Padmavati Row: Political Drama Mirrors Hollowness of Institutions
Controversy over Padmavati has exposed the rot that ails democracy, with vote bank politics ruling the roost.
India has been one of the most successful examples of the democratic experiment amongst the countries which gained independence in the post-colonial era since the end of the World War II: Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and many others in Africa. The core of any functioning democracy is the strength of its governing institutions.
India has been fortunate that its founding fathers laid sufficient emphasis in this respect and we must credit them for the creation of strong political, economic and civil institutions like the Parliament and state legislatures, the Courts, RBI, Election Commission, the defence services, etc.
However, institutions are only as good as the character of the people who lead them, coupled with the willingness of the political leadership to allow them to function independently in accordance with the law.
Aggressive Assertion of Subnationalism
Democracy is ultimately a play between the rule of numbers and the rule of law: If those who can subvert the rule of law – based on the belief that they are in a majority and driven by divisive politics of identity and subnationalism – are allowed to get away with it, democracy will soon be converted to a mobocracy.
The aggressive assertion of subnationalism in its various forms and derivatives –linguistic, regional, caste – have only splintered the nation further as more and more parties have adapted to this model for votes.
Starting from VP Singh’s imprudent and politically opportunistic acceptance of the Mandal Commission report in the late 80s, such divisive thinking has come to rule the centrestage of politics. Assertive subnationalism aims at expressing deep resentment against national institutions.
When Majority Imposes Itself Ahead of the Law
Those with the ability to garner numbers often seek to impose their will when they have no authority to do so. This “power” can be destructive if such imposition is sought to be implemented without embracing the rule of law.
Link Between Parliament and Public Discourse
A comparison of the way our Parliaments functioned in the 1960s with the last 20 years will illustrate another point. Being civil in expressing disagreements has disappeared in public discourse and its impact on the efficacy of institutional mechanisms is best portrayed by the functioning of our legislatures.
The disappearance of civility in public discourse in Parliament has had a direct bearing on what we see playing out in the name of protests on the streets.
Somnath Chatterji, our Lok Sabha speaker a decade ago and one of our most venerable parliamentarians, said on 28 February, 2008 in the august House:
I am sorry, I have to say that you are all working overtime to finish democracy in the country.
It is sad that most TV news channels (though thankfully not all) replicate the disorder through TRP-induced debates.
Erosion of Public Trust
It is the continuous discord in Parliament, the state’s reluctance to impose its authority in a consistent manner, and the appointment of heads of many institutions with pliable character traits that is at the core of erosion of public trust in institutions.
Fortunately it has not yet permeated to the institutions like the Supreme Court, High Court, Election Commission, or RBI but but has wreaked havoc on police and bureaucracy over the last two decades.
Politics Over Padmavati
I would not like to comment on the absolute bizarre drama and numbing lawlessness unfolding before us on Padmavati, as all aspects have been dissected in the public domain.
All I would like to reiterate to those spreading and supporting the vitriol is to reflect on whether such manner of protests advance or subvert India’s progress along the democratic path.
As regards the role of the state, it is alarming that many chief ministers have ignored their constitutional obligations, and called for a ban, presumably due to their inability to maintain law and order! Should then they resign or hand over the state to the army to prevent the country’s descent into chaos?
Surely we do not want to signal our preference for the models followed in Egypt, Pakistan and Tunisia, where it was the army rule which allowed these states to survive. And such is the electoral compulsion of the political parties in India that even the principal opposition has been totally silent on this issue given the impending elections and the importance of the vote banks.
Prime Minister Modi received a massive mandate on the unifying agenda of development, governance and the vision of a New India. Why, then, is the polarising route being used before every election?
The downside of a “presidential” form of government is that both the credit and debit lies at the door of the undisputed leader. He fortunately has the stature to stop this charade playing out with just one clarion call. Given his sagacity and wisdom, it is inexplicable why he has chosen to remain quiet. However, a “compromise” solution by dropping the Ghoomar song and releasing the movie post the elections will not enhance the image of the leadership in handling such core concerns of the populace.
Dr Ambedkar, in his closing speech to the Constituent Assembly, had warned against complacency and the “grammar of anarchy” which could override the dream of a truly democratic India.
Suffocation of the voice of reason by the cacophony of anarchy reminds us of his foresight.
The ultimate outcome of the Padmavati episode will demonstrate whether Babasaheb’s fear has gained legitimacy.
(Prabal Basu Roy is a Sloan Fellow from the London Business School and a Chartered Accountant. He can be reached @PrabalBasuRoy . The article was first published on LinkedIn and is being re-published with author’s permission. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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