City City Bang Bang, Columns

The last institution standing?

For years now, the BJP has been clear about its intention to abrogate Article 370, and now, having got -re-elected with a thumping majority, it has. There are those that argue that what the BJP has done is the very definition of a democratic action- announce an intention to act in a certain way well ahead of doing anything, make it a key electoral plank, win popular mandate and then implement the promise. There is some merit in this line of thinking. In a democracy, no action by any government is above scrutiny and critique, and certainly the manner in which this move has been implemented warrants many questions, but was the abrogation itself an undemocratic act? Action that has popular support can be autocratic, unwise, legally untenable and even disastrous, but does it constitute the ‘murder of democracy’ as some have argued?

In a truly vibrant democracy, while the government has every right to implement its electoral promises, that right is circumscribed by the actions of the institutions that form part of the larger democratic ecosystem. The judiciary exists to ensure that the government does not violate any rights that are enshrined in the Constitution and steps in when it sees that happening. The bureaucracy and the administrative apparatus, while acting at the behest of the government, work within the ambit of a prescribed code of professional conduct. The Opposition’s role in keeping the government in check is self-explanatory. And the media is meant to play its designated role as a noisy watchdog, calls out the government when it is deemed necessary.

Over a period of time, and particularly within the term of this government, this larger democratic ecosystem has been effectively disarmed, to use Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s characterisation in a recent article. The bureaucracy was defanged long before this government came to power, although the Army has certainly become more visibly politically aligned this time around. The judiciary’s lack of action in even addressing an issue like this is telling and is part of a larger timidity of late. The Opposition has been decimated, or seduced to cross over, and is no longer a variable. And the media far from being a watchdog is today an enthusiastic cheerleader for the government’s actions. To be fair, when it came to Kashmir, the media has tended to toe the official line even earlier, but today its leanings are far more pronounced and visibly more aggressive. As a result, in Kashmir, the state can act as it pleases without having to answer to anyone.

What this government has managed to achieve is a rare degree of control over key institutions that allows it many more degrees of freedom than what a fully functioning democracy should allow for. By effectively dismantling all those institutions that could have resisted its actions, it has created a situation where it can act virtually unchecked. Importantly, it has done this while winning popular backing from the electorate. Even its current action in Kashmir enjoys strong public support in the country, however, it might have been received within the state.

Given a situation of this kind, the laments about the lack of democracy are easier to understand. It is the lack of countervailing structures that are worrisome, for without these, mere popularity is no guarantee of wisdom or propriety. That is not to say that, these institutions, had they been vibrant, would necessarily have opposed the government’s actions in every instance, but that they would have worked to provide a fair account of what was happening and step in when any red lines were crossed.

Interestingly, the one institution that continues to speak directly and be heard is the market. Both the consumer and the financial markets cannot be controlled in the same way as our other institutions have been. While the market has imperfections of its own, its disaggregated, diffuse and distributed nature allows it to give feedback of a tangible kind, without feeling the need to fall in line. Data can be fudged, business leaders can be made to mouth reassuring platitudes, but eventually, when cars stop selling, plants start closing down and people begin to lose jobs, there is little room left to manage appearances. The stock market too responds to stimuli viscerally, and while it can be managed in a variety of ways, it still has a way of giving brutal, tangible and immediate feedback.

Not surprisingly, the market is one institution that even this government has no option but to pay heed to. After the growing mutterings from the market, with some leaders overcoming their endemic shyness in criticising the government of the day, and widespread talk of an impending slowdown, we have seen a flurry of statements from the PM downwards seeking to address the issue. Some measures have been rolled back, more action has been promised, some keys fears have been quietened, and the expectation is that the government has finally woken up to this issue.

The resilience of the market as an institution raises interesting questions. Could it be that institutions that depend on a concentrated few to take actions in the name of democracy (bureaucracy, judiciary, media) are far easier to control than those that are fragmented and decentralised? While the market by itself is hardly an institution on which the health of our democracy can rest, perhaps its structure gives us a clue of what kind of institutions are need to provide a counterpoint to the power of a dominant state.

Instead of placing our trust in the wisdom of a few perhaps we need to find a way to harness the power of the many. Social media is potentially such a force, but not in its current form where it has become an instrument in the hands of a few. Perhaps the time has come to imagine a new breed of decentralised institutions, that can function effectively in the new world that we find ourselves in.

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