A re-enactment of a meaningless ritual whose historicity is dubious has now been made the keystone of India’s parliamentary democracy
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP-NDA are keen that the new Parliament building inaugurated on Sunday, with its own claims of grandiosity, should proclaim the Hindutva message of the right-wing party. It is a definite break from the politics of the past 100 years, 75 as Independent India and 25 of the freedom movement under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership of the Congress Party. In the last 100 years, India’s people and its leaders struggled to embrace the 20th century democratic spirit of Europe and America. Mr Modi has declared quite loudly that India has its own democratic traditions and the placing of the “Sengol”, or sceptre, next to the Speaker’s chair in the new building does not symbolise the spirit of democracy as it does of rulership. A re-enactment of a meaningless ritual whose historicity is dubious has now been made the keystone of India’s parliamentary democracy from Sunday. In Mr Modi’s definition of democracy, there is very little room for different points of view, no room for concepts like liberty and freedom, no room for diversity.
Intellectual honesty requires that we accept democracy as a borrowing — and there is no shame in borrowing a good idea — from Europe and America, especially the revolutions of 1776 in America and 1789 France. These two revolutions opened the way for the rights of the people and the freedoms of the people. There can be no democracy without rights and liberties. Rights and freedom are, however, not a part of the vocabulary of Mr Modi and the BJP and of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). So, the question to be asked is: how did Indian democracy manage to enthrone a man and a party without faith in the principles of the rights and liberties of the people. This is a time, and for many it might appear a futile and self-lacerating, exercise to look back and detect the follies that brought Mr Modi and the BJP to power with an absolute majority. The right-wingers can undermine every democratic right through the legal means available to a party with a brute majority in Parliament. The remedy, of course, is when the people reject a leader who thinks that he is indispensable.
One of the odd things about Sunday’s inauguration of the new Parliament building was that there was no other voice other than that of Mr Modi. Other members of Parliament belonging to different parties should have spoken on the occasion and spoken about the imperatives of democracy, so that it would have become clear that democracy is not what Mr Modi says it is, and that there are other views of democracy. But the function was arranged in such a way that it was a Modi monologue. Critics are sure to say that the Opposition should not have boycotted the function. But it is good that they did because Mr Modi anyway would not have allowed anyone else to speak.
Mr Modi has reduced democracy to the new building of Parliament with all the latest gadgets embedded in it. There is no talk about the modes of parliamentary democracy, where the representatives of the people who belong to different parties and who have different viewpoints debate issues of national importance. Mr Modi did not speak about the quality of democracy or the content of democracy. A Parliament dominated by a single party and a single leader is not much of a democracy. And this was indeed the complaint of intellectuals from the 1950s to the 1970s when the Congress was in power, and Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were dominant. Looking back, we find that Nehru and Indira Gandhi faced stringent criticism not only from political opponents but also from the liberal media of the day. Today, political opponents find themselves helpless in Parliament and their voice is marginalised by the pro-Modi mainstream media.
The liberals in India (yes, the liberals are the guilty party for weakening of democracy by the likes of Mr Modi and the BJP) have to realise that their unthinking rhetoric of group rights and the socialist development model has silenced the notes of dissent in Indian democracy. Nehru and the Congress failed the democratic test when the government of the day banned Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness. The liberals’ intolerance of those who did not subscribe to their version of liberalism had laid the foundation of authoritarianism in Indian democracy. The liberals should pick up the courage to read Chaudhuri’s second volume of his autobiography Thy Hand, Great Anarch! written in 1987, in which he castigates Gandhi’s mass movements, and calls Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose as extremists, and condemns the proclivity of the Hindu and Muslim masses of passivity on the one hand, and brutal violence on the other. One can dismiss it all as mere drivel, but it would be a training exercise in listening to arguments that one does not agree with.
Mr Modi has followed the main paradigm of a weak Indian liberal democracy in silencing dissent inside and outside Parliament. Of course, the magic of democracy and the people’s will is that at election time they have a way shaking a leader at a time when he thinks he is invincible. It seems that it is not so much a sense of invincibility as much as a sense of vulnerability that is driving Mr Modi’s rhetoric these days. After defeats in the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and then in Karnataka, where the Prime Minister had staked his personal prestige, the leader seems to be making a desperate attempt to find his form, to use a cricketing metaphor. But his overblown rhetoric suggests that he is still flailing his hands in the air, and he is not sure whether people are willing to vote for him and his party. It is also unlikely Mr Modi and the BJP will ever appreciate the value of liberal democracy as an end in itself. Though Mr Modi harps on the freedom struggle, he does not seem to value the idea of freedom all that much. India did not fight for freedom from the British only for the sake of the nation as a collective entity, but also for the freedom of Indians as individuals. That is why India’s Constitution enshrines the Fundamental Rights, which concern individual freedoms. Mr Modi and the BJP have, however, shown a distinct aversion for the rights and freedoms of individuals.
The writer is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst