City City Bang Bang, Columns

A tale of two democracies

In the battle between a weak yes uttered by a majority and a strong no asserted by a small group, it seems as if the latter always prevails. Over the last few months we have seen the truth behind this statement several times in the parliament and outside. The Centre cobbles together a plan for some action, in some cases after great and very contentious debate, only to find itself stymied by smaller regional forces, often from its own alleged side. We saw this at work in a spectacular fashion when it came to the Lokpal Bill, as we did in the case of the FDI decision and the Pension Bill. While the decisive role in these cases has often been played by Mamata Banerjee; other regional parties too have been equally responsible for striking their own positions based on highly local calculations.

Some would attribute this to the nature of the coalition beast. By definition , only limited agreement is possible between parties that may not even have been allies at the time of going to elections (not the case of course with the Congress and the Trinamool), and therefore disagreement on major policy issues might only be expected. We saw this at work in the first UPA government where the Left played a big role in making life very difficult for the government by virtue of its own ideological positions, most notably in the case of nuclear deal with the US. It was widely expected that this government would be much better off, not being saddled by the creaking and rigidly inflexible ideological apparatus that is still being lugged around by the Left. After all, regional parties were known to have limited interest in larger questions of policy ; in most cases if the CBI was not actively pursuing any prominent regional leaders, smaller parties were not expected to get in the way of major policy initiatives. This time around, however, that somewhat tidy division of labour has disappeared.

But there is division of labour of another kind. It has become the lot of the national parties to take note of the niceties involved in the democratic process and to be seen to be saying and doing the right things while the regional parties seem to have freed themselves from this burden. This was particularly clear in the case of the Lokpal bill; it was apparent that the government was forced at gunpoint to draft the bill. Left to itself, it is extremely unlikely that this would have a priority for any political party. It was forced to do so in the face of sustained pressure brought to bear by the media’s showcasing of the anti-corruption movement.

And yet, purely in electoral terms, the government could have got away by doing very little. The noteworthy thing about the Anna Hazare-led anti corruption movement was that it was for all practical purposes, electorally insignificant . Whatever Team Anna might think about their ability to influence electoral outcomes, most politicians were unlikely to have spent too many sleepless nights worrying about the prospect of an election campaign carried out by this group. It was a largely urban middle class movement; its intensity was formidable , but in electoral terms, it did not really count for much.

It would seem that we have two concurrent democracies running the country — one that is enacted for us on television cameras and the other that actually determines who comes to power. For the television democracy , appearances do matter, although there is great and often misplaced confidence , on both sides, in the ability to argue any case with the help of lawyers. For the electoral democracy, a completely different set of calculations come into play, and this is where the smaller regional parties have an advantage. Unlike the national parties , they are under no great compulsion to be seen to be the doing the right thing as deemed by the consumers of television democracy, the audience. Disrupting the house, tearing up bills, taking positions on national policy that are based on narrow political concerns and coming in the way of progressive legislation are actions that carry fewer consequences for these parties. It is not that the national parties are necessarily more progressive in their outlook; it is just that they have no choice, but to participate and be seen to be doing a good job in the television version of democracy. It is instructive to think back to the extreme reluctance with which the BJP took action against Yeddyurappa or in its recent dilemma about the induction of tainted BSP leaders in its fold in UP; nothing illustrated the conflict created by having to perform in both versions of democracy better than these instances.

For a coalition government to function , it needs to get some leeway for issues of national importance. The inability to move things forward at a national level because of regional political considerations makes governance of any kind extremely difficult. Simultaneously , the ability of state governments to escape scrutiny of the kind that the Centre is subject to, partly owing to the fact that today leadership is much stronger at a regional level, allows them a freer hand to do what they wish to with the democratic institutions under their control. This presents a significant challenge for the national media too, which arrogates to itself the power to make or break governments. What we are seeing is the appropriation of effective power by groups that do not have either this mandate or accountability and the lack of a mechanism that can act as a counterweight to this phenomenon . Of the two democracies in operation, one gets too much scrutiny and debate, but eventually seems to not matter much while the other gets its own way simply by saying no. Bluntly and very often.


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