Fault Line Of Indian Democracy Karnataka Only A Case In Point
Recent turmoil in Bharatiya Janata Party’s only southern outpost Karnataka once again reopened several issues on India’s democracy—electoral, procedural and substantive. In a continuing drama, political and constitutional institutions such as political parties, leaders (national, state and local that includes chief minister too), governor, speaker, have all been exposed in their bare elements umpteenth time in the past few decades. Political leaders of all hues and persuasion—I am cautious not to use the extinct word ‘ideology’—have exposed themselves as pursuers of just pelf and power (sorry, I am not sure which comes first), in a race where norms (if they have any value in politics) are not observed even in exception.
Brewing for some time, the Karnataka drama surfaced on 6 October, when twelve BJP and five independent MLAs withdrew support from Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa’s government. Touted as among the best Chief Minister the country currently has and certainly among the best from the BJP stable, his cabinet reshuffle in September that prompted a minister to threaten suicide if he was dropped, was the beginning of the current political theatrics. Sensing opportunity, the two main opposition outfits—Congress and Janata Dal (S)—began fishing in the muddied-troubled water, luring defection and using constitutional institutions. Obviously, a holistic introspective analysis is called for in the interest of the Indian democracy.
Caste, which was theorised as a dominant organising platform for Indian democracy in the 1960s and 1970s, and recently in news in the context of the census, has been at the root of transfer of power from Congress (and JDS) to BJP in Karnataka. Obviously, distribution of power crumbs to the caste elites has led to dissatisfaction creating the political crisis. In the age of intense political competition and shifting social support base the BJP, like all other parties, depends on winnability, cajoling and buying support and offering rewards, even to new entrants and fair weather friends. Dissatisfaction and dissidence amongst old party loyalists, now based on individual interests rather than principle or ideology, is a pervasive trend in Indian politics today. Clearly, loosening of bonding material is making party structures fragile.
Dissidence in Indian politics would need an historical understanding. Beginning with the famous moderate-extremist divide in the Indian National Congress of early twentieth century and continuing through out the Independence Movement creating Swaraj Party, Forward Block and later socialist parties, it has played a very constructive role in the evolution of the party system in India. Even after Independence, principled opposition and dissidence of such stalwarts as Acharya Kriplani, Dr BR Ambedkar, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, C Rajagopalachari, CD Deshmukh, et al, caused the creation of one party dominant system that has eventually evolved into the party system we have today. Dissidence today is all about denial of political spoils in terms of power and money. We must also reflect as to why every dissidence must create a new party banner and flag. After all this creates parties and leaders, who have bargaining power disproportionate to their political support base in the current era of coalition politics.
Indeed, an economic cost of politics is rising. Accommodating interests from business, commerce and industry, many a times unscrupulous ones, as well as criminalised elements that bring their own money and muscle power, is considered a compulsion. The fruits of power have to be shared with them. Naturally, aside from causing dissidence, it has avoidable social and political costs. In the present political crisis in Karnataka and the BJP, the questionable role of mining-baron Reddy brothers has been prominent. They are clearly not the only ones in India’s contemporary political theatre.
And, as the crisis of Karnataka kind develops, the drama of holding the flock together at any cost becomes imperative. The monetary cost brings in unscrupulous donors, who have to be satisfied later. The politics of ‘resorts’, which is essentially pre-emptive ‘kidnapping’ and ‘imprisonment’ in order to avoid ‘poaching’ and ‘horse-trading’, rather denigrating phrases that the Indian politicians have begun to accept for themselves in exchange for brazen pursuit of power and immoral craving for lucre. India is facing the unfortunate consequences of such trends.
Talking of parties in this theatre of the absurd, we must not lose sight of ‘independents’. Of course, no Indian citizen can be denied the right to seek political mandate for self without a party affiliation. Even the Anti-Defection Act takes cognisance of their right to support any political party they want to. However, the Act has brought them under legal cover by attempting to ensure that their support is not perpetually on sale for lack of any ideology and principle. They have to remain independent through out their elected tenure. However, they continue to remain slippery fish.
These developments over the past four decades have made parties and leaders myopic, even hostile, to institutions that sustain them in power. Though a definitive formulations is difficult on this without sufficient research, we must examine the question whether the current quicksand situation in Indian politics has been caused by the domino effect of the decline of institutions engendered by political design of power politics.
The Karnataka crisis, which I reckon is not confined to a state or a party alone, raises question on political party as an institution. The BJP, in the centre of the current storm, like all parties in the country, has institutional disjuncture at every level, making the leaders to fire fight any emerging situation. A democratic party has to have synergies at different levels. The Chief Minister’s action in Bengaluru, responses by party members and reactions from Delhi belie synchronisation, let alone synergy. If the BJP today depends on strong satraps and state party units, the Congress is just opposite, all party units and leaders at every level bask (and allowed to bask) in the glory of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Smaller national parties and state/regional parties fare not better. If most parties are family based, the BJP is oligarchy based, though it too has its families. The left parties fare better, but they have their own sets of institutional deficits.
