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March 29, 2021

Governance & Politics

Political Culture

By Nitin Desai


POLITICAL CULTURE by NITIN DESAI A country as diverse as ours needs a political culture rooted in constitutional values and political discourse based on truth, respect, civility and restraint Indian democracy is facing a major crisis of political culture even though the formal provisions for elections are being maintained. There are several elements in this crisis like the acrimony in the interactions between the ruling party and the opposition, the growing legitimisation of majoritarianism in a highly diverse society, a loss of confidence in the effectiveness of provisions for the enforcement of fundamental rights and the rule of law, erosion of federalism with the union government steadily encroaching on the constitutional rights of states, development policies oriented more towards electoral impact then long-term challenges. Our Constitution saw India’s future as a secular liberal democracy because it was a strong response to the communal basis of partition, an outlook that is evident when one reads the debates of the Constituent Assembly. In the Nehruvian Era this was maintained by a leader who was secular at heart and had great respect for Parliamentary traditions and the role of the opposition in a democracy. The fact that the ruling party was in effect a coalition of diverse interests prevented ideology driven governance.Today the dominant ruling party is not a coalition of diverse interests but an ideology driven political force This respect for Parliamentary traditions and the opposition was not unique to the Nehru era. It was also seen much later during the tenure of P Narsimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Ministers. But today the degree of acrimony in the interaction between the government and the opposition and a very low level of consultation prior to framing laws and policies has led to a breakdown of trust on which democratic self-government has to function. The most crucial challenge we face is restoring faith in our future as a secular and liberal democracy and a much wider sense of tolerance for diversity. This is implicit in the foundation of a Constitution which requires governance based on universal suffrage. This necessarily means respect for differences of religion, ethnic origin, language, gender and all of the things that make one person different from another. The promotion of universal suffrage in the forties led to the emergence of a sense of equality in a society where the acceptance of hierarchical inequality is deeply embedded in social structures and even in personal psychology. Instructions went out from the Constituent Assembly secretariat to all civil servants in the districts asking that such a universal roll be prepared. Existing electoral rolls were far from universal and often organised by community. The bureaucrats took this order of universality seriously. For instance the District Collector in Bombay asked how can one leave out street dwellers who have no local address. The answer, decided by bureaucrats I believe, was to attribute the nearest residence to where they slept as their address, a principle which continues . Such a commitment to the basic principle of universality not just for electoral purposes but for all acts of governance is what we need in the bureaucracy of free India. The principles underlying universal suffrage are not compatible with Ideological dominance associated with just one group in society.The greatest threat to democracy is majoritarian authoritarianism and to avoid this we need a political culture and a media that promotes trust between all people. First there must be mutual recognition that we are all equal with one person having one vote and even though the majority will win, the minority has every right to protect and preserve its differences. This is the trust that comes with a functioning democracy. Second one can go further and say that everybody is entitled to their view. The practical expression of this is the freedom of expression for minority views in a democracy. Third is a further stage at which one may say that If I were you that is what I will say. This is what leads democracies to accommodate minority views in their practical dispositions, allowing, for instance, the wearing of head scarves in schools. Today, we badly need a political culture that has four elements—sachchai, samman, sabhyata and sainyam, that is truth, respect, civility and restraint None of this will come about if the police follow rules set by their political masters rather than the rule of law. The impunity with which majoritarian vigilantes persecute minority protesters is shocking. Apart from restoring objectivity and impartiality in the functioning of the police we need to revitalise elements in non governmental institutions in civic life that allow an individual to feel a moral bond with fellow citizens. In India respect for diversity must also mean respect for federalism. In the Constitution the word central government is not used. The national government in Delhi is referred to as the Union government a usage which stresses the federal character of the Constitution. Perhaps the most important dimension of federalism that needs correction is the appointment of governors of states. There are recommendations on how to should be done in the Sarkaria commission which have not been followed and we are stuck with a system in which the Union government can greatly constrain the freedom of State governments by appointing party loyalists as Governors. But there are other areas of federalism that also need to be corrected like the proliferation of centrally sponsored schemes in areas in the state list. Part of the reason for this is a development strategy dominated by electoral populism, that which delivers in kind what people want — cooking fuel electricity, food supplies, healthcare particularly in emergencies like the current Covid epidermic. There is nothing inherently undesirable in this and this is a method of handouts that the rich have always used to stave off unrest and protect their privileges. A true long term welfare policy would go a step further and have a wage and income distribution policy as part of the relevant strategy to place income in the hands of the pool rather than just handouts by the government and of course corresponding provisions at the supply end to ensure a fair mixture public services and private supplies. To be leaders politicians must move beyond electoral sops to outlining a vision for the India they want. The higher judiciary must ensure that the laws and policies that come out of this vision are consistent with the principles of secularism and respect for minorities that are an essential part of our Constitution. Only then will a country as diverse as ours have a viable social, political and economic future.

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