For some time now, Indian democracy has been corroded by what the sociologist André Béteille terms ‘the chronic mistrust between government and opposition’. Parliament meets rarely — when it does, it resembles a dusty akhara more than the stately chamber of discussion it was meant to be. In television studios, representatives of ruling and opposition parties trade abuse. It may be that in private conversation, or in the Lok Sabha’s cafeteria, debates between MPs are about issues and problems, but at least when politicians appear before the public they rarely go beyond name-calling.
The last UPA government contributed greatly to this climate of discord. Particularly after their re-election in 2009, they dismissed all criticism as motivated. The two main figures in that dispensation, Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, rarely spoke in public. But Congress ministers were far less shy.
In many cases, the arrogance of the ministers was misplaced, and counter-productive. When the first corruption scandals were broken by the media, they were ignored. When the Anna Hazare movement gripped the popular imagination, it became harder to wish away the crimes and excesses of the government. Hubris turned into confusion, then into name-calling, and then, finally, into the humiliating defeat in the 2014 general elections.
Alas, the BJP ministers now in power have learnt nothing from the mistakes of their predecessors. In the first six months of the new government, several MPs made bigoted statements about Muslims and Christians. The BJP’s leadership stayed silent, in effect condoning the hate speech. Then the Dadri lynching happened, and many writers and film-makers, some very distinguished, protested against what they saw as rising intolerance. This was characterised by BJP ministers as a conspiracy hatched by the Congress and the Left.
Then Arun Shourie, once an influential BJP ideologue who had been a Union minister, also made some telling criticisms of the government. These were dismissed as ‘sour grapes’, allegedly the result of his not being made a minister in Narendra Modi’s cabinet. Finally, after the BJP’s massive defeat in Bihar, four of the party’s most senior members urged introspection and self-criticism. This, too, was not taken seriously. One Union minister urged the party not to take notice, while a columnist close to the BJP termed Advani and company ‘yesterday’s men’.
Like the UPA after 2009, the BJP now thinks that victory at the general elections makes it immune to even the most thoughtful, the most well-intentioned, the most constructive criticism.
‘We have the mandate of the people,’ intone our ministers. But democracy is far more than elections held every five years. It is, or should be, a regular, continuous, consultative process of dialogue and debate, reflection and analysis. Only then can governance be based on the best available evidence and expertise. Only then can governments continually monitor and improve their performance.
The UPA was arrogant in power; the BJP supremely arrogant, perhaps because (unlike its predecessor) it enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha. UPA ministers principally mocked their political opponents; BJP ministers have a more capacious demonology, which includes judges, writers, the media, intellectuals, and NGOs. This is distressing, because an independent judiciary, a free press, and a vibrant civil society are as crucial to the healthy functioning of democracy as Parliament. By so regularly and recklessly attacking judges, scholars, writers and social activists, BJP ministers cheapen the language of public debate, and of democracy itself.
When Mr Shourie was asked what he would tell Mr Modi and his ministers if he had their ear, he answered: ‘Don’t pick so many fights’. Mr Shourie was here making an instrumental argument. The government, he implied, needed to work with Opposition MPs in Parliament, and with chief ministers who were not from the BJP, if it wished to execute its agenda of economic reform. But beyond this instrumentalism there is also a deeper moral concern. Courtesy in debate, and civility in argument, is fundamental to what we valorise about democracy. In its absence we are all poorer.
Sadly, what we see at the Centre is being reproduced in the states. There, too, assemblies are rarely the venue of informed debate. Ruling party leaders do not take Opposition criticism in good faith. Nor do they respect the press very much either. Once chief ministers are elected, they think they can do pretty much as they like until the next elections come around.
Indian politicians are in danger of reducing our political system to an ‘elections-only democracy’. That, of course, was not how the founders of the Constitution conceived it. They saw elections on a multi-party basis as a crucial, but by no means the only, element of a healthy democracy. Parliament was supposed to be a theatre where policies were proposed, debated, and refined. The judiciary was meant to be an independent check on violations of the Constitution by private parties or public bodies. A free press and active civil society were meant to act as a mirror to where India was, and how Indians were doing.
Indians are justly proud of the fact that, even in conditions of poverty, illiteracy, poor communications, and endemic social conflict, we continue to hold elections that are largely free and fair. The Election Commission is rightly praised as a more-or-less model institution. But let us not forget that there is much more to democracy than the periodic holding of elections.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India.
You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed are personal.