Euphoria and caution greet a new democratic experiment

Mr. Kejriwal’s supporters now begin to question the legality of his conduct,his utterances about there being no real democracy in India, and about the futility of celebrating Republic Day.

L.K. Sharma
L.K. Sharma
31 January 2014
Arvind Kejriwal

Arvind Kejriwal is sworn in as the New Delhi Chief Minister. Demotix/Rohit Gautum. All rights reserved.Democracy in India has had a relatively smooth passage. Many foreign experts were sceptical about how the unlettered millions including women were going to cope with the universal adult franchise. The largest democracy soon gained recognition and respect. In the initial phase, elected law-makers tended to make Burkean statements in New Delhi’s high-domed Parliament House. The leaders talked to the masses about democratic rights, development and modernity. So why, after more than six decades of generally creditable democratic rule, has democracy become a major talking point now?

A furious debate is raging over such concepts as participatory democracy, referendum through mobile phone messages, the right to recall elected representatives and the voter’s right to record on the ballot paper that she rejects ‘all the above’. Some people are talking of “development vs. democracy”, ignoring the fact that but for democracy, famines would have continued to assail India.

The premier institutions of democracy are attracting contempt because of the entry of many criminals into electoral politics. A once-respected class of politicians now invites ridicule. The failure of governance generates comments reflecting a declining faith in democracy, while the ills of misrule and corruption are attributed to democracy itself.

So someone at the Jaipur Literature Festival asks the panel: “What is the basic need for democracy?” Another chips in to say that a participatory democracy cannot curb regressive social tendencies, “The British Government could not have outlawed widow-burning through a referendum!” And a newly-anointed politician warns the people against dictators coming to power “through democratic methods.”

Meanwhile, the political leader projected as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP is seen by many commentators as a potential dictator. This is the first time that a party has formally announced a candidate before the elections. In the country’s parliamentary system, the prime minister is chosen by the MPs of the party that gains a majority in the House.

The common man gets organised

The current vigorous debate on democracy began due to popular disenchantment bordering on disgust, with the Government and the law-makers. This disenchantment sparked an anti-corruption movement which in turn spawned an untraditional political party. The Aam Aadmi Party (‘the common man’s organization’) came up with an unexpectedly impressive performance in the state-level elections in the national capital. This symbolised a break from an established political order that had come to depend heavily on money and muscle power. It caught the public’s imagination, with its appeal transcending the usual barriers of caste, class, religion and religion. Many of those who stay away from a political party have joined its ranks.

AAP delayed the formation of the government despite the offer of support by the Congress. It unleashed a mobile message campaign asking the people to say whether it should form a government. When it formed the Government, it was promptly to take populist measures related to water and electricity charges as promised in its election manifesto. This amounted to fiscal irresponsibility; but in the post-election euphoria, the party only gathered more popular support.

However, AAP is now facing attacks for encouraging lawlessness and mobocracy. If this trend gathers momentum, many AAP supporters may discover that even their new-found Messiah has feet of clay.  The new chief minister of Delhi defies prohibitory orders and unleashes a mass protest in a high-security zone on the eve of the prestigious Republic Day celebrations. He left his office to agitate against the Union Government. The city was held to ransom as his followers caused chaos in the city, disrupting public transport and causing massive traffic jams.

The state chief minister demanded the suspension of some lowly police officers who had ignored his vigilante law minister’s illegal instructions to raid the home of some foreign women at night. The new state chief minister also demanded that the national capital’s police force be transferred from the Union Government to under his jurisdiction.

These so-called “common” men of Delhi spent the day in considerable discomfort. Most of them, while wanting corruption to be eradicated, were not amused by the disruption to their daily lives. Naturally, questions are being raised about what a democratic order is in the wake of this dramatic protest. Mr. Kejriwal’s supporters now begin to question the legality of his conduct, and his utterances about there being no real democracy in the country, and about the futility of celebrating Republic Day. Mr. Kejriwal liked the idea of being called an anarchist and declared that indeed he was one. He asked the Delhi police personnel to take off their uniforms and join him! The darling of the media was now seen as a villain.

Mr. Kejriwal, who had threatened a longer agitation with the implied threat of disrupting the Republic Day celebration, later accepted a face-saving formula and drew his agitation to a close.

The AAP leader will also find it difficult to implement the promised inner-party democracy. As long as AAP was agitating against corruption and painting his rival politicians as devils, the single-point agenda strengthened unity in the party.

Establishing inner-party democracy is going to be very hard for Mr. Kejriwal. Some AAP members have already started to criticise him, prefacing their remarks with the observation that dissent is supposed to be allowed in this new party. The profile of the AAP membership is very different. It has few professional politicians, who might tend to observe party discipline for fear of antagonising a leader having the power of patronage. A large number of AAP members are successful professionals, who do not aspire to office. They feel free to criticise what they see as a misstep by the party leader. An influential supporter has already voiced disapproval of Mr. Kejriwal’s opposition to foreign direct investment in the retail sector. This is the internal challenge that Mr. Kejriwal inevitably will face.

