We frequently come across phrases such as "democracy in danger", "secularism at stake", "Constitution and institutions are under attack" in political discourse. These are by no means new coinages but their usage has increased manifold in recent times, coinciding with BJP's increase and Congress' decrease of national footprint. For the uninitiated, it would seem India is under siege and its future as a democracy is under threat from the Narendra Modi government. How justified is this narrative?
Under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, BJP has expanded not just at Congress' expense, but is also slowly becoming powerful in states and regions where it historically had little influence. This expansion is by no means illegitimate but it has also caused regional chieftains to identify BJP as an existential threat.
Inevitably, the BJP is running into frequent pushbacks that are part of the inbuilt check-and-balance system of democracy such as heightened restiveness among its allies and a sharp increase in Opposition unity index. While these 'fail-safes' are necessary and prevent democracy from falling into the majoritarian trap, what we are witnessing in India right now is a danger of another kind. Political forces inimical to the BJP are increasingly weaponising these 'fail-safe' mechanisms to achieve political aims, thereby subverting and degrading the tools. Such degradation, in the long run, is deleterious to the health of democracy.
The weaponisation, of course, is just one part of the strategies adopted by Opposition parties. First is a movement towards building a viable alliance strategy — such as Rahul Gandhi's 'Karnataka Model' of playing second fiddle to a junior regional partner, or Mamata Banerjee's 1:1 formula for 2019 where every BJP candidate faces one unified Opposition candidate to prevent fracturing of votes.
The second strategy is to employ fear as an instrument to achieve politics aims. Take for instance Rahul's fantastic charge that RSS is "taking over" all public institutions including the "judiciary, media and the Army" or West Bengal chief minister's frequent accusations that BJP is a "communal party", Modi government is trying to tap into even a "private conversation between a husband and a wife" through Aadhaar etc.
The leaders can get away by throwing these mostly unsubstantiated allegations because a controversy arising out of countering it (legally or otherwise) benefits the leveler, and if left uncontested, these charges tap into the larger narrative of India being rendered dysfunctional under a "dictatorial ruler".
In this inverted paradigm, "democracy", "Constitution", "secularism", "public institutions" are clever tropes used by parties to legitimise the blatant subversion of these values. And ironically, those guilty of it protest the loudest in keeping with the upturned nature of the alternative universe.
The media can play a big role in exposing the hypocrisy underlying this strategy but as Tavleen Singh points out in her column in The Indian Express: "This sickness in our democracy did not begin after Narendra Modi became prime minister. But, it is this storyline that has been sought to be disseminated by secular, leftist political commentators in order to disguise their loyalties to the Congress party. It is this ‘secular’ caboodle that uses words like democracy and secularism most often."
We shall inspect two recent events to show how the Opposition is degrading tools of democracy under the guise of protecting the same. The Karnataka elections provide the first test case. Right from the stage of campaigning to its aftermath, democratic principles have fallen prey to opportunism at the hands of parties that are acting as self-appointed guardians of democracy.
Two months before the elections, JD(S) state president HD Kumaraswamy, who is now the chief minister-designate of the JD(S)-Congress coalition, had called Congress "more dangerous than BJP in India's democratic setup". On Rahul Gandhi's barb that "JD(S) is the B Team of BJP", Kumaraswamy told Livemint in an interview: "Rahul Gandhi doesn’t know the ABCD of Karnataka politics. They (Congress) use us when required and are now calling us the BJP’s ‘B’ team. Who is the reason for me joining hands with the BJP earlier (in 2008)? Before criticizing us let Rahul Gandhi go to his mother and ask what was promised and why people rejected their party which was ruling (at the Centre)."
The Congress suggested a collusion between BJP and JD(S) and alleged that 'S' in JD(S) stood for 'Sangh Parivar', not 'secular'. Rahul Gandhi's party received 44 less seats this time compared to 2013 (and 26 less than BJP, the single largest party). JD(S) received three less seats compared to 2013 while its vote share came down by more than three percentage points.
