Tag Archives | ambedkar

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?

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A million ironies now – grammar of anarchy edition

Constitutional defence

B R Ambedkar’s grammar of anarchy speech at the Constituent Assembly—a perennial favourite with us at Takshashila—got several mentions last week in the light of Anna Hazare’s hunger strike demanding a draconian Jan Lok Pal bill against corruption. There’s no harm repeating the relevant words from his speech:

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us. [Pragati]

Anupam Kher, who was part of the celebrity set that supported Anna Hazare’s hunger strike, is alleged to have criticised the Constitution (drafted under Ambedkar’s chairmanship) on television. His exact words are in dispute but members of the Republican Party of India—a party once-led by Ambedkar—decided to take the decidedly unconstitutional route of vandalising Mr Kher’s house to protest the insult to the Constitution.

The Sanvidhan Bachao Manch (the Protect the Constitution Platform) of Mumbai has correctly arrived at the conclusion that “The Lokpal would be the ultimate authority if the bill is passed. He would be above Parliament and the Judiciary which challenges the basics of democracy.” So they have decided to organise a peaceful protest rally at, well, August Kranti Maidan, on April 14th, Ambedkar’s birth anniversary.

What would Babasaheb say?

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Against Jan Lok Pal and the politics of hunger strikes

Tackling corruption requires economic reforms and a popular re-engagement with electoral politics

The idea of a Jan Lok Pal is flawed and profoundly misunderstands the causes and solutions of corruption in India. It seeks to create another chunk of government, more processes and rules, to solve a problem that, in part, exists because of too many chunks of government, too many processes and rules. [See Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s column and this editorial in the Business-Standard]

If the Jan Lok Pal presides over the same system that has corrupted civil servants, politicians, anti-corruption watchdogs, judges, media, civil society groups and ordinary citizens, why should we expect that the ombudsman will be incorruptible? Because the person is handpicked by unelected, unaccountable ‘civil society’ members? Those who propose that Nobel laureates (of Indian origin, not even of Indian citizenship) and Ramon Magsaysay Award winners should be among those who pick the Great Ombudsman of India—who is both policeman and judge—insult the hundreds of millions of ordinary Indian voters who regularly exercise their right to franchise. For they are demanding that the Scandinavian grandees in the Nobel Committee and the Filipino members of the Magsaysay foundation should have an indirect role in selecting an all-powerful Indian official. [See this post at Reality Check India]

The argument that people should be involved in drafting legislation is fine, even if it misses the point that the government is not a foreign entity but a representative of the people. It is entirely other thing to demand that the legislation drafted by an self-appointed, unaccountable and unrepresentative set of people be passed at the threat of blackmail. If we must have representatives of the people involved in lawmaking, we are better off if they are the elected ones, however flawed, as opposed to self-appointed ones, whatever prizes the latter might have won.

The Jan Lok Pal will become another logjammed, politicised and ultimately corrupt institution, for the passionate masses who demand new institutions have a poor record of protecting existing ones. Where were the holders of candles, wearers of Gandhi topis and hunger strikers when the offices of the Chief Election Commissioner, the Central Vigilance Commissioner and even the President of the Republic were handed out to persons with dubious credentials? If you didn’t come out to protest the perversion of these institutions why are you somehow more likely to turn up to protest when a dubious person is sought to be made the Jan Lok Pal?

But this is us. Given this reality, the solution for corruption and malgovernance should be one that does not rely the notoriously apathetic middle classes to come out on the streets. The solution is to take away the powers of discretion, the powers of rent-seeking from the government and restore it back to the people. This is the idea of economic freedom. Societies with greater economic freedom have lower corruption. We have long argued that we are in this mess because we have been denied Reforms 2.0.

How can we have Reforms 2.0 if “those politicians” are unwilling to implement them? The answer is simple: by voting. Economic reforms are not on anyone’s political agenda because those who are most likely to benefit from them do not vote, and do not vote strategically. At this point, it is usual to hear loud protests about how voting doesn’t work, most often by those who do not vote. This flies in the face of empirical evidence—when hundreds of millions of people turn up to vote. If it were not working for them, why would they be voting? They might not be demanding Reform 2.0, but something else, and are getting what they want. Instead of ephemeral displays of outrage—what happened to those post 26/11 candle-light vigils?—it is engagement in the electoral process that is necessary. There are some innovative ideas—like that of voters associations—that can be attempted.

There are no better words than those of B R Ambedkar on the place of satyagraha in India after Constitution came into force on 26th January 1950:

“…we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.” [B R Ambedkar/Constituent Assembly]

In my view civil disobedience in general and hunger strikes in particular must be used in the most exceptional circumstances where constitutional methods are unavailable or denied, and only till the time constitutional methods remain unavailable or denied.

Some contend that the system isn’t working, or has been so perverted by the incumbent government, that it is necessary to resort to public agitation. This is a dubious argument. Constitutional democracy is an enlightened way to make policy by reconciling—to the extent possible—the diverse interests, opinions and levels of political empowerments of a diverse population. Any other way amounts to coercion in one form or the other.

If we are to allow that hunger strikes and street protests do better than constitutional methods, then how would you decide issues where there are sharp differences? If two Gandhians go on hunger strikes asking for polar opposites, do we settle the issue by seeing who gives up first? What if competing groups escalate the agitation to violence against each other? Should we condone civil war?

The working of those constitutional mechanisms can and must be improved. By us. The anti-defection law must go. India doesn’t have a comprehensive law governing political parties. It needs one. Police reforms have been stalled for decades. There is a substantial reform agenda that must be pursued. By us.

However, the inability to implement these reforms is no excuse for resorting to civil disobedience or, as it happens in other countries, calling in a dictatorship of the proletariat, the military or the priesthood.

The Jan Lok Pal bill is not a solution to the problem of corruption. It risks making matters worse. Hunger strikes are not the right means to promote a policy agenda in a constitutional democracy like ours. The promoters and supporters of Jan Lok Pal and the public agitation to achieve it are profoundly misguided. Their popularity stems from having struck a vein of middle class outrage against the UPA government’s misdeeds. That doesn’t mean that the solutions they offer are right.

The Acorn opposes Jan Lok Pal and the politics of hunger strikes as much as it opposes corruption and misgovernance.

Related Links: Offstumped has a series of posts on the subject. See also Atanu Dey, Satyameva Jayate, Sanjeev Sabhlok and the Filter Coffee here on INI. The March 2011 issue of Pragati covered these themes: see Rohit Pradhan’s take on the importance of constitutional morality.

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More makers of modern India

Rajadhyaksha’s review of Guha’s book

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha has a fine review of Ramachandra Guha’s “Makers of Modern India” in Mint.

Reading through the selections of the 19 makers of modern India, one is struck by the sheer diversity of concerns that gripped their minds—the gradual reformism of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the militant populism of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the enlightened globalism of Rabindranath Tagore, the attacks on caste by E.V. Ramaswami, the feminism of Shinde, the nation-building of Nehru, the futile quest for alternatives to parliamentary democracy by Jayaprakash Narayan, the fight for a free market economy by C. Rajagopalachari, the sharp investigations into caste