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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 49, November 29, 2014

Beyond Populism

Monday 1 December 2014, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Two events marking the beginning of the long Budget session of Parliament fitted in neatly to highlight the realities of the present-day Indian politics.

On Parliament’s opening day New Delhi witnessed a massive turn-out of people from all over the country, with of course the neighbouring States providing the largest quota: special trains by scores and buses, both State-owned and private, commandeered by those in authority, brought this huge concourse to the Capital, a sort of Delhi durbar—the Congress-I’s greatest show on earth right in the heart of the Capital.

The organisers of this show—rightly called a mela rather than a rally, as it had all the trappings of a vast picnic-pilgrimage to get a darshan of Indira Gandhi—should feel satisfied at their achievement, and these include all and sundry in the Congress-I and extending upto the entire administration, both Central and State-level, with a battery of Chief Ministers right on attendance in the Capital, Predominantly rural in composition, the unprecedented gathering had a good number of workers and employees from nearby industrial centres of UP and Haryana, where many of the owners were directed to keep their factories closed and draft their work-force in buses and trucks, as their contribution to this mighty gathering for the benefit of the ruling party.

It is understandable that, piqued by the jathas and rallies, the marches and morchas of Kisans that the Opposition parties have been bringing out for the last few months, Indira Gandhi might have felt the necessity to demonstrate the backing she commands among the very same Kisans. The immediate provocation for arranging the million-strong demonstration was reported to be to preempt the Delhi march of Kisans that some of the Opposition parties have planned to take out in March. No doubt, the Indira Congress has largely succeeded in this, as this one is likely to take the wind out of the sails of the Opposition —a telling commentary on the discomfiture of the Left indulging in mindless populism instead of severely concentrating on building solid bases at the grassroots.

In the short-run politics, Indira Gandhi may have stolen a march over the Opposition, but the long-term implications of such mass demons-trations—there is talk of repeating the show at the State capitals as well—for India’s body-politic can hardly be overlooked. From populism to Peronism is but one step, and Peronism does not reinforce democracy. Not with a grapes-are-sour outlook this unprecedented mass mobilisation needs to be attacked as some of the frustrated Opposition leaders seem to be doing, but the wisdom of going in for mass management by the executive machinery needs to be questioned if one is concerned about the health of a functioning democracy.

If this so-called Kisan mela overshadowed Parliament on its opening day from outside, the happenings within its precincts the very next day were equally ominous. For the first time in its history, India’s Parliament witnessed a fist-fight indulged in by the members inside the chamber of the Lok Sabha, and more disturbing, it was touched off by one or more members of the ruling party trying physically to gag a member belonging to the very same party for having tried to raise a perfectly valid issue but presumably embarrassing to those in power. Scuffles and fisticuffs have long been part of the rich experience of the State Assemblies, but when such rowdyism invades Parliament it becomes a costly luxury. One need not be an addict or adulator of the Westminster model but any blatant violation of the norms of parliamentary democracy is bound to have its inexorable repercussion. The constraints that convention imposes in upholding decent conduct in the functioning of Parliament is not just part of upper-class morality but the only practical means by which the business of governance could be shared in by elected representatives of the public. A revolutionary overturning of the parliamentary system brings into politics a new dimension which may have its own popular sanction, but rowdyism is as near to revolution as a Raj Narain is to a Cromwell, not to speak of a Lenin or a Mao.

The calculated devaluation of the present system in the absence of any other and better system being in the offing can only lead to either anarchy or despotism or an amalgam of both which would snuff out democratic forces along with democracy itself.

These are the grim options that face this country. They are grim for Indira Gandhi too. There are people in her court who try to excel in sycophancy by loudly proclaiming their preference for a presidential system of government. Obviously the present machinery for wielding power is riddled with a thousand flaws, but the presidential system is going to be more dangerous for Indira Gandhi than the present one, because it will make her, in the eyes of the populace, directly responsible for all acts of omission and commission: she will be bereft of the baffle wall, however notional today, of the plea of Cabinet responsibility, and to that measure will make her, as the sole repository of power, wholly accountable to the people and therefore infinitely more vulnerable. In a situation of mounting discontent, having divested herself of any functioning political party at her disposal, the wielding of power through a single-point authority as envisaged in any presidential form of government, would confront Indira Gandhi with far greater difficulty than she faces today.

Neither rabble rousing nor angry gesticulations in the Senate saved Rome. There is little reason to believe that such antics can strengthen Indian democracy. This is a point which both Indira Gandhi and her opponents will do well to keep in mind.

(Mainstream, February 21, 1981)