucial checks and balances in a functioning democracy which are intended to check autocratic tendencies in the political executive. Brute majorities in the Lok Sabha (think India 1971/1984/2019) tend to invest a sense of infallibility in the minds of the majority party leaders. It is easily forgotten that democracy is not just the exercise of their electoral rights by citizens at five year intervals but also the giving of voice to their hopes and aspirations in the interregnum between elections. Four institutions play major roles in this theatre of democracy: legislatures, the judiciary, media and civil society.

Central and state legislatures are the first check on arbitrary executive actions. Even where the opposition is in truncated numbers, its voice can be powerful when its representatives speak fearlessly on issues of public importance. In the Nehru-Indira heyday, politicians like Minoo Masani, Piloo Mody, Nath Pai, Madhu Dandavate, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jyotirmoy Basu commanded respect with their scathing denunciations of ruling party actions, couched always in parliamentary language. House committees were dreaded by bureaucrats for their interrogation of executive actions. Parliamentary debates, reported fully by the print media, gave citizens an idea of what their leaders were up to. Bills went through discussions in select committees before they were put to vote. Ordinances were resorted to as a last, emergency option only when the House was unlikely to convene in a reasonable time period. That these vital functions of the legislature have been given the go-by in recent months and years is a cause for concern. Important bills are either subject to inadequate legislative scrutiny or are rushed through as money bills, obviating the need for passage by the Upper House – abrogation of Article 370, passage of the CCA and farm bills are prime examples of legislative bulldozing. Ordinances are now the new flavour, with the COVID pandemic providing a ready excuse to bypass legislatures.

The courts are the main support of citizens against arbitrary executive actions backed by pliant legislatures. While the seal of approval given by the highest court of the land in the early years of our democracy to preventive detention and sedition laws caused unease in liberal minds, the court did qualify the exercise of such sweeping powers by the state in a number of landmark judgments. The enunciation of the principle of “basic structure of the Constitution” in the 1973 Kesavananda Bharati case had reassured the public that the judiciary would safeguard the Constitution against executive encroachment. That the Supreme Court went against this principle in the 1976 ADM Jabalpur case was a setback to personal freedoms, though the court corrected its position in this case forty years later. With the Supreme Court entertaining public interest litigations (PILs) and taking suo motu cognisance of issues of vital public importance, the next few decades saw a phase of judicial activism that seemed to bode well for a healthy democracy where the judiciary kept the executive in check. This trend has, unfortunately, gone into reverse gear in recent times with a number of executive and legislative actions yet to go on the anvil of judicial scrutiny. Prominent among these are the electoral bonds issue, demonetisation, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, the CAA law and the three farm laws. More worryingly, the Supreme Court (and many High Courts) are yet to pronounce on executive actions that have impinged on basic freedoms of citizens: the large number of pending habeas corpus petitions, the internet restrictions in Jammu & Kashmir and the incarceration and denial of bail in many cases involving civil society activists, journalists and intellectuals.

The media, both print and electronic, has largely abdicated its role as guardian of the qui vive. During the 1975-77 Emergency, it crawled when merely asked to bend: now it is, with notable exceptions, ready to lend its services for dissemination of inaccurate, sensational news and take partisan positions on issues of public importance. The spread of digital and social media has mitigated this one-sided view somewhat but, with the likely introduction of curbs on such independent media, the prospects for free and frank expression of points of view appear dim.

Finally then, it is left to civil society, especially those in its ranks who cherish the values enshrined in the Constitution, to raise the flag for the fundamental rights listed in Part III of the Constitution. When all other avenues to secure timely justice and redress of grievances seem to be foreclosed, sections of civil society have resorted to the satyagraha route propounded by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle. This was vividly illustrated in the two mass movements — the anti-CAA and the farmers’ protests — over the past year. As the Mahatma was to emphasise in his experiments with satyagraha, it is based on an inviolable relationship between the means and ends, with its essence in the purity of means, totally non-violent in nature, adopted by a pure person, as also in the constant quest of this person to purify her/himself through self-examination. The satyagraha effort can be undermined and brought to a close because of external “Chauri Chaura” events, such as civil disturbances (riots/violence) or natural occurrences (COVID), as witnessed in recent times.

