City City Bang Bang, Columns

An Immunity to Criticism?

While the Padmavati issue rages on, it is instructive to observe how little by way of an official reaction by the government has been forthcoming. In the face of public threats made in the full glare of national media, by those protesting against the film as well leaders of its own party, the government has offered no substantive comment.

Instead, several states have acted by banning the film, without having seen it. At a time when a comment on social media can get young people into jail, the people making the very gruesome threats against some well-liked public figures have faced no action whatsoever. This has already invited much criticism on social media, but what is striking is how easy it is for the state to ignore the critics and go about its business unaffected.

This is a larger issue. Barring the economic arena, where thanks to the availability of public data, and the interest that the global financial community has in India, the government feels the pressure to respond to criticism, in other areas, it seems to have acquired immunity from its critics.

Effectively, the government’s accountability has been reduced considerably thanks to the manner in which the institutions that are meant to play the watchdog role have chosen to conduct themselves or have been induced to do so.

Democracy works by creating several layers of oversight, each acting in a specific way. The opposition, the legislative, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the media including social media and finally, the electorate are some of the mechanisms by which a regime becomes accountable. Together, these institutions work to guide, shape, challenge, amplify, audit and limit any regime’s actions.

What we have been seeing over the last several years, is a gradual weakening of most of these institutions. Parliament has been steadily losing significance and is no longer a site where the government is held publicly to account, the bureaucracy has been subjugated almost entirely to politicians, and the market has transformed media from a profession into a business. And while this is a process that has been underway for a considerable period of time, it cannot be denied that it has been pursued with greater determination and sophistication ever since the Modi government came to power.

The opposition has largely failed in its role, showing a combination of tentativeness and timidity in attacking the government. Part of the problem is that the opposition believes that the Modi-led BJP understands something about the mood of the electorate that it doesn’t. Issues that should have become flashpoints thus tend to be downplayed.

The desire to hedge one’s bets, be it on the Padmavati issue, or in aggressively taking up the excesses committed by gaurakshaks, or most surprisingly, in the questions relating to Amit Shah that have come up recently, is a consequence. This allows the government a free pass on issues that it would otherwise have felt the pressure to defend itself.

The judiciary too does not exactly play its intended role. At one level, it is far more interventionist than it has been in the past, and at another is far less predictable in the positions that it has taken. It has intervened in many areas that were historically left to the executive and has done so in ways that cannot be easily understood in the terms of the very laws it is meant to protect.

The confinement of Hadiya, a 24-year-old woman in spite of her protestations that she converted to Islam of her own free will is a case in point. At the other end of the spectrum, even the treatment meted out to Sahara chief Subroto Roy, however popular it might be, invites the same question- under what law can such an action be taken? Additionally, the feeling, whether true or not, that in a few cases, its positions can be managed or influenced is gaining ground today. As senior advocate Dushyant Dave has pointed out in a recent interview, a minority in the judiciary are giving it a bad name.

The big change that can be attributed substantially to this regime is the manner in which media has been tamed. The idea of a free, fair and independent media is now a thing of nostalgia, for most part. People talk extensively about a climate of fear and intimidation, but this is only part of the story. The complicity of media today is for the most part, voluntary.

Far from reluctantly obeying the government’s diktats, large sections of the media act as enthusiastic cheerleaders determinedly fashioning a particular narrative. The loss of credibility that media used to enjoy is a crippling blow for the effective functioning of democracy as it is now possible for any one side to dismiss news that it does not like as being motivated.

Even social media, which was heralded as a space where the powerful could be held to account by ordinary citizens has been appropriated by organised political mobs. Far from being a site of free expression, what we see on public platforms like Twitter is the dominance of trolls that indulge in systematic and virulent abuse of their opponents.

As a result of the individual and combined failures of several democratic institutions in the country, what we are left with is the voter. The one instrument of democracy that can be depended upon is the electorate, but that is putting too much burden on a powerful but inherently inarticulate mechanism. The voter speaks decisively, but has only one syllable for a vocabulary.

There are only so many factors that can go into deciding on the vote, and by reducing our democracy to one where everything hinges on elections, and where no other source of accountability is allowed to function, we run the dangers of becoming a nation run by the lowest common denominator of popular sentiment. The noise generated by our democracy is deafening, but no coherent message is getting delivered.

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