Such is the aura of invincibility that accompanies the politics of the ruling BJP that few believed last weekend that the combined might of PM Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah would not secure a win for BJP in the Karnataka assembly floor test. That the BJP’s mascot BS Yeddyurappa was forced to bid a tearful farewell without even facing a vote in the Vidhan Soudha came as quite a surprise.
However the biggest bombshell from Karnataka came earlier from Governor Vajubhai Vala who gave an outrageous 15 days to Yeddyurappa to form the government, virtually holding out an open invitation to unconstitutional means to secure a majority.
Attempting to extract a majority by foul means if need be, was hailed as ‘Chanakya niti’ or realpolitik. But prescriptions from over 2,000 years ago, from the 4th century BC, simply do not fit in the 21st century. Chanakya didn’t operate in a modern democratic milieu and his phrase ‘saam daam dand bhed’ is profoundly anti-modern.
Let’s leave the great acharya to students of history and not apply his antiquated mantras to an era where he doesn’t belong.
Today BJP 2018 is strikingly similar to Congress 1970s. The so called “party with a difference” has become a party of no difference. In 2014 Modi won promising an end to Congress culture, but today the ruling party has become a mirror image of its main enemy by constantly mimicking 70s Congress. BJP leaders in the past have lambasted Congress for misusing governors, attempting to split smaller parties, bullying courts, fielding criminal candidates and using state agencies to push party ideology. These are exactly the features of the ruling party today, because when you mimic your enemy, you end up with the same weaknesses.
BJP’s in power in 20 states but faces three major challenges. First, a highly centralised high command and weakened party structures, second, the cult of a supreme leader which leaves little room for any other leader, and third, post Karnataka, sharply declining moral credibility. It is also lumbered with weak allies and is seen as such a menacing force that no regional party will ally with it for fear of being gobbled up. Just as anti-Congressism was the dominant sentiment in the 70s, today anti-BJPism is so widespread that from JDS to TDP to TRS to Trinamool, allying with BJP is seen as committing political suicide; regional parties prefer a weakened Congress to a leviathan BJP and going forward to 2019 those regional leaders who hold firm in their pockets of influence will be BJP’s greatest threats.
In this dangerously bitter political contest if all morality is overthrown, and Chanakya niti used as a fig leaf for illegal acts, the biggest loser will be the voter. Modern democracy is not majority rule, instead majorities are transitory. The basic features of democracy are socio-political rules of engagement and the rule of law. As Harvard professor Yascha Mounk writes, “When democracy is stable it is because all the major political actors are willing to adhere to the basic rules of the democratic game … winning or losing an election is less important than preserving the system.”
To quote political theorist Michael Ignatieff, “Politicians need to respect the difference between an enemy and an adversary. An adversary is someone you want to defeat, an enemy is someone you have to destroy.” In a democracy, destroying the opposition through questionable means is a destruction of the norms of democracy itself.
Gandhi constantly emphasised that the means are just as important as the ends. When your methods are doubtful, said the Mahatma, you cannot get good ends. A majoritarian democracy which focusses only on ends irrespective of means will always use fraud and violence, coercing voters and legislators to achieve power. These attempts are aimed at creating an illusion of a majority and only pretend to adhere to democratic norms when in fact they are creating a majoritarian democracy. Because a majoritarian democrat overthrows all norms, such a breakdown soon degenerates into the rule of a single populist autocrat like Turkey’s Erdogan, Poland’s Kaczynski and Russia’s Putin.
Democratic morality is thus not just idealistic distraction but fundamentally important for the system to survive and for citizens’ individual freedoms to be safeguarded. In India supreme leader cults whether of Indira Gandhi or of Narendra Modi have always led to the overthrowing of democratic norms. The chain of events in the 70s may become a familiar pattern. In 1977 a united opposition defeated the supreme leader, only to collapse in two and a half years under its own contradictions followed by a return of the supreme leader in 1980.
Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 but by then she was mortally insecure and attempts to keep her votebank alive at all costs led to the igniting of murderous flames in Punjab, J&K and in the north-east and thousands died.
The power-at-all-costs school of thinking also results in the ultimate horror of democracy, namely the rigged election as with 1987 polls in J&K which fanned decades of militancy. Immoral politics can lead to civil war.
As the Supreme Court has reminded, there is no alternative but upholding of constitutional democratic norms. All parties must respectfully recognise that the time of the legendary Chanakya is long past, and instead abide by basic moral standards that are modern and democratic. An anti-democratic majoritarian view of democracy where a naked power grab is justified, will first lead to illegality, then criminality, then to loss of life on the streets because this kind of politics has the potential to rapidly degenerate into all out war. When rulers seeking supreme power lose all moral credibility, it’s a recipe for social mayhem.