MORE EQUAL THAN MOST
Many Indian politicians still like authoritarian democracy
ASHOK MITRA IN THE TELEGRAPH
A dose of cynicism is in order. The corporate sector already occupies all the commanding heights in the polity. Hullabaloo over the contents of the lok pal bill cannot but be only a divertissement: let controversy rage over the modalities of fighting corruption in high places, the interregnum will provide enough breathing space to plan new strategies to cover up shenanigans-by-courtesy-of-neo-liberalism. Most of the Supreme Court judges smitten by the activism bug are also bound to retire meanwhile. Once the judicial passion gets spent, anti-graft crusaders too will return to their cloister. Calm, too, will automatically return to the nation’s capital which is the centre of the Indian universe.
The debate on the modalities of tackling corruption in high places has nonetheless yielded one useful by-product: we now have a clue to how some minds that matter are working. A major issue apparently dividing the government and the motley crowd of so-styled civil society warriors is whether the prime minister should or should not come under the purview of the lok pal’s surveillance. Prima facie, there is no reason why he/she should not. He/she may be primus inter pares, but is still a minister; if other ministers come under the lok pal’s scanner, the prime minister too ought to. The government and the party that heads the government coalition are not willing to go along; they abhor the idea of treating the prime minister on a par with other ministers. As points and counterpoints fly across the television channels, the heavyweight of a cabinet minister who has emerged as the principal spokesperson on behalf of the government shot a rhetorical question: is there any country in the world where its prime minister has ever been charged with corruption? The minister was confident there was none. It is therefore, he concluded, ridiculous — and demeaning to the country by implication — to introduce any legal provision to prosecute our prime minister on grounds of corruption; the lok pal must not be allowed to embark on a fishing expedition to find out whether the prime minister has or has not deviated, in the conduct of public affairs, from the straight and narrow path.
Rhetoric deserves counter-rhetoric. Can the official super spokesperson cite the instance of any other country where a prime minister admits that he had been presiding over a bunch of ministers some of whom were corrupt to the core but he/she will not take responsibility for their misdeeds and feels no reason to resign? Do not certain other facts stare at our face too? In Japan, it is standard political practice for the prime minister to seek forgiveness of the people for any major or minor dereliction of duty on the part of the government or any individual minister and vacate office without further ado. In Britain, Harold Macmillan stepped down as prime minister owning responsibility for some sexual dalliance on the part of one of his junior colleagues. Once the convention is firmly established that under circumstances which embarrass the regime the prime minister resigns, no occasion arises to prosecute him/ her. The person elected president is both head of state and head of government in the United States of America. In not too distant a past, one such president, Richard Nixon, had to resign from his august office on the eve of his impeachment in accordance with procedures spelled in the nation’s constitution.
Caesar’s spouse may be above suspicion, but Caesar himself is not in most parts of what is known as the democratic world. The obtuseness embedded in the argument that the prime minister is no ordinary mortal, therefore, provides food for some thought. Democracy means freedom of choice. Is that freedom being availed of to contribute a new definition of democracy itself? Perhaps the intent is to drop the hint that if there could be such a phenomenon as popular democracy or guided democracy, why not accept the notion of authoritarian or totalitarian — or, for the matter, dynastic — as well; others might abide the question, but the prime minister — conceivably belonging to only one particular family — would be free, the ordinary laws of the land would not apply to him/her. Since, exception supposedly proves the rule, the exceptional treatment of the office and person of prime minister would confirm India’s standing as the world’s largest democracy.
Much of this, though, is not original thought and has a distinguished antecedent. Let there be a flashback to the year 1975. Indira Gandhi was peeved no end by that silly judgment of the up-to-no-good Allahabad High Court holding her guilty of electoral malpractices. The judgment, how annoying, imperilled her tenure as prime minister. Poor she; in the event, declaring an Emergency alongside suspension of the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution was the only alternative left to her. It is however an ill wind that does not yield somebody at least some good. The congenial ambience of the Emergency made it easy for Indira Gandhi to ram through a constitutional amendment. The Constitution (39th Amendment) Act of 1975 introduced a special proviso concerning the election to Parliament of the prime minister and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha; no court in the country was permitted to question, on any ground whatsoever, the validity of the election of these two eminences. The amendment was made retroactive, thereby rendering the Allahabad High Court’s verdict on Indira Gandhi’s election ultra vires of the Constitution; it was like waving a magic wand. Another point is also worth noticing. An authoritarian approach to things does not amount to abandoning a sense of aesthetics: it was a bit inelegant to treat the prime minister as a sui generis case; to keep her/him company, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha was tagged on to constitute the duet the validity of whose election to Parliament would be beyond the reach of the legal process.
Indira Gandhi’s experiment with totalitarian democracy met a sorry end in 1977. The Janata regime that followed could at least take time out from its unending internal squabbles to pilot the Constitution (44th Amendment) Act of 1978 which got rid of the 39th amendment; the prime minister (and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha) re-entered the earth and were once more at par with one billion or thereabouts of other citizens who make up the nation.
It is given to human beings to learn from experience. Since democracy grants freedom of choice, it is equally the privilege of human beings, or any collection of human beings, not to learn from experience. Maybe decision-makers in the country’s largest political party have not ever been able to forsake their passion for authoritarian democracy. Was it not sheer bliss to be ruling during those two heavenly years between 1975 and 1977? The wishes and whimsies of an urchin from you-know-which family had the imprimatur of law, thousands of recalcitrant and potentially recalcitrant elements could be locked up without trial in prison, encounter deaths could take care of cheeky, restless youth, the wretched inmates of ramshackle slums besmirching the texture of metropolitan beauty could be loaded like cattle in trucks and dumped in a wilderness fifty or a hundred kilometres away.
Possibly the memory of that paradise still haunts and the blueprint of a new edition of authoritarian democracy is firmly etched on the subconscious. The occasion of the ersatz debate over the nitty-gritty of the lok pal bill is being put to excellent use. It is a sort of a preview of the re-touched dream: the prime minister is no ordinary citizen, she/he is the be-all and end-all of Indian democracy, not just holier than holy, but the holiest; how can anyone even dare to suggest that he/she should be the target of dirty investigation for this or that piffling alleged misdemeanour while in the pursuit of official duties?
If the incumbent prime minister assumes that such solicitude is to protect his dignity and honour, he was born yesterday
- Can Lokpal be investigator, prosecutor, jury and judge? (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- History of deception (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Issue Brief on Lokpal Bill (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Prime Minister should be out of Lokpal till he demits office: Sibal (thehindu.com)