Talking of the role of parties in a democratic society and polity, we must take into account another action replay of political chauvinism pursued with muscle power from India’s business and commerce capital Mumbai, also undivided India’s first cosmopolitan metropolis, by Shiv Sena, which is at best a band of hoodlums masquerading as a political party, otherwise why should Sena (army) be suffixed to a party in a democracy? That the Sena supremo issues most stupid edicts that his monkey-brigade forces the society to comply with using violence, the police watching as passive onlookers, is bad enough; many a celebrity would have us believe that the Sena Chief Bal Thackeray is a God incarnate; remember southern super star Rajinikant’s statement recently. The ultimate undemocratic act recently by the Sena has been violence to ban Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey from the Mumbai University syllabus. Worse still, the Vice Chancellor readily complied. The worst indeed is justification of this ban by Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. No wonder, from being a gang of hoodlums Shiv Sena, and its poor cousin (or nephew) Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena, have found space on India’s mainstream political stage. Practically every party and leader is willing to pay obeisance to Bal Thackeray and align with the Sena(s).
No wonder, if Yeddyurappa failed the chief ministerial and leadership test at a crucial moment, the office of the Speaker once again was painted with partisanship. Even in making false allegations, the opposition is creating a room for tarnishing this institution. India, claiming to be the world’s largest democracy, a ‘shining’ example in the developing world and an emerging world power, has failed to develop the culture of non-partisan Speakers for its legislatures—both at the national and state levels. The Lok Sabha for decades has not seen the likes of GV Mavalankar and M Ananthshayanam Ayyangar. The less said about the state Legislative Assemblies the better, where there have been no examples to cite for decades now.
The politics bedlam in the Karnataka Assembly is only an extension of what has been witnessed for years in different State Assemblies. Even the basics of civilised behaviour are going amiss. What deserves reflection is whether the culture of violence visible in the Indian civic and social life is being reflected in the Assemblies, when ‘honourable’ legislators begin throwing chairs, uprooted microphones, invectives and blows at their political ‘opponents’, or it is the other way round. The parliament too has begun to witness unruly scenes and no party or leader is apologetic about what Ambedkar described as ‘grammar of anarchy’. Since many state legislators eventually graduate to be parliamentarians, the day is not far away if we witness such scenes in New Delhi.
HR Bhardwaj put himself in the inglorious company of Venkatasubbaiah (Karnataka), Ram Lal (Andhra Pradesh, 1984), Bhanu Pratap Singh (Goa), Romesh Bhandari (UP) and Rameshwar Thakur (Karnataka, 2008). The office of Governor came under intense controversy during the 1967-69 coalition politics phase. However, the turn of events following the first Assembly elections in the undivided Madras state in 1952, when the leaders of the Independent movement were ruling the roost, witnessed Congress intolerance to a possible non-Congress dispensation. With 152 seats out of 375, the Congress was the single largest party, but other coalition dispensation under T Prakasam claimed greater number. Governor Sri Prakasa invited Congress leader C Rajagopalachari, who was not elected to the Assembly, to form the government by nominating him to the Legislative Council. The Kerala episode, which witnessed dismissal of the first-elected communist government headed by EMS Namboodiripad in 1959 on a report by Governor BR Rao is more-frequently discussed. The AICC headed by Mrs Indira Gandhi was behind the manoeuvre.
More brazen cases were witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1982, GD Tapase as Governor of Haryana showed bias in appointing Bhajan Lal as Chief Minister. Ram Lal (1984) in Andhra Pradesh crossed all limits in the battle between NT Ramarao’s TDP and Congress and had to be replaced. The SR Bommai’s dismissal in 1989 by Governor P Venkatasubbaiah led to the landmark Supreme Court judgment bringing Article 356 under judicial review. Romesh Bhandari created a different kind of flutter with the Kalyan Singh government in 1993. In 1994, Governor Bhanu Pratap Singh had to be recalled, when he dismissed a government that enjoyed support of 23 MLAs in 38 member Assembly. The tradition continues in the new millennium. Rameshwar Thakur delayed inviting BS Yeddyurappa to form the government in 2008. And now, HR Bhardwaj carries the tradition of partisan Governor, all of them Congressmen!
Needless to say that the nataka in Karnataka is part of larger political development in India. It mirrors a degeneration of democratic processes and institutions. The achievement of substantive democracy is an unfulfilled dream that we still debate. But can we realise that dream with the way we run our procedural and electoral democracy? At the end of the day the question is not whether politicians and the politics they pursue is spotlessly clean. More importantly, it will have to be seen from the perspective of society politics continuum. The issues thus are threefold:
* Whether current trends in politics in India are being influenced by society or it is vice versa.
* If it is society that is propelling this kind of politics, we better introspect, for then the rot is deeper.
* If politics has an autonomous development and it is impacting society, then substantive democracy is not an achievable dream unless society reacts against this in an effective fashion.
By Ajay K Mehra
The writer is Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida