Populism, freedom and democracy

Defending free speech is best done by voting

The Indian governments’ second cave-in over Salman Rushdie at Jaipur last week should worry us. The Rajiv Gandhi government’s surrender to Muslim ‘sentiment’ over Satanic Verses triggered the process of competitive intolerance that has created an environment where anyone—citing religious feelings—can have books, movies and art banned, and their creators persecuted. A quarter of a century is usually sufficient to reflect on the follies of the past, realise the consequences of the mistakes made and resolve not to repeat them. The UPA government could have managed Salman Rushdie’s appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival better. Here was an opportunity to not only reverse the tide of competitive intolerance but also secure an unassailable position in the political landscape.

Yet, the Congress regime failed. And failed abjectly. All it could do was to use low cunning to create fear and uncertainty among the participants. Those who believe that the first duty of the government is to protect citizens from violence will conclude that the UPA government in New Delhi and the Congress government in Jaipur have failed. After all, if we are to allow violent people to determine what a citizen can or cannot do, why do we need government in the first place?

“But it’s about UP elections!” comes the reply, as if fundamental rights are subject to the political exigencies of state assembly elections. While it is understandable that political partisans—who see everything through the lens of costs and benefits to the party they support—will offer this as an explanation, excuse and justification rolled into one, there is no reason for the rest of the citizenry to accept this as the ‘logic’.

“But under the Indian Constitution, fundamental rights are not absolute and the government has the right to place reasonable restrictions on them” comes another reply. This is an accurate statement. From the debates in the Constituent Assembly, to the verdicts of the Supreme Court and to the opinion of experts in constitutional law, there is no doubt that the Indian Republic seeks a balance between individual liberty and public order. Ergo, some actions by the government to abridge liberty in the interests of maintaining order are constitutionally legitimate. This is intended to give the government flexibility. It would be ridiculous to argue that the Constitution is so constructed to cause the government to yield to threats of violence. It would be wrong to blame the Constitution for a particular government’s cravenness or failure.

What then should we make of this affair? As Andre Beteille explains in his masterful essay on constitutional morality, the Indian system is prone to swings between constitutionalism and populism, with the former asserting liberty and the latter assailing it. Why, though, should populism be opposed to individual liberty?

Phrased differently, why should the government cave in to the demands of the intolerant and not to demands of the liberal? Actually, this is the same as asking “why is it unsafe for women to walk on our streets, why is it that our courts take too long to decide cases, why is it that we need a scores of licenses to start a business, why is it that it is so difficult for our children to get a seat in a good school, why is it that we don’t have decent drinking water, electricity supply, hospitals and, and, and …?” Given the public awareness and indeed consensus that these issues need to be tackled, why is the government so uninterested in pursuing these goals with any seriousness?

The answer might surprise you. It’s because India’s democracy is functioning as it should and the politicians are sensitive to the demands of their voters. The electorate is getting what it wants. The population isn’t. Public discourse in India is unduly influenced by the middle class, not least because it constitutes the market for our media. Middle India believes that that issues that it is preoccupied with should also concern political parties and the government. And when it observes that this isn’t quite what is happening, it is disappointed and—like a hopeless romantic who hits the bottle—drowns its sorrows in cynicism.

Democracy is a numbers game. Those with larger numbers can use the flexibility in the Indian Constitution to have their way to a larger extent. Now we can wish that we had a less flexible constitution where this wouldn’t be possible. But not all wishes have their Santa Clauses. Or, we could start practising democracy. Explaining the failure of the old Indian Liberal Party (in 1943!) B R Ambedkar drew attention to what he called “the elementary fact”, that “organization is essential for the accomplishment of any purpose and particularly in politics, where the harnessing of so many divergent elements in a working unity is so great.”

Technology has made organisation of large numbers of like-purposed people fairly easy. As Atanu Dey has argued, forming voluntary voter’s associations can make an individual voter more effective. It’s being put into action too—see the United Voters of India online platform.

Ultimately, though, it depends on how much of the population becomes the effective electorate. In other words, it depends on whether you vote or not. If you don’t, why blame political parties or the government for giving voters what they want?

, , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses to Populism, freedom and democracy

  1. Bhagwad Jal Park 30th January 2012 at 09:44 #

    You hit the nail on the head. If citizens are not going to be provided protection from hooligans and thugs, why do we even HAVE a damn government?

  2. balachandran 30th January 2012 at 10:11 #

    you are quite right. dignity and freedom of expression should not be at the mercy of the ‘moral’ mob. but democracy is the only form which guarantees rights and, more so, duties.

    • Bhagwad Jal Park 31st January 2012 at 09:13 #

      Actually no other free country apart from India has this nebulous concept of “duties”. They’re a joke since they’re not legally enforceable unlike rights which the government has a mandate and an obligation to uphold.

      We need to get rid this “duties” concept since extremists make use of it to justify all kinds of restrictions on our guaranteed rights.

More in Public Policy (54 of 546 articles)


The Prime Minister's Office is on Twitter. Good. But what about the rest? Watch the whole programme on NDTV online ...