Democracy Death Wish Blame Class, Not Mass!
Winston Churchill was reluctant to surrender the British Empire. He had little love for India’s political leaders. Arguing against giving India Independence he reportedly said: “Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air and water… would be taxed in India.” This statement by him has been widely quoted and vilified. But a careful reading of it suggests that Churchill was not blaming the mass of Indian people as much as the class that ruled them. His reference to the plight of the public that might be taxed even for air and water indicates that. Churchill acquired his view of the Indian elite through Britain’s interaction with India’s political leaders during the freedom struggle.
All societies have masses and classes that rule them. What criterion creates the ruling class might differ from one society to another. Sometimes through dint of effort and luck members of the mass succeed in becoming part of the ruling class. Overwhelmingly in such cases the new entrants to the ruling class acquire the traits and attitude of their newfound peers. Rarely do they display concern for the plight of those from among whose ranks they have emerged. Today by common consent democracy in India is imperiled. Who is to be blamed for it—the mass of common people or the ruling class that governs them? Consider the performance of both segments.
It cannot be denied that the public has voted sensibly whenever it has been provided with a real choice. During the Emergency members of the elite sat in clubs and drawing rooms exhorting the efficiency brought about by Indira Gandhi’s gift to the nation. They marveled over how the trains ran on time and how officials attended office punctually. But came the election and the public trounced the Congress at the hustling. Subsequently Mrs Gandhi acknowledged that imposition of the Emergency had been a mistake. A couple of years later the public voted out the squabbling Janata Party leaders and brought back the Congress led by Mrs Gandhi.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination the public overwhelmingly voted for her son to ensure national unity against a divided opposition. Later it voted out Rajiv Gandhi in favour of a leader pledging an end to corruption but failing to live up to his pledge after assuming power. One can go on. Today some leaders and intellectuals lament that the public does not vote sensibly. Do political parties and the electoral system give the public a chance to do so? For instance, is there any real choice between Mayawati, Mulayam Singh, Rajnath Singh or the Congress in UP? Voters perforce fall back on caste and on micro advantage. There is no macro alternative offered to them.
Now take a look at how the ruling class is performing in democracy. For starters consider the Prime Minister. It is the most rudimentary and basic norm of democracy that governments and ministers are accountable for the performance of the administration. After the exposure of massive corruption scams the media, the ruling party and the opposition continue to wrestle with questions related to who might have accepted bribes. That problem is secondary. The government must accept constructive responsibility for the lapses. Given the volume of corruption the PM should have resigned long ago by accepting constructive responsibility for the graft. Sadly, not only has the PM failed to hint resignation even once, but the media and the opposition have embarked on an unnecessary fishing expedition to discover if the PM is the big corrupt fish to be caught and fried.
Consider the judiciary. Over half a dozen retired Supreme Court (SC) judges are facing corruption charges in court. In the past the most scurrilous and damaging allegations of moral turpitude and corruption made against a sitting Chief Justice of India and his colleague on the bench were allowed to pass unpunished for contempt by the SC. What sad conclusion might be drawn from that episode? Apart from challenged integrity there is the question about competence. Some of the SC judgments can only be described as bizarre. Very recently one judgment had portions expunged by the SC itself after public protests. Currently one judgment is so illogical and endangering to national security that the Union Government is filing a review petition. If credibility of the very judicial system is damaged, what remains of democracy?
Consider officialdom. The Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) is embroiled in a huge public controversy and a court case. He was appointed while a court case of corruption was pending against him. The public debate around him is confined to the question of his financial probity. Not one voice has been raised to point out that his continuance in office is untenable not because of alleged corruption, but because his functioning as the CVC will lack credibility while he faces a court case. Also, the court proceedings against him would lack credibility if meanwhile he continues in office. Amazingly, the CVC in his own defense communicated to the court that because many MPs were facing criminal cases he too should be allowed to continue! His integrity may be foolproof. But what about his competence to be CVC? Given his defense argument, would he judge corruption cases on the basis of how prevalent is corruption?
The media is not only openly indulging in paid news. Recent transcripts of taped conversation have revealed that leading icons of media are embedded in the wheeling and dealing of murky politics. Most media exposures are inspired leaks by political rivals trying to do each other in. In short, the media has become an extension of the corporate and political establishment.
What about the youth? There is a renowned university heavily subsidised by the government to train the cream of Indian youth to lead the nation in various fields. It is the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Currently, its students are facing a probe for having participated in the making of pornographic videos. It seems that the students of JNU have a good idea about the kind of system they will inherit and are therefore preparing themselves for it.
One can summon many examples to prove that almost all institutions are crumbling. When a system collapses in such magnitude there comes about a point when the public revolts. India is very close to that point. In Egypt crowds took to the streets to bring about desired reform. In India even though democracy has crumbled, a democratic culture prevails. People are attuned to usher change through elections. But for such change to occur the elite must create a genuine alternative to the present political class. That would require an alternate agenda. That in turn would require a nationwide movement to propagate it and to mobilise public support in its favour. That’s a tall order. It’s a tough call. But only if the ruling class rises to the challenge can the general mass give an adequate response. Failing this there could be anarchy. Sporadic public protest could lead to uprooted rail tracks, blocked highways and unchecked lynching. The signs are already visible.
By Rajinder Puri