On the external front, since he has condemned all major political parties as corrupt, it will be difficult for the party to join any ruling coalition should the national elections fail to throw up a clear winner, as seems likely.

Most political commentators have attributed Mr. Kejriwal’s unusual conduct to his plan to force the Congress to withdraw its support so that he can gleefully preside over the fall of his own state government and emerge as a political martyr. This could win his party great sympathy and more votes in the coming national elections.

A question mark

Thus it is feared that the agitator-turned-chief minister may resume his protest politics with even greater fervour, instead of dealing with his administrative responsibilities. Will another agitation by the Delhi chief minister follow soon? Will his political scheme work? Mr. Kejriwal’s conduct has placed a question mark over the future of this novel experiment in democracy.

Indians understand only too well that democracy can also be used to subvert democracy. On at least three occasions, India has avoided enacting the Indian version of the ‘Arab Spring’. This despite the fact that Indians, unlike say Britons, are susceptible to mass hysteria. A rumour can ignite violence. On one occasion of mass discontent in the past, for example, when a charismatic agitator-in-chief called upon the army to revolt, a democratically elected Prime Minister decided to curtail democratic rights in order to avert disorder and chaos. She was widely condemned, but many Indians saw her as the saviour of the nation.

Arvind Kejriwal

Arvind Kejriwal announces the end of protest to his supporters in Delhi. Demotix/Sarika Gulati. All rights reserved.

In the recent past, an anti-corruption mass movement could easily have been hijacked by a few hundred hoodlums and mischief-makers of whom there is never a shortage. In that state of mass frenzy, it is easy to create a situation leading to violence and counter-violence.

Similarly, Mr. Kejriwal’s protest in a high-security zone on the eve of the Republic Day celebrations was pregnant with dangerous developments. The events in Libya, Egypt and Syria have made only too clear the dangers of mobocracy.

In India, public protests have been part of the democratic polity but an agitation is generally followed by negotiations and discussions. A political storm leads to mutual accommodation and reforms. This surprises many foreign observers.  On hearing of Indira Gandhi’s electoral defeat, an Iranian diplomat went through the motion of slicing his throat by moving the palm of his hand across it. He told his Indian diplomat friend, “Mrs. Gandhi khallas”. (The gesture and words mean: now she will be executed.) His friend replied: “We do not do things like that in India!”

Despite its rumbustious nature and its serious flaws, something must be said about the democratic culture inherited from the ancient Indian tradition of democracy and from the Westminster model.

But, to return to the opening question, why has democracy become a major talking point now?

Democracy a talking point

It is feared that the election season may witness heightened sectarian tensions. This is attributed to the "vote-bank politics" practised by all parties. Then the main opposition party BJP has fielded the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. Mr Modi's conduct during the sectarian violence in his state in 2002 remains very controversial.

Before every election, the political parties compete by highlighting their economic policies and programmes. But in the current election season, the functioning of democracy itself has become a topic of hectic debates.

On the positive side, due to the popular disenchantment with the "system" and with the entire political class, some basic political reforms are being promised by all parties.

1. For the first time a new political force emerged and even managed to perform unexpectedly well in the state-level elections in the national capital, challenging the conventional view linking electoral performance to the use of money and muscle power. The popularity of this new party has surprised the political pundits. The shocked established parties are trying to go back to the basics!

2. In the past, the only new parties were some splinter groups that acquired power and then faded away. And they came into being on the strength of a regional identity. They could never venture forth beyond their region. This time a new political force has transcended regional identities and yet humbled the well-established traditional parties. After doing well in the Delhi state-level elections, AAP has drawn up a plan to spread its message across the nation through the parliamentary elections.

3. At a time when India is witnessing growing divisions based on caste, class and religious and regional identities, the new party was able to draw support from diverse economic and social segments whose economic interests clash.

4. Since corruption and criminalisation of politics have emerged as major issues, the established parties are being forced to think of reforms. Even the selection of the parliamentary candidates is sought to be made more "democratic". The Congress is toying with the idea of holding US-style "primaries" for selecting a few of its candidates. The Congress vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, promises inner-party democracy. This was never considered practical in the Indian political system.

5. The electoral promises by the political parties this time include not just the usual populist measures but also some basic systemic reforms. If implemented, these will strengthen the roots of the democratic order and curb the growing disenchantment with the functioning of the democratic order. 

6. A new dimension to the public debate on democracy has been provided by events such as the "Arab Spring". The aversion of the middle class to "mobocracy" has been accentuated. It was quick to condemn the unusual street protest by the new Chief Minister of Delhi that caused chaos in the city for several hours. The very same AAP leader was the darling of the middle class till just the other day.

7. The two prominent themes this time are the dominance of political dynasties and the need for a generational change in the leadership of all parties because of the changing profile of the electorate. The voters are talking more about the functioning of the democratic order and not just about the tax concessions and other sops promised by the rival parties.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData