City City Bang Bang, Columns

A descent into democracy?

Every now and then, some Parliamentarians plumb new depths in bad behaviour which media reports with a sense of outraged frustration. Shrill prose hunts for new adjectives, while the House, whose dignity has been so severely impugned, taps the offenders limply on the wrist and lets them off. For members, every new improved infraction is an invitation to raise the bar on the next one, for how can one show devotion to whatever cause the party holds dear on the day, if not by screaming louder, breaking something bigger or assaulting someone with greater sophistication?

Among the many challenges that democracy is facing in the country, the most significant one is that the idealistic purpose within which it is meant to reside has been gradually dismantled, leaving a skeletal framework that has become an instrument of distributing power without assigning to it any larger intent. In this construct, power owes a responsibility only to itself- both in terms of seeking it and ensuring its perpetuation. Political competition does not translate into debating how power should be used but only in haggling about who gets to use it. Once acquired, power is used extractively and its rewards distributed selectively. The absence of a self-disciplining mechanism within political parties is a pointer to the fact that there is great satisfaction with the way things are, as well as a recognition that change is neither possible nor desirable. Parties may act against dissidents (increasingly with greater reluctance and for shorter durations) but rarely does it act against those that commit any serious misdemeanours.

The other significant challenge and one that has got underlined in recent days is the more fundamental question of what constitutes public will and whether that idea needs to be contained in a larger framework of values. On the one hand, there is the belief that decentralisation and putting the power of determining one’s own destiny must lie with local communities, and on the other a great sense of anxiety about the many instances of communities making choices that are troubling to the idea of a modern liberal democracy. The actions of Khap Panchayats for instance would in most cases, get popular local support, as for instance did Somnath Bharti’s much reviled midnight raid. If an opinion poll were to be carried out about Penguin’s decision to pulp Wendy Doniger’s book, it would not be surprising, given the results of other such polls in the past, if majority opinion found nothing wrong with it. Democracy could easily become an instrument of a regressive past, intent on maintaining status quo, and a political process that is deeply expedient would find no reason to challenge this. On the other hand, it could remain theoretically wedded to ideas that show no relationship with the aspirations of people, and would find that the electoral process would either render these irrelevant or corrupted in the hands of a cynical political process.

The third part of the multi-faceted challenge being posed to democracy is the exhaustion of dialogue and debate as a means of reconciling different views. All groups seem to speak primarily in the language of force- the liberals use frozen categories of classification to label anyone that attempts to oppose or nuance the scriptural view that it adopts while those from the cultural right use abuse and intimidation. Both seek erasure of what they consider offensive- asking for an apology is after all only a version of pulping a book. Both take offence very quickly, and in both cases, offence is a form of ownership over a domain that others are warned not to stray into. Both belong to their self-appointed guardians, who monitor the peripheries of their realm with zealous and fierce attentiveness, pouncing on transgressors.

So far, promises of a new kind of politics have regularly been belied- the great Mandal experiment might have increased the representativeness of democracy in the country, but otherwise merely ensured that power would be exercised by a different social constituency, for similar purposes. By legitimising the ability of the state to offer patronage to specific groups based on identity, it strengthened the hands of a political system that found a way of separating the act of governing from that of winning elections. The Narendra Modi model restores to democracy the idea of power with some purpose, but locates the assignment of purpose within himself, making him synonymous with what is legitimate. The AAP attempts to offer a counterpoint and is perhaps the most fundamental challenge to an old style of politics but it is as of now, devoid of a larger framework of ideology.

To a certain extent, we do see new experiments in the practice of democracy, but unfortunately these offer little by way of idealism. Honesty in politicians should be the least we should expect of them as is the notion that they would strive to deliver a responsive administration. By setting the bar so low on our expectations, we create room for other distortions. Democracy without idealism is merely the popular or the procedurally legitimate. The dilemma of choosing between a frozen idealism that would have to be imposed from above and an expedient assertion of the popular that would pander to majorities of various kinds is a real one. What is needed is a new kind of idealism cast in a new language of hope that can be realistically aspired to. The noise around us needs to abate a little for us to hear ourselves think. We need understanding and reconciliation, and an effort to locate our better selves. Till then, what we will see around us is a gradual descent into what we are calling democracy.