Mutual tolerance and respect for institutions are the hallmarks of true democrats. A democrat at heart is aware that (s)he holds the position of power for only as long as the people wish and that there has to be space for opposing viewpoints in a functioning democracy. Equally, other political formations have to be given due regard and the space to function freely. But even more important is the recognition of the inviolability of institutions meant to safeguard democracy. It is these institutions that, as the checks and balances in a democratic society, act as the real “opposition” in keeping the executive under control. As in the case of charity, democracy too begins at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Checks and Balances – A Must for a Democracy

Recently, I had a brief skirmish with the Indian Army: on Twitter. I happened to view a 15 second video of a Commanding Officer (CO) of an army unit in Arunachal Pradesh issuing a warning to those messing with his troops, after these troops had vandalised public property. In the context of reports that some of his men had allegedly been thrashed by the local police, who was being threatened by whom was quite clear. I merely pointed out that this was not behaviour expected of a commissioned officer. For the next twenty four hours and more, I was subjected to a barrage of criticism. What was a little unexpected was that two retired generals seemed to find nothing objectionable in the CO’s conduct. Possibly, the involvement of the Indian Civil & Administrative Services (IC&AS) Association in this issue rankled with them. The incident has also been viewed by military veterans as “arrogant bureaucracy and a sulking army”. I finally clarified that, in my view, while the guilty must be punished, the rule of law must be respected at all times, even under grave provocation.

What is a matter of growing concern is the erosion in India of the system of checks and balances that make for a healthy democracy, where there is respect for the rule of law. The much-maligned IAS has been engaged in a forty-year tug of war with the uniformed forces for primacy in the decision-making hierarchy. Whether it was the DGP vs. the Home Secretary or the DM vs. SP controversies, a lot of bad blood spilled out, even as law and order situations became increasingly challenging. Recent years have also seen a gradual watering down of the position of the Defence Secretary vis-a-vis the service chiefs, starting with their relative pay scales (the usual comparison of hierarchy in a status-conscious society). I am not here going into the issue of civilian-uniformed force relationships, except to reiterate that each service has its role to play in the governance structure. Weakening one at the expense of the other (or casting unnecessary aspersions) can be inimical to our democracy.

Where the problem arises is when any institution (or individuals in that institution) fail(s) to exercise a voluntary check on its/their exercise of power, mindful of the provisions of law and the Constitution of India. Just as the Constitution separates the respective roles of the executive, legislature and judiciary, the functions of different wings of the executive are also clearly defined. When differences arise among them, the political executive is tasked with the duty of resolving them and ensuring harmonious functioning of the executive machinery.

The Parliamentary system of governance diffuses power among those elected to its legislatures to prevent the concentration of powers in any one person. The leader of the ruling party (PM/CM) has to command the confidence of a majority of legislators. The existence of a Council of Ministers, elected by the people, implies the presence of alternative centres of countervailing power. Till the early 1970s, this was the pattern, which was overturned by the centralisation of powers in the Indira Gandhi years. Over the years, CMs became supplicants and Ministers were gradually reduced to decorative roles, a process that has become pronounced in recent years.

The trend towards centralisation of power has been accentuated by the growing importance of non-elected officials in decision-making processes and the bypassing of established systems of accountability. The emergence of the PMO and the CMO (in states) as alternative power centres beholden only to the Numero Uno has severely curtailed the scope for reasoned deliberation on matters of public importance. Which is why one had reservations about the reconstitution of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG) under the NSA, a non-elected official, with no indication as to whether its recommendations/decisions would be reviewed by a group of elected officials such as the Cabinet Committee on Security.

Five momentous events in independent India indicate the adverse consequences of the absence of collegial decision-making: the Indo-China War (1962), the Emergency (1975), the Shah Bano-Ram Mandir episodes (1986), the Babri Masjid demolition (1992) and the demonetisation bombshell (2016). Not for nothing have Cabinet Committees been set up at the centre for important subjects like security, economic affairs and political affairs. Given that the members of these Committees are answerable to the people, the expectation is that they will take reasoned decisions after discussion, utilising the expertise available in their respective Ministries.

Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan likened the role of the RBI to a seat belt in a car. When the political executive sets off on a course of action without the seat belt, a caution is sounded. To this, I would add the analogy of a pressure cooker: the colleagues of a PM/CM in the Council of Ministers are the safety valves telling the boss when the cooker is in danger of exploding, when a policy is likely to be harmful to the common man.

This is why conflicting opinions ought to be welcomed in a democratic system of governance. Since no one person or group of persons is blessed with divine perspicacity, it always helps to know whether one has worked out all the potential pitfalls in the execution of a policy, however good it may sound in theory. Packing institutions with yes men and treating contrarian views with hostility or disdain are likely to yield suboptimal outcomes. Any democratic government needs that child which innocently says “But he isn’t wearing anything at all.”

 

Promote Unity, Not Divisiveness

India, the world’s largest democracy, is fast imitating the century-old experience of the world’s oldest democracy, the USA, where lynchings are concerned. The spokesmen and apologists of the political party which is in power at the centre and in most of the states (‘the ruling party’) where these reprehensible, horrifying incidents have taken place in the past few years, will no doubt insist that this phenomenon predates their accession to power, notwithstanding the growing frequency of these incidents since the accession to power of the ruling party, as clearly brought out in the IndiaSpend Report. They will blame social media for the spreading of rumours and disown responsibility of any group patronised by them. What gives the lie to such protestations of innocence are the statements made by members of the ruling party in the electronic and social media when such incidents take place. The most recent case of vigilante extralegal violence involves the assault on Swami Agnivesh, the social crusader, at Pakur in Jharkhand, a state known for its peaceable residents but now bidding for top place in Lynchistan’s Hall of Shame. Who can foretell what unfortunate consequences could have arisen from one or two more ill-directed blows at a man in his eighth decade of life? And yet, two members of the ruling party had the gall to openly comment on how the Swami had it coming to him, apart from trotting out false reasons for his visit to Jharkhand. But then, consistency in speech and action has never been the forte of the ruling party.

Nor have the ruling party spokespersons distinguished themselves in panel discussions on national television programmes. After fifty former civil servants (including yours truly) issued a public statement condemning the felicitation by a Union Minister of convicts out on bail in a lynching-murder case, his party apologist (an advocate to boot) sought to justify the act by harping on the need to honour public sentiments, however vile they might be. After the Swami Agnivesh episode, another advocate-apologist for the ruling party sought to highlight “provocation” as an extenuating circumstance. Even in the surreal atmosphere we exist in today, their arguments strain the bounds of one’s credulity. As a law graduate and a former civil servant who has decided innumerable quasi-judicial cases, I have to take recourse to the self-defence provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to rebut their fatuous contentions.

Since they are not claiming (hopefully) that the lynchers are under twelve years of age, of unsound mind or have been intoxicated against their will, the only protection from punishment for causing death or serious injury under the IPC arises where the right of self-defence is exercised against offences aimed at causing harm to body (one’s own or others) or property. Even here, Section 100 of the IPC qualifies the use of force in self-defence, restricting it to instances where death, grievous hurt, rape, kidnapping, etc. are reasonably apprehended by the one who exercises the right of self-defence. In no case of lynching reported over the past four years have any of these provisions of the IPC been satisfied. Even if there has been any violation of any other law of the land, no legal provision allows one human to cause death/injury to another, except in the very limited instances mentioned above.

Which is why the Supreme Court came down heavily on the union and state governments for their failure to curb the growing incidents of lynching, ironically on the very day Swami Agnivesh was attacked. But the problem is that, in this case, it requires three (not two) hands to clap. The Supreme Court has clapped, but there are two more hands which must join in if any sound is to be heard. Parliament has to find time, aside from its internecine wranglings, to pass legislation that effectively tackles the menace of lynching, whether by adding sections to the IPC or by enacting a separate Act. But it is the third hand that will determine if the clap is heard loud and clear. This is the thoroughgoing implementation of anti-lynching provisions by the criminal justice system in the various states of India. Notwithstanding the confidence being exuded by our Union Law Minister, only one lynch case seems to have concluded so far (in Jharkhand) but other cases like the Dadri and Alwar cases are still going on. That cases have been lodged against the victims is testimony to the perversity of state action and to its lack of will in checking murderous mobs. Given shoddy police investigations, interminable trial processes and innumerable appeals, there is every reason to apprehend that future lynchers are unlikely to be deterred, more so when they see the support they are likely to get from the state and political formations.

The saddest consequence of state apathy, if not connivance, in condoning lynching incidents is the licence it gives to any group to resort to assault and murder. The recipients of this vigilante “justice” are innocent persons, often from minority and disadvantaged groups. The mob has been brainwashed to see their victims as the dreaded “other”, fed by the poison of irresponsible media reporting and cynical political manipulation. It started with alleged beef-eaters/cow-smugglers (Dadri, Alwar, etc.), moved on to alleged child-lifters (Dhule, Bidar, etc.) and now extends to critics of the present dispensation (Pakur). That there exists a poisonous streak in Indian society is borne out by the reports of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, spearheaded by that tireless crusader, Harsh Mander. This poison has been fanned and spread by the intemperate, deliberate use of language to deepen public insecurity. When politics ceases to be a mission (as it was for the first generation of independent India’s politicians) and becomes an amoral business, power and pelf dictate all actions and the devil take the hindmost.

