December 8, 2020The Printliberal democracy

India’s slide into constitutional grey zone

We must recognise that our political culture has swung too much towards populism, and that constitutional methods and the promise of justice are not only nice principles but also crucial to holding this country together.

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

It is nearly impossible to apply objective constitutional principles to determine rights and wrongs with respect to the ongoing farmers’ protests. And this should concern patriotic Indians.

Ordinarily, coercive public protests and today’s Bharat Bandh cannot be considered constitutional methods and would fall into the category of the grammar of anarchy” that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar warned us about. But he qualified his disapproval of public protests and satyagraha with the condition that where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods.” Given how the Narendra Modi government pushed through the agricultural reforms in a truncated session of Parliament, and the infinite wisdom and boundless patience of the judges of the Supreme Court, the protesting farmers can reasonably argue that constitutional methods are too unreliable. But then again, how is it justified for farmers — no matter how legitimate their grievances — to block roads and hold up the lives and livelihoods of other people? Shouldn’t the law be enforced to protect the livelihoods and property of innocent people adversely affected by protests and the Bharat Bandh?

Unfortunately, who is right and who is wrong has become subjective and polarised. The answer depends on which side you support. Almost everyone opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is supporting the farmers’ demands. Opposition parties have bandwagoned onto a cause they believe will hurt the Modi government. To the latter’s supporters, there is nothing wrong in the manner in which the reforms were enacted, the farmers are wrong, misled and perhaps even anti-national’. Few people know the facts of the case and issues at stake, and I don’t think many even care. All that matters is the political duel and who wins’ it.

Objectively, on the policy issues and the methods used by both the BJP and the farmers’ organisations, there are a lot of Yes, but…”. Policy issues are always like that, but in principle, there is only one legitimate method to resolve them — that of the Constitution. But no side is playing by the Constitution in letter and spirit, and we are hurtling headlong into a grey zone where the rule of law is no longer the yardstick for anything. If the slow drift towards this trishanku zone began right after India adopted the Constitution in 1950, it accelerated in recent decades and is now a landslide. We should worry when Voldemort begins to sound reasonable when he says …there is only power and those too weak to seek it.” For when we cannot find constitutional answers, it is power that ultimately decides the issue.

Power to coerce

If the farmers’ movement is getting a hearing from the Modi government’s ministers, it is because thousands of them are in a position to blockade the capital. It is their street power and their narrative power — the fact that it is very hard even for the BJP to vilify the Indian farmer in public discourse — that the government has started negotiations with them. It also helps that the farmers have a specific economic demand revolving around the minimum support price (MSP), which allows the balance of political power to adjudicate the narrow issue.

Analysing the political culture of coercive public protests in India back in 1962, political scientist David Bayley warned that as a result of the destruction of the rule of law and of the rule of the majority, a sort of Gresham’s Law begins to affect the nature of political responses. Direct action and recourse to social violence—either threatened or actual—begin to drive out the orderly, constitutional responses demanded in a democratic state. Coercive public protest, if allowed to go unrestrained, will be more widely imitated and become an even greater rival to the processes of peaceful change through democratic government.”

Contrast the current protests with a recent one by Tamil Nadu farmers, who didn’t have enough strength to threaten New Delhi with major disruption; or with the anti-CAA/NRC protesters at Shaheen Bagh, who were demanding the upholding of constitutional principles, not seeking economic entitlements. The message is clear: the government does what it wants and negotiates only when it is coerced by an opposing power. In a country where there are thousands of interest groups, with lakhs of grievances, the dissolution of constitutional constraints is a recipe for turmoil.

The rest of my The Print columns are here

Our ancients had a name for the state we are heading towards: matsya nyaya, or the law of fish, where the big fish eats the small fish. In such a world, there is economic stagnation, social unrest, political violence and worse. To avoid this fate, we must first recognise that our political culture has swung too much towards populism, and that constitutional methods and the promise of justice are not only nice principles but also crucial to holding this country together. Sociologist Andre Beteille once pointed out that the people of India are destined to oscillate endlessly between the two poles of constitutionalism and populism without ever discarding the one or the other.” We should swing back before it’s too late.

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