Democratic overload


Amitabh Kant the CEO of NITI Ayog got a taste of the underside of celebrity status when his remark on there being “too much democracy in India” created a social media storm of protest. Mr. Kant clarified subsequently that the news coverage had omitted the latter part of his sentence “……. for it to be like China”. There is little reason to doubt his version. Nor can we challenge the allegiance of this distinguished civil servant to the values enshrined in our Constitution, even if his remark could be construed differently.

The incident illustrates that those in the public eye, must never allow their slip to show. The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton found that out, to her dismay, when photos of her “sunbathing” in a private chateau, shot by Paparazzi using a telephoto lens, appeared in the media in 2012. A French court fined the paper, an entirely justified Euro 45,000, for intrusion of privacy. But the lesson was clear. Those in the public eye automatically become Paparazzi bate.

Shashi Tharoor, similarly, got a wake-up call to the constraints of Indian politics in 2009. His snarky remark that he was travelling “cattle class” (economy) as a minister in the UPA government, during a fiscal tightening drive, got him into serious trouble. Cattle are venerated in India, not generally eaten as elsewhere. Today Mr. Tharoor is a model of glamorous restraint even though he retains his flair for outspokenness.

The gold medal for verbal prudence goes to Prime Minister Modi, who over the past six years has used splendid oratorial skills to advantage. So careful is the construction of his communication that it appears – almost robotic, though bewitchingly so. Experience is a great teacher. In 2013, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, in answer to a question on whether he regretted the Godhra violence, he said, in his homespun style, that even if a “puppy comes under the wheel of a car, one felt sad”. It was an honest answer which became a Paparazzi hook. Dog lovers were the most outraged at the seeming trivialisation of a dog’s life versus human life. Others felt expressing stronger, outright remorse – Justin Trudeau style – would have been more appropriate.

The bottom line is that Mr Kant is in good company, though he could carefully observe the rules of Barrack Obama’s master class on communication. Pressing all the right buttons in a politically appropriate and attractive manner, makes even soaring rhetoric sound engaging and inoffensive, which brings us to the more substantive issue raised by Mr Kant.

Does India suffer from a democratic overload? The good news is that we are behind the democratic curve. The “mother country” for our democracy- the United Kingdom, has regressed to shambolic, democratic ways like the referendum, whilst we have, sensibly, resisted the urge for such “instant democratic top-ups”. Of course, we have no national issues to resolve, except an inexplicable failure on the sports field, for a country with 1.3 billion people and that just requires more of us to go out and play.

One wonders, for instance, whether a national referendum on retaining or ending the special privileges that Kashmir enjoyed, would have returned an outcome different from what Parliament decided. Ditto for the Citizen Amendment Act legislation.

Consider also that the much publicised “farmers’ agitation in a corner of North India has left the rest of the country cold. The Punjabi Jat is ill suited to elicit sympathy. They are not in the habit of showing the extent of their distress at the best of times. They would rather go hungry than beg. Food is the one thing they splurge on. Providing hot food to people in distress anywhere from Kerala to Kalimpong is the Khalsa’s thing. There is so much of it in evidence at the sit-ins on Delhi borders that associated tales of farmer misery appear misaligned.

Compare this protest event – closely resembling the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, right down to the mobile shelters that farmer convoys are now moving with- with the tear-jerker, foot-sloughing Farmers Long March 2018 organised from Nashik to Mumbai, by the CPI (M). Palpable public sympathy, as for the migrant workers fleeing Covid locked cities on foot, last year in April, forced the Government of Maharashtra to concede most of the farmers demands. It also helped that national elections were around the corner. A repeat march – presumably because the demands had still not been met one year later- petered out in 2019, as the Covid pandemic took hold.

Here then is the conundrum. Limited participative democracy via representation in the legislative councils, elected by a thinly defined franchise, has existed as a “safety valve” since 1909 (the Minto Morley Reforms). Subsequent reforms under the Raj and after Independence, ensured universal franchise, affirmative action safeguards for the marginalised and publicly funded schemes for public services and economic development.

But sadly, collaborative elite patrimony, whether of the Jat Sikh in Punjab or of the highly educated, socially committed leaders of the CPI (M) or of the elitist politico-industrial complex, continues to preserve the entitlements of special interest groups – the landed versus the landless, the urban versus the rural, the well-off and its adjunct -the aspiring middle class versus the poor.

The trappings of democracy (debates, discussion, consultation, consensus) suit well this low-level equilibrium. Four generations of the privileged have survived, by the simple expedient of making room, for the brightest and the spunkiest of those outside, to climb onto the bus, in drips and drabs. Elites within the scheduled castes and tribes, backward classes, regional elites, religious elites have all been co-opted into this invisible coalition of attrition against the bottom three quintiles of the population. Never, have so few kept so many, voluntarily captive, to the idea and the possibility of breaking through. How have we done this? Too much democracy. Elites shouldn’t complain.

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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3 thoughts on “Democratic overload

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