Wake-up call for democracy

The Maha Game of Thrones

Mumbai: Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray gestures after he was chosen as the nominee for Maharashtra chief minister's post by Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance, during a meeting in Mumbai, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. NCP chief Sharad Pawar and other leaders

In the post-truth world that we live in, as good citizens, we must be outraged by the surreal theatre of politics that passes for democracy in our country. The Game of Thrones, the bizarre but eminently successful television drama about dynastic struggles and amoral alliances, is coming alive in state after state, the most current example being the unashamed display of greed and grandstanding in the government formation drama in Maharashtra. All for the political throne, the citizens be damned! For too long, we have tolerated this, consoling ourselves that India is a messy but working democracy.

Democracy as the outcome and elections as the process is an intrinsically flawed idea. In reality, the political class — all parties included — has made the world stand on its head. It has violated, over and over again, the sacrosanct principle of democracy: the public is the principal; the elected representative, a mere agent working for the public. In an irony common to our times, truth is elusive, and things are not what they seem to be. Innocent and diligent citizens are called upon to justify themselves while the politicians and political parties mock at the mandate. They mock all of us, all citizens. To these elected representatives, the principles of the rule of law or due process, even their own solemn election promises and pre-poll alliances, serve only as gerrymandering and not as the bedrock of democracy. We are swarmed by lies, with truth holding different meanings shaped by selfish and narrow political ends. The tragedy — it is all done for the greater good of the people, they say. A sense of urgency must grip us now, more than ever. Ethical conduct in politics and fair and transparent political processes are essential to us as a country that is still a work in progress. There is a need to reaffirm first principles: truth, dignity, and justice.

First, this must begin with us — as citizens — recognising that every institution is vulnerable, and so is our democracy. Two fundamental principles must drive our democracy: the rule of law; and the citizen or the people as the creative source of authority. It is not without reason that, in the Preamble to the Constitution, ‘We, the People’ gave to ourselves the responsibility to secure for all — Justice, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. In a modern democracy, the fundamental political relationship is that between the citizen and the State. Its relevance resides in a process by which, who constitutes ‘the people’ is the direct outcome of individual citizens fighting to give direction to their lives, and communities mobilising to gain voice, rather than being something determined by the State. We must assert this principle in engaging our elected representatives.

Second, we must collectively speak truth to power. The idea of holding the State to account must pervade all our communities. For, after all, society is responsible for generating the values by which it will live — values that are open to debate and refinement, and in response to socially and politically demanding problems. Holding the political class to account will only work when we yoke the idea of representative government and civic participation, together. There is no other path — going beyond the mere casting of votes — to fostering a shared identity of those who govern and those who are governed.

It is a fallacy to assume that democratic conditions automatically maintain themselves. Democracy does often fall on hard times. We are indeed witnessing precipitous moral decline in politics in India with no greater need than to stem the rot of amoral politics and prevent political power being exercised arbitrarily.

This is easier said than done. In a democracy, certainly of the kind that has developed in India, it is a challenge to define the scope and the range of the public. In practice, where the private should end and the sphere of the public begins is a difficult question. The game of thrones in Maharashtra is a case in point, where private interests, greed, the spoils of office, and political pelf — in short, politicians feeling entitled, the substance of the problem, masquerades as the public interest.

So, the question remains: who defines public interest, that enforces the rule of law; and who challenges the political shenanigans for private interests? It is just as well that the political parties engaged in Maharashtra propose to wash their dirty linen in the hallowed precincts of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court remains the last of the great institutions of our democracy that might yet rescue us from the perils of our deeply flawed democracy. It has, in the recent past, pioneered several judgements of great significance for the protection of life, liberty and the freedoms of the citizens.

It is clear the time to rewrite our electoral laws in the light of recent experience is at hand. Amending the Representation of People Act, 1951, should be a priority, after all it is nearly seven decades old. In this time, India has grown, but our politics has diminished. The common citizen is learning to be independent of the State, but the politician increasingly self-aggrandising and dependent on the entitlements of political office.

Serving the public has all but disappeared from political praxis. While the Act provides for the conduct of elections, the prevention of corrupt practices in connection with such elections, and the resolution of election disputes, it provides for nothing at all for the voter. It gives her no powers. We need to change this. We have the right to elect our representatives; we must have equal right to recall them, without having to waiting for them to complete their full term. Here on, this might be the only way to save our democracy and dignity.

(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru)

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