Drawing on American experience of nearly a century ago, three responses are crucial if India is to stop its descent down the slippery path of private vengeance. Firstly, the moral authority of the state (which has suffered grievously in recent decades) needs to be reasserted. As a former district magistrate, I can safely assert that where the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police (or Commissioner of Police in metropolitan areas) were determined not to let anyone take the law into their hands and where they enjoyed public respect because of their honest, impartial conduct, riots rarely happened, or, if they did, were promptly nipped in the bud. I have personally observed how the no-nonsense conduct of a Chief Minister like Vasantdada Patil in Maharashtra ensured almost no violence against the sizeable population of Sikhs in Maharashtra in the aftermath of the Indira Gandhi assassination, even while Delhi burnt. The pogroms in 1984 (Delhi), 1993 (Mumbai) and 2002 (Ahmedabad) are illustrative of what happens when the state is complicit, covertly or overtly, in the commission of violence by one section of society against another. Firm administrative actions, followed by quick convictions of the guilty, reassure the victims that justice has been done while sending a message to hate-filled groups that extralegal violence will not be tolerated.

The second effort has to focus on the expression of revulsion at such acts in a way that discourages those who encourage, silently or openly, their commission, while pontificating on their commitment to the rule of law. The mass media has an important role to play, by highlighting the violation of law by lynch mobs rather than indulging in whataboutery or “victim fault finding”. Opinion makers and, indeed, civil society has a role to play as well. Channels and publications that seek to justify or whitewash such horrendous incidents should be exposed and patronage to them should be withdrawn. Society should clearly indicate to certain of its influential members that their condonation of such illegitimate violence will lead to their exclusion from public fora and social gatherings. Election campaigns should highlight the track record of prospective candidates with regard to their encouragement of criminality in sections of society.

But the final, and most important, step lies in the change in attitudes in those who govern. The phrase यथा राजा तथा प्रजा has never had a greater resonance than today. Unless those chosen to govern model their thoughts, words and actions on the Constitution they have sworn by, they will never be able to set an example to society. Let us not forget that the Preamble to the Constitution seeks to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all citizens aimed at assuring individual dignity and the unity and integrity of the nation. At every step, those in power must measure their actions against the touchstone of the values enshrined in the Preamble. They must take their cue from the Vedas and Upanishads which stress the oneness of the universe and the priceless verse of Sant Kabir:

 

कस्तूरी कुंडल बसे, मृग ढूँढत बन माहि |

ज्यो घट घट राम है, दुनिया देखे नाही |

(The musk is in the deer, but it seeks it not within itself; it runs through the forest in its quest. Similarly, God (humanity) is everywhere but the world is not able to see this)

No Shades Of Grey for India

I am not, as you might think, advocating the banning of the erotic book and film which have titles similar to the headline of this blog. But I am getting increasingly convinced that operating in grey areas is something Indians revel in. The new millennium has offered adequate proof that Indians abhor convention and thrive on discretion. While departing from the former allows for abominable behaviour even in the temples of Indian democracy, adhering like blood-sucking leeches to the latter enables the growth of the rent-seeking economy and polity. Where laws exist, bend them to suit oneself and one’s clan (even if discreetly) and, where they are silent, may the devil take the hindmost, decencies be damned.

Let us start with the legislatures, the roots of democracy in India. Over the last decade, we have seen the top two legislative organs of the country, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, apart from a number of state assemblies, being held hostage by elected representatives. Rushing to the well of the House, disrupting legislative business, indulging in fisticuffs and even grabbing the Speaker’s mace have been par for the course. A very far cry from the conventions in the British Houses of Parliament, where the Speaker’s word is law and where, once the Speaker has risen from her chair, all members on their feet must resume their seats. Of course, the farce commences even before the assembly commences its first sitting. Karnataka 2018 is its latest and most dramatic example. After a rather dubious decision by the Governor, the Supreme Court (SC) stepped in to order an immediate trust vote on the floor of the House. Flouting established convention, the Governor departed from the established procedure of appointing as pro tem Speaker the senior most elected member, generally from the opposition, to conduct the proceedings prior to election of the regular Speaker. This was obviously done to smoothen somewhat the winning of the trust vote by the newly sworn in Chief Minister (CM). Unfortunately, for the BJP, the SC fettered the discretion of the pro tem Speaker such that the CM had to resign within thirty-six hours of being sworn in.

But conventions have died a painful death in India over the years, assisted by constitutional functionaries. At the behest of whichever party is ruling at the centre, Governors of states have twisted the provisions of the Constitution of India, notably Article 356A, to help dismiss elected governments of a political hue different from the centre. As India steps squarely into the era of hung Parliaments/Assemblies and coalition governments, Karnataka and, before it, Goa, Manipur and many other instances represent the जिसकी लाठी उसकी भैंस (he who holds the stick controls the buffalo) mentality that dominates the Indian psyche. “Show me the Governor and I’ll show you the government” seems to be the prevailing motto. This blog does not have the space to go into the Sarkaria Commission recommendations on government formation in the states or the SC rulings in the SR Bommai and Rameshwar Prasad cases. But common sense would dictate that, after a tiring, costly election process, that government is sworn in which has the best chance of lasting the next five years. When the largest party falls well short of a majority and there are not enough independents and members of other small parties to help it cross the half-way mark, the logical course of action would be to invite post-poll coalitions of other parties, which have affirmed their joint intention of government formation, and give them a chance to prove their majority on the floor of the House. The Governor does have discretion but, as a functionary who has sworn to uphold the Constitution, (s)he is duty bound to act in a manner which does not reek of political partisanship.

Governments of all political persuasions have never been respecters of conventions. Recently, the Income Tax (IT) department raided the Badami (Karnataka) resort owned by an MLA-hopeful of the Congress during the election process. Nothing wrong in this, except the timing! Did the raids by the IT department and the subsequent attention supposedly lavished on him by the Enforcement Directorate have anything to do with his recent switch of loyalties from the BJP to the Congress? This worthy, after many twists and turns in the saga, appears to be as yet with the Congress, but who knows what the morrow brings? There were also disquieting media reports that loyalty of some MLAs was sought to be bought by promising leniency in investigation of economic offences in which they were allegedly involved. With the reputation of central investigative agencies already at an all-time low, efforts at their subornation are a cause for worry.

In the prevailing gloom over the functioning of the legislature and the executive, the performances of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the SC give cause for cheer. In what was a bruising election, the ECI ensured the free exercise of franchise, though the role of muscle and money power in influencing voters is still a disease that requires remedy. The SC moved swiftly to check efforts to influence legislators and its eagle eye ensured that no attempts were made to monkey around with the trust vote process.

In the final analysis, however, it is the moral fibre of individuals that will determine the development of healthy practices in a democracy. We had the newly sworn in BJP CM of Karnataka announcing a farm loan waiver, transferring key police officials and seeking to augment his party’s strength in the trial of strength by nominating a legislator from the Anglo-Indian community (until restrained by the SC). We had the top legal functionary of the Central Government, the Attorney-General, foregoing his beauty sleep to appear in the predawn SC hearing and advancing ludicrous arguments that effectively encouraged horse-trading (man-trading??). We had the newly-elected MLAs apparently so vulnerable to inducements and threats that they had to be shepherded like preschool children, with no guarantee that they will not play truant in the coming months. To this date, government formation by the JD(S)-Congress combine has been bedeviled by the chase after lucrative portfolios. We had electronic media representatives treating this entire episode as a chess game and speculating on who will bring money and muscle to bear on government formation. And, finally, there is the ordinary citizen, inured to the reality that, to get ahead in life, you need to jump the red signal, help your wards cheat in examinations and part with mamool to grease your way through government. Where is the sense of shame and probity in all these individuals, and countless others? One senses no sadness or weariness in witnessing the repeated drama, just another Roman circus for the masses.

At least for the near future, we seem to be in a situation where it may be necessary to codify important conventions to get over the Indian aversion to following commonly accepted norms. There is already a code of conduct for elections. Similar codes need to be evolved for, among other things, procedures of government formation at the centre and in the states, conduct of legislative business, appointment of governors, powers of investigative agencies once elections have been announced and conduct of private activities of legislators that conflict with their public roles. These codes need to be implemented rigorously with salutary penalties for their infringement which could range from public shaming to loss of office.

However, nothing will really change until the educated thinking classes assume the responsibility for setting our derailed democracy back on the rails. Let us not forget that a diverse group of thinking Indians, seventy years ago, drafted one of the most glorious modern-day Constitutions. Keeping it alive, and enriching it further, is, alas, a task our present generation has failed in miserably. Karnataka is the latest manifestation of the terminal disease afflicting our democracy, which needs skilful doctors, not butchers. We ignore this at our own peril.