A democracy we can’t keep

A democracy we can’t keep

The 'high command; culture, sycophants and echo chambers, and hero-worship and bhakti afflict all our parties and our politics

A shopkeeper displays masks of Indian Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for sale at a roadside shop in Chennai. Credit: AFP Photo

When Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, was asked after a session of the Constitutional Convention, “What kind of a government have you given us, republic or monarchy?” he is said to have replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” 

If you survey the internal affairs of our major political parties, you begin to wonder if they are all personal fiefdoms of self-styled monarchs. Can we keep our republic, our democracy, if our political parties are little monarchies or dictatorships? It is common knowledge that since the Indira Gandhi era began, chief ministers have become puppets on a string, and the elected representatives of the people have been relegated to being mere pawns of their parties.

What is common to all our political parties? They all have a ‘high command’ that takes unilateral decisions. It may be a family dynasty like in the Congress, a ‘supreme leader’ surrounded by a coterie of one or two like in the BJP, or a single autocrat, as in Mamata Banerjee of TMC in Bengal, KC Chandrashekhar of TRS in Telangana, MK Stalin of DMK in Tamil Nadu, Arvind Kejriwal of AAP in Delhi, Deve Gowda of JD(S) in Karnataka. Like emperor Louis XIV, they say, ‘I am the party.’ The party is their kingdom. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Difference of opinion is the one crime which kings never forgive.”

The supreme leaders of all parties are surrounded by a phalanx of courtiers and sycophants. Their job is to create echo chambers to reinforce and amplify their leader’s voice. External ideas and diverse voices are shut out. This was best exemplified during UPA 2 when the Congress high command lived in a bubble, cut off from reality when their palace gates were being breached and Narendra Modi rode to power.

Let us begin with Congress, which is now drifting under a doddering dynasty incapable of steering the party through rough seas yet unwilling to let go of the wheel. Rahul Gandhi, who was anointed party president after much dithering, resigned in the wake of the Congress’ dismal performance in the 2019 parliamentary elections. He abandoned his post without enabling an election to choose a successor or appointing to it someone from outside the family. The party is adrift under an ad hoc president, an ailing Sonia Gandhi, and now the troika of mother, son, and daughter Priyanka, without authority or accountability, is presiding over the destiny of a party fast disintegrating.

What do you make of Rahul Gandhi, who takes it upon himself to decide the fate of Sachin Pilot, the rebel Congress leader in Rajasthan at war with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot? How do you explain that he arrogates to himself the power to decide the fate of the government in Punjab by appointing as state Congress president Navjot Sidhu, a temperamental former cricketer and former BJP member who was recently flirting with AAP, a loose cannon with doubtful loyalties, a fierce baiter of the feisty Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh, thereby discommoding the latter and paving the way for the destabilisation of his own party government. The toadies continue to worship the Gandhi totem, unmindful of an imminent shipwreck.

What about the sordid affairs of Karnataka? B S Yediyurappa became the Chief Minister of Karnataka, illegitimately in a sense, by orchestrating the defections of Congress and JD(S) legislators and luring them into the BJP fold. He was, in turn, ousted ignominiously by his own high command, instead of being removed by the elected representatives. The defections caused heartburn among both the defectors and party loyalists who were not rewarded with cabinet berths, who in all likelihood were egged on by senior leaders of their own party to revolt. In a classic replay from the Congress’ playbook, when dissidence peaked, the high command was swift in coercing Yediyurappa, a thorn in their flesh, to quit his post. Even as he sobbed and thanked those who sacked him in a tragicomedy as he resigned, he lamented that he had been hobbled by the party high command and was not allowed to form his cabinet for months even as the state was in the throes of floods and the pandemic.

This week, the new chief minister had to wait for the BJP high command to decide on his cabinet as legislators watched mutely.

The third fatal malaise that has afflicted all our political parties and the public is what Will Durant called the shameless disease of hero worship. It is good for a country to be inspired by great leaders, but they should not be blindly worshipped. They must be continually and critically evaluated. On November 25, 1949, in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly, Babasaheb Ambedkar called upon the country to work towards not only political but also social democracy and to avoid hero worship. Quoting John Stuart Mill, he urged the people not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions.” Ambedkar went on to warn that “Bhakti in religion may be a sure road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

In our impatience with institutions and dissenting opinions that are blamed for slowing the country’s progress, there are temptations to emulate autocratic States like China. The worst democracy, with all its imperfections, is better than the best dictatorship. All political parties desire a vibrant democracy when it comes to state or national elections and demand free and fair elections, but they deny it to members of their own parties. Can there be genuine democracy in the country when there is dictatorship within its political parties?

Even after he was thrown out of office by his people just months after he had led Britain through its greatest peril to victory in World War II, Winston Churchill remarked, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.”

Who would know better?

(The writer is a farmer, soldier and entrepreneur)

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