Every person who aspires to political power ought to read the book, Considerations on Representative Government, by John Stuart Mill. Ideally, democracy is not the best form of government, wrote Mill, unless it ensures that the majority is unable to reduce everyone, but itself, to political insignificance. The book neatly demolishes facile arguments that a majority group has some unspecified right to imprint its will on the body politic. In democracies, the very idea of majority rule is trumped by the grant of fundamental rights. Paramount among these is the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of religion, caste, class, gender and sexual preferences. What group we belong to, what faith we profess and what language we speak is irrelevant. Each citizen is an equal shareholder in the political system.
The makers of our Constitution were committed to this understanding of democracy. On October 17, 1949, H.V. Kamath moved an amendment in the Constituent Assembly. The Preamble to the Constitution, he suggested, should begin with the phrase “In the name of God”. Similar amendments were moved by Shibban Lal Saxena and Madan Mohan Malaviya. Other members vociferously disagreed. HridayNathKunzru observed that we should not impose our feelings on others: “We invoke the name of God, but I make bold to say that while we do so, we are showing a narrow sectarian spirit, which is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.” The amendment was defeated. The Constitution obligates the holders of power to respect the principle of religious neutrality.
The commitment was significant, because by the mid-1940s religion no longer belonged to the realm of private faith. It had been transformed into a mode of politics that laid claims to power in the public domain. The transition proved momentous for Indian politics. Though prominent leaders assured minorities, time and again, that they would not be discriminated against for any reason, right-wing groups continued to assert that the religious majority had a natural right to rule India. This belief shaped the dark underside of collective political imaginations. Still these ideas were contained, at least till recently, by the intent and the framework of the Constitution.
Take the S.R. Bommai v. Union of India case (1994). The Supreme Court ruled that equality is the essential basis of the Constitution. Equality is a default principle, irrespective of the religious affiliation of citizens. Correspondingly the Indian state is not expected to privilege one religion over another, because it is neither religious nor irreligious. But matters are dramatically different today. Rulings of the Supreme Court are openly flouted by leaders of the BJP and its ideological cohorts. Shrill voices have become more aggressive and truculent. Cadres of the Hindutva brigade have no hesitation in intimidating citizens. The foundations of our democratic system tremble.
Consider the provocative statements issued by right-wing leaders in the Sabarimala and Ayodhya cases. Political commentators find the escalation of hysteria and provocative speeches unsurprising. After all, we are at the end of Assembly elections in five States, and general elections are around the corner. The topmost priority has to be given to religious practices. The Prime Minister, who is required to represent the interests of all Indians, remains silent. Narendra Modi is seldom at a loss for words, but he cannot find the words to condemn the rising tide of bigotry and hate, and the insistent subversion of democracy.
India stands at a crucial juncture before the general elections. On the one hand is the party in power that has visited ill-being on the people through demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST), harassment of universities, sabotage of institutions, violations of fundamental rights, the sanction of public lynchings, and now murder of a policeman. Gone is the emphasis on achhe din, the commitment to economic development, jobs, agrarian transformation, money in bank accounts, and governance. Today we see little else than religion as a frighteningly threatening form of politics.
On the other hand stands the Congress, the inheritor of the legacies of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Many Indians hoped that the party would relentlessly zero in on the dangerous threat to constitutional democracy. The party should have tapped minds and hearts with promises of restoration of the fundamental principles of constitutional democracy. It should have called for a second freedom struggle. But the Congress has opted to become an anaemic version of the BJP, with tilak-sporting, temple-going, and gotra-conscious leaders. The BJP has lived up to its ignoble reputation as a party of the majority and for the majority. The Congress has no distinctive ideology. It has forgotten the example set by Nehru. During the Partition riots, Nehru was physically there, in the killing fields of Punjab and in Delhi, persuading people to desist from violence, assuring Muslims safety, and protecting Indians against each other. Today the party fights shy of being branded as a protector of the rights of all Indians.
Regional parties are hailed as a perfect political institution for a federal India. Yet most regional leaders, and their progeny, tend to treat their States as feudal fiefs. Fewer have a vision that is truly national. What has happened to political creativity, to projects that map out new paths, and to the confidence that democracy must be truly representative so that the majority does not reduce others to insignificance?
Leaders should take inspiration from French President Emmanuel Macron. Along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he courageously took on some of the most populist of Europe’s leaders, at a function to mark a century since the end of World War I. He affirmed an axiom that had already been articulated by Rabindranath Tagore: “Patriotism is the opposite of nationalism.” In the audience were U.S. and Russian Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, respectively, two leaders who have adopted muscular nationalism as their political credo. Mr. Macron urged leaders not to forget the slaughter “one hundred years after a massacre whose scars are still visible on the face of the world”. There is a lesson to be learnt from this advice.
In India, we are bombarded with electoral rhetoric that is shorn of care, compassion for, or commitment to citizens who live in frighteningly desolate worlds. These worlds are inhabited by impoverished farmers, insecure workers in the informal sector who lost their jobs after demonetisation and the imposition of GST, minorities who are increasingly rendered irrelevant, the so-called lower castes who are deprived of security, and women who are subjected to hateful stereotypes. Elections give citizens an opportunity to discuss policies and proposed political agendas, and exercise free choice. The forthcoming election breeds pessimism at the lack of choices.