December 15, 2020The Printliberal democracy

The real problem is that we have too little republic

A democracy decides on issues based on popularity, often according to the will of the majority. A republic qualifies majority decisions by forcing them to be consistent with a set of principles that even majorities cannot violate.

The Print This is an unedited cut of my weekly column in The Print (2018-2021)

The debate that Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant unwittingly triggered over the extent of democracy in India was passionate, lively and largely beside the point. What is of utmost and urgent importance at this time is the plummeting level of rule-of-law and rule-by-law in the country. We have too little republic’ amid growing, even competing majoritarianisms among the population and populisms among its leaders. In fact, I would venture that while a large number of adults in India understand and accept democracy as an important political value, the number of people who know what a republic is and ought to be is much smaller. We celebrate Republic Day with a big military parade in New Delhi and patriotic songs in schools and neighbourhoods, with little realisation of why exactly it is different from, say, Independence Day.

The idea of a republic goes beyond a State whose head is a president and not a monarch. It is fundamentally a restraint on tyranny — whether by the monarch or the majority. A democracy decides on issues based on popularity, often according to the will of the majority. A republic qualifies majority decisions by forcing them to be consistent with a set of principles that even majorities cannot violate. The most important of these principles are liberty, equality, fraternity and justice. That is why Indian constitutional jurisprudence upholds — and I use the present tense with a mixture of hope and anxiety — the basic structure’ of the Constitution. The values enshrined in the preamble, our fundamental rights, the secular nature of the State and the rule of law form this basic structure’ and are beyond the power of any parliamentary majority to change. A lot of people mistakenly believe they get their rights because India is a democracy. On the contrary, they are assured of their rights because India is a republic.

Democracy over republic

While an odd comment by a prominent civil servant drives us into paroxysms of debate over democracy, there is scarcely a whimper at the constant, popular undermining of the republic. Here’s a brief history of the past decade. One government made retrospective laws, violating the most basic premise of the rule of law. A massive public movement rode roughshod over the parliamentary process demanding that parliament enact a law the crowd outside it made. Independent institutions were steadily undermined by a popular elected government. The Supreme Court, among others, demurred over hearing habeas corpus petitions. Protesters seeking entitlements vandalise highway and railway property. Increasingly emboldened religious processions get a free pass from the authorities. Law enforcement authorities take openly partisan actions. In the corporate world, shares change hands based on political power. All around there is too little republic’ and we are not even aware of the dangers of this deficiency.

Just because we are unaware of the diminishing strength of the Indian republic does not mean we do not suffer its consequences. People might not acknowledge the declining rule of law, but they will act in ways that reveal their lack of trust in the Indian State and its institutions. The farmers’ agitation is a symptom of their distrust in the intentions, laws and processes of the Indian State. They are prepared to live with a known devil rather than put faith in the promise of an unknown god. Similarly, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime is in a mess because governments, businesses and individuals do not trust each other and insist on guarantees that add up to a massively complex system. It’s why people celebrate extra-judicial killings — they don’t trust law enforcement and the judicial system. Workers at a smartphone factory in Karnataka resort to vandalism when the employer doesn’t pay their dues because they do not believe they will get redressal through the system. Those who can afford it have made private arrangements for everything, from schools and healthcare to electricity, water and security.

Reform, a hard bargain

So it’s not really about democracy. Reform is hard in India because too much social distrust arising from too little republicanism has rendered our political system dysfunctional. Majoritarianism — including, but not only of the Hindu nationalist variety — exacerbates the distrust and hence the dysfunction. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scorching what was left of the middle ground, political parties and ordinary people are left with the binary choice of supporting or opposing whatever is proposed by the Narendra Modi government. As the government is discovering in the case of the agricultural reforms, this can also result in political allies parting ways. If the outcome of it all is the rejection and reversing of the necessary reforms, it is not because there was too much or too little democracy, but because too few took the constitutional path in right earnest.

The rest of my The Print columns are here

As I wrote last week, In a country where there are thousands of interest groups, with lakhs of grievances, the dissolution of constitutional constraints is a recipe for turmoil.” We need more republic, and for reasons far beyond successful economic reforms.

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