Both parties fought as bitter opponents, returned a mandate that fell far short of BJP's and then in a clever semantic twist, became "saviors of democracy" in their need to keep the BJP out of power. A desperate Congress needed to retain power in the last big state under its rule, while the JD(S) that finished third in a three-horse race, realised that the only way for it to stay relevant in state politics is to join hands with the Congress. The chief minister's chair was a juicy bonus. The problem lay not in the opportunistic alliance formation (because political parties must use its chances) but in trying to give moral legitimacy to a marriage of convenience.
Rahul Gandhi continued his vituperative campaign against Prime Minister Modi, and accused him of "undermining every institution". He also called BJP president Amit Shah a murder-accused. The charge of "undermining institutions" came in the backdrop of Karnataka governor Vajubhai Vala calling upon BS Yeddyurappa to form the government despite lack of numbers in his camp. The move was backed by precedents, and even the Supreme Court refused to put a stay on it, though it sharply curtailed the allotted time for proving majority.
This is hardly a case of "undermining institutions", when the fact remains that Congress regimes are past masters of this art. The Congress, for instance, has effected Article 356 around 88 times to dismiss state governments during the 54 years they have been in power at the Centre — and Rahul's grandmother Indira alone accounts for 50 of those 88 instances.
As far as "murder accused" is concerned, Shah has been cleared of all charges by a special CBI court. As Ajay Singh writes in Firstpost: "Shah was made an accused in an encounter-killing by the Gujarat Police when he was the state’s home minister. This was done at a time when Rahul’s party was at the helm in Delhi and the CBI was being used to implicate the then chief minister Modi. Shah was collateral damage in the Congress’ overzealousness to crush Modi. Shah was exonerated after a special CBI court in Mumbai dropped all charges. He is not “accused” in any crime in any police stations anywhere in the country except in Rahul’s estimation." Incidentally, Rahul Gandhi is still out on bail in multi-crore National Herald scam.
Shortly after Yeddyurappa resigned on Saturday, the Congress president charged the prime minister of corruption and told the media: "You’ve seen openly how the PM directly authorized purchasing of MLAs in Karnataka."
On Monday, a Congress MLA claimed in a Facebook post that an audio tape released by his party to "frame BJP" is fake. According to PTI, one of the audio tapes released by the Congress to prove charges of "horse trading" against BJP involved a purported conversation between Yeddyurappa’s son and an associate who were heard speaking to Congress MLA Hebbar's wife, "offering money and ministerial position to her husband if he cross-voted in favour of the BJP during the floor test." Hebbar said: "This is not my wife’s voice and she has not received any such calls. The audio tape is fake. I condemn it.”
These instances show how parties that degrade tools of democracy such as the media or elections have created a paradigm where self-appointed guardians of democracy can indulge in every act of subversion under the guise of "saving" it.
A similar instance is witnessed in West Bengal, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who also fashions herself as another "saviour of democracy", has presided over one of the most violent rural elections in recent times and has largely escaped censure for her conduct.
— ANI (@ANI) May 14, 2018
— TIMES NOW (@TimesNow) May 14, 2018
— Firstpost (@firstpost) May 17, 2018
— ABP Ananda (@abpanandatv) May 17, 2018
Rajkumar Ray, a government school teacher in Karandighi, North Bengal, was the presiding officer during #PanchayatElection. He resisted attempts of booth capturing & went missing after. His body was found alongside #Sonadangi rail line, Raiganj.
SEC has failed in its duty! pic.twitter.com/DwZ6L9s283
— CPI (M) (@cpimspeak) May 16, 2018
What's more, she has gone ahead to blame BJP and the prime minister for loss of many values that she herself is guilty of degrading. She has been able to do it because the loopholes in democracy (which is biased against one party achieving national dominance, and rightly so) have been found out and parties that are unable to play fair and square are using these loopholes to get even. In the long run, a value-based political system is going to be crushed under the weight of its contradictions.
Updated Date: May 22, 2018 22:54 PM