Monday, January 23, 2012

Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil that is undemocratic

The true meaning of the Anna phenomenon would be known only in due course of time. In the meantime, the debate surrounding the Anna movement has got so much charged up that it is becoming difficult to make a political judgment  (…) Ambedkar, quoting Greek historian Grote, had extensively dwelt on the importance of ‘constitutional morality’ in the representative democracy due to the possibility of a distance between the people and their representatives. He said ‘constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it.

Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic. The upshot of his statement is quite clear—the spectre of the ‘grammar of anarchy’ is the speed-governor in institutional democracy whereas ‘constitutional morality’ as self-restraint should constitute the ground rule for the free play of democratic politics. But the moot point is: whether the political class in today’s India can claim adherence to it. Does not this appropriation of Ambedkar’s argument from the Constituent Assembly debates by all and sundry today look insincere, selective and insensitive to the larger context in which it was presented, with the obvious intention of just running away from a more nuanced and reasoned debate on the issues in question?

However, the question as to whether the representative is a trustee of the people’s will or a mere delegate, who is to be continuously commanded by the constituents, is itself an open and unresolved issue in the annals of representative democracy since the time of Burke and Mill, who had strained their nerves to come to a definite answer to this dilemma. The present turmoil on the issue of enacting a Lokpal Bill seems to have further aggravated this unresolved riddle of democratic politics, which has been smouldering since the time direct democracy of a participatory mode made way for the indirect one; along with the resultant question as to whether authorisation through election implies giving a carte blanche to the representatives till the next election to do whatever they may consider and construe to be the constituents’ interests. Or, are the representatives only delegates, who have to take directive and command from the people, whom they represent, from time to time and at different stages of political transactions? Not only this. Would the represented, when they feel that their mandate has been betrayed, be within their democratic right to demand an account from their representatives and foist their will on them through democratic means, even before the expiry of their electoral term?

Though, what constitutes democratic means in a democratic polity is itself an unsettled matter in today’s context, as electoral politics no longer performs its role as the only dependable channel of democratic transactions for the people due to a number of its operative deformities. And one thing is very clear that these posers are growing in importance by the day due to the legitimacy-deficit of the elected representatives and each time they are put forth by a discontented civil society, they only cast a longer shadow on the fate of representative democracy which often waxes eloquent about the procedural legitimacy, institutional efficacy and neutrality of its political space. One of the members of Team Anna, Prashant Bhushan, observes that ‘the representative democracy was developed at a time and in the circumstances when there was no mechanism available to know the views of the people on various issues on a continuous basis. But with the technological advances attained over the years, we can now move in the direction of more meaningful involvement of the civil society in the governance through dialogue and deliberations.’ By saying so, he rakes up a crucial issue; that is, the issue of accountability and responsiveness of the representatives towards their constituents in a democracy.

One of the authorities on the political representation, Hanna Pitkin, has said that ‘responsiveness need not to be constant activity in the representative democratic system. But there has to be a constant condition of responsiveness in the sense that the potential readiness of the representatives to respond should ever be present. … The age-old conundrum of democratic accountability is as relevant today as it was when direct participatory democracy transited towards a representative system. Now it is being proved again and again that the accountability and responsiveness issues are valid in themselves and have to be settled on their own terms. They can neither be taken care of within the emotive politics of group rights, as the failure of the social justice politics and their champions in some of the Indian States to stand accountable to their own social constituency, which had reposed so much faith in them, would bear it out. Nor can they be mortgaged to the abstract liberal democratic discourse of institutional neutrality, constitutional oath and secular fidelity, as their omissions and commissions have now become political folklore. Hence, if such meanings are derived from the Anna phenomenon, it would be a better service to the cause of Indian democracy than hiding behind the political rhetoric of parliamentary sovereignty and the civil society’s deformities in India.

It hardly needs any mention that India has neither gone for parliamentary sovereignty of the British type, nor has it adopted the judicial supremacy of the American variety. It has, instead, settled for a doctrine of ‘constitutional supremacy’, which proclaims sovereignty of the people. Can anyone overlook the fact that the Constitution of India swears in the name of ‘we the people’ at the very outset and this precedes everything else including the institution of Parliament? The author is an Associate Professor in Political Science, RLAE College, University of Delhi.

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