The failure to keep creed out of politics has hindered Indian democracy
Political parties are busy doing their caste calculations encouraged by psephologists who tell them that in spite of 70 years of democracy a system, which is inherently unequal and hence undemocratic still has such a hold that it plays a major role in elections.editorials Updated: Jan 07, 2017 22:23 IST
The last session of Parliament turning into a washout surely shows that there is something rotten in the state of India. The start of the 70th year of India’s Independence from British rule is an appropriate time to consider what is rotten. One way to do this is to look back to the dangers Babasaheb Ambedkar, the chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, foresaw in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly to see if they have been averted. Not only is Ambedkar respected for the learning and wisdom he brought to drafting the Constitution, the PM has also adopted him as one of his role-models. So he should pay attention to his words.
The first danger which is particularly relevant to Parliament is Ambedkar’s realisation that the measures Mahatma Gandhi had adopted to resist British rule might be misused. Ambedkar said in a democracy unconstitutional methods like civil-disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha were “nothing but the grammar of anarchy.” By disobeying the rules of procedure, and behaving like rival mobs of unruly protesters the MP’s, the very people who should be upholding the dignity of Parliament, have turned parliamentary language into the grammar of anarchy. No party can absolve itself of blame for establishing this anarchic tradition and maintaining it. The PM shows his disrespect for Parliament by preferring to speak directly to the people because they can’t ask awkward questions.
Elections are a key element in a democracy and this year six assembly elections are to be held. All the significant parties participating are one man or one woman bands. Some of them like the Congress are family businesses run by the head of the family, some are personal properties like Mayawati’s BSP. The AAP no longer belongs to the ordinary man. Arvind Kejriwal has taken it over.
The BJP, which did have a tradition of inner democracy, has been taken over by Narendra Modi. So another of Ambedkar’s warnings has been ignored. He claimed the Bhakti tradition made India particularly prone to the hero-worship, which leads to parties and indeed sometime countries becoming dominated by one person and democracy being derailed. He told the Constituent Assembly: “Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics Bhakti, or hero-worship, is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”.
Because India’s political parties are dominated by one person, dissent is not tolerated. Leaders see differences of opinion as challenges to their leadership. Ambedkar said party discipline could have converted the Constituent Assembly into a gathering of yes men, but fortunately there were rebels. It’s not that Ambedkar was suggesting there should be anarchy in political parties. He expressed his gratitude for the discipline of the Congress saying it was “entitled to take all the credit for the smooth sailing of the draft constitution in the Assembly”. But that discipline was very different to the sycophancy that has converted the Congress into a party of yes men and women.
The failure to keep creed out of politics has been a crucial fault in Indian democracy. Even now there are attempts to politicise religion in the UP election with the BJP trying to forge a Hindu vote and talks between the Socialist Party and the Congress on uniting the Muslim vote. Ambedkar asked anxiously, “Will India place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country?”
He went on to say, “I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever.” The anomaly is that the present government lays so much emphasis on nationalism, putting the country first, yet it uses creed to win votes.
Once again this year politicians will also encourage Indians to vote on the basis of their caste. Political parties are busy doing their caste calculations encouraged by psephologists who tell them that in spite of 70 years of democracy a system, which is inherently unequal and hence undemocratic still has such a hold that it plays a major role in elections. Ambedkar pointed out that caste brought about separation in social life and generated antipathy and jealousy between castes. He went on to say, “We must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality.”
In concluding his speech to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar maintained that if his warnings were ignored there would be a danger that Indians would lose their faith in democracy, that they would “prefer government for the people to government by the people.”
So far that has not happened. Indians of all castes and creeds, educated and those without formal education, rich and poor, women as well as men, have voted in large numbers. They have voted governments out of office, and transfers of power have been peaceful. The magnitude of this achievement is shown by the history of so many post-colonial democracies, not to mention the centuries it took older democracies to grant universal suffrage. But does this mean that Ambedkar’s warnings can be ignored?
The views expressed are personal