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If democracy subverts itself

By Jawed Naqvi

An old-fashioned Marxist sobriquet for democracy we pine for and are frustrated by in turn is ‘bourgeois democracy’. Another word for it, which suits the Western palate more readily since the fall of the Soviet Union, is ‘free markets democracy’. For most purposes both are one and the same thing in usage, not too different from, say, cosmonauts and astronauts. Allende, Mosaddegh and Bhutto were among those who felt the direness of the definition.

In a numbers game, which is how democracies work, a popular leader could end up with his/her hands tied behind the back. Experience also shows that clear mandates with overwhelming majorities can be subverted easily as did in fact happen with Rajiv Gandhi.


Jinnah and Nehru, in the quest for their rival visions of liberal democracy, were surrounded by men who would be an antidote to their dreams. This again is a feature of democracy. A softer way to describe the mess is to liken it to an aviary in which multi-feathered birds flock together. But that hardly describes the quandary Theresa May is finding herself in. The implicit contrariness of democracies is more a respite from singular trouble than an agreeable pact. How else are we to account for Trump or Modi or Mussolini dodging their way through democratic checkpoints, if there were any?

Democracies express the people’s will and can just as easily distort it. It is possible, for example, that hiring an Ahmadi aide was Imran Khan’s considered choice, more for the skills of the individual than for his faith, possibly. Firing him for evidently parochial reasons expressed the compulsions of a wafer-thin majority, which Imran had attained with those he may have never wanted in his team. The numbers game robs too many democracies of their sheen, often even their purpose.

The numbers could take one towards a measured left or extreme right. Indira Gandhi began her tenure in the 1960s with the tempered support of pro-Soviet communists. She used the moment to consolidate her idea of a welfare state, nationalising banks owned by usurious families. The numbers game could land one in a muddle as happened with Rajiv Gandhi in spite of his seemingly invincible majority.

As is common occurrence in bourgeois democracies, big-time tycoons of the day were apparently involved in the botched plot to overthrow Rajiv Gandhi’s government with the help of MPs he imagined were loyal to him but were plied by their financial minders. The trigger for the failed revolt was Gandhi’s 1985 speech in which he had warned businesses to get off the backs of his Congress workers. They retaliated with the help of their newspapers, smearing his face with Bofors filth. Subsequently, after his tragic death, his own party, without even a remote mandate, liquidated socialism as India’s objective, though it could not delete the preamble of the constitution where Indira Gandhi had underscored its primacy.

The pro-rich free-markets changes were presented as a legitimate response to turbulence triggered by the vanishing of the Soviet largesse and skyrocketing oil prices triggered by the Gulf War.

The economic worldview of Nehru and his daughter was guillotined amid media applause and without scrutiny. The Rao-Manmohan duo had neither the mandate to usher in the changes nor the numbers. And so they worked on bribing a group of pliable tribal MPs who were jailed for the crime albeit only after the Rao government finished its five-year tenure. Without the bribery the Rao-Manmohan team could not have won close trust votes in parliament to please the markets.

Scamster Harshad Mehta’s was a small financial scandal by comparison, but it helped throw the media off the real trail. Rao found a more durable digression from any peep into his anti-poor misdeeds. He allowed the Babri mosque to be razed in Ayodhya and just slept through the episode. The slumber forever changed the Indian discourse from bread and jobs to religious strife.

The image of the 2002 federal budget speech has a special resonance here. The (BJP) finance minister was presenting his heavily televised proposals just before noon on Feb 28 when rape and killings were peaking in Gujarat. He did so without a squeak of protest from any MP about the horrific happenings in Ahmedabad and beyond. After the speech, almost on cue, the discussion turned to Gujarat.

As India goes into a series of critical state elections next month before the general elections due in May, all eyes are naturally turned on Rahul Gandhi, partly for what he says in public and equally for what he believes in privately. Manmohan Singh, for example, had declared that India’s biggest internal security challenge came from tribal Maoists, a claim that the Modi government has happily embraced with even greater gusto.

Rahul, on the other hand, had confided to the former US ambassador Timothy Roemer, according to WikiLeaks in 2010 that the biggest problem facing India came from right-wing Hindu groups. One has not given up on his pro-rich world view even though he swears by Nehru. The other reflects a truly Nehruvian instinct of feeling in his bones the threat posed by Hindutva, which has stalked the country as an insurmountable challenge to democracy since Mahatma Gandhi’s murder or even earlier.

On the economic front, Rahul seems to have another rarely voiced but critically valid answer. One has not heard the word ‘crony capitalism’ from any mainstream politician the way he has been using it to describe the economy’s pathetic unravelling at the hands of its self-proclaimed ultra-nationalist benefactors. Does he need to become prime minister to right the wrongs?

A sound answer doesn’t necessarily endorse that prospect. India’s democracy is gasping for a moral revival and a collective remedy. His turn may come when he gathers the moral stature as a solid soldier for India’s secular, socialist democracy that his peers promised and which doesn’t betray the people it purports to represent.