City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Descent of Democracy?

Democracy is running out of excuses, it seems. A report card on the health of democracy in the country makes for depressing reading. Over the years, institutions meant to provide adequate checks and balances have been hollowed out, but under this government, this process has taken on a new, more urgent dimension. The difference this time is that total control is seen as a necessary pre-requisite for being able to govern. Unlike previous governments, including the one led by Mr Vajpayee, which was at home with the idea of managing contradictions, and finding ways to navigate criticism and as well as questioning, the leadership of this government seems to believe that it can operate only in an environment of absolute dominance and unquestioned obedience.

The diversity and complexity of India has meant that this desire has not been met fully, but it has had a far-reaching impact. Even institutions that were so far kept reasonably insulated from political interference have been penetrated, and attempts have been made to align them with the government’s desires. The mental model at work fundamentally resists the idea of institutions being able to regulate those at the helm of affairs. The desire for control is not necessarily linked to the achievement of specific goals; it is an overriding need to not be subject to another point of view. Regulation is decoded as subservience and hence resisted.

The astonishing battles in the Supreme Court, the RBI, and the CBI are pointers to this new atmosphere within which our democracy needs to operate. The CBI was never remotely free of political control, but what we saw in 2018 was a new low even for this ‘caged parrot’. For judges of the Supreme Court to hold a Press Conference to denounce the way in which things were being run was truly unprecedented. The RBI too has faced the kind of pressure it has seldom experienced in the past. Even the CSO now appears to be calculating its numbers on the basis of what the government wants to hear.

Equally remarkable has been the descent of media. It is true over several years, well before this government came into power, media has been the intent of debasing itself in a variety of inventive ways. Also, while every government of recent times has striven to exercise strong influence over the media, no government has managed to instill fear and to be able to control the narrative the way the present regime has. It is one thing for media to have a political slant, but what we have seen is an abandonment of the most basic journalistic values in the name of a political leaning. The government is not entirely responsible for this fall in standards; much of it is voluntary, in the name of catering to the market.

The gradual shift in emphasis from a transformative agenda to a revivalist one has normalised a vocabulary that had been banished from public discourse. The freedom with which we now use the labels, Hindu and Muslim, without feeling the need to couch our statements, points how deeply the divisions in society have been internalised. This is a government that unabashedly looks after Hindu interests, and takes pride in doing so. Again, while it is true that previous Congress-led regimes did nurture minority communities as voting blocs, the difference is in the scale and the brazenness involved.

In some ways, one can argue that we have really lost is the veil of legitimising hypocrisy that made democracy look nobler than what it really was. Institutions were always being dismantled, the media was never truly allowed full freedom, divisions in society were a fact of life; we just pretended otherwise. That pretence is now gone, and with it, democracy is now naked. We see it for what it has become, an enabler of the crude exercise of power for partisan purposes. The problem with dispensing with hypocrisy is that with it, we lose any connection with the ideals that animated the need to believe in the right things and end up normalising what should have been thought of as aberrant behaviour. Yesterday’s shamefaced mutters have become today’s confident roars.

Those that take hope from the possibility of a regime change come 2019 may have nothing much to cheer about. The issue is not one of who is in power, but what they do with it once they are. While some of the more divisive aspects of this government’s actions might be absent, it is very unlikely that any succeeding government will reverse the damage to institutions. Once power moves away from institutions designed for impartiality, there is little incentive for any political formation to restore it. The temptation is to pay back the previous government in its own coin. No political party has shown that it has any new ideas. The possibility of structural reform at the lowest administrative unit continues to look bleak.

What we are confronted with is the inability of electoral politics to make a difference. In a world where ideological positions are so entrenched, what gives us passion is not that we have a better way, but that we are convinced that the other way is the root of all that is wrong. Electoral politics has become an argument in competing wrongs, rather than a choice between two kinds of solutions. It is possible to get so focused on the political players, that we forget the reason why politics exists.

There have been islands of hope, but even these are not products of our political system. Judicial action saw to the removal of Section 377. The #metoo movement marked an organic push-back to a deeply embedded form of discrimination and exploitation. Interestingly, the politics of the day seems incapable of pushing along any significant social change. In fact, the application of power seems designed to preserve status-quo rather than challenge it. And no change seems to be at hand as far as this goes. 2019 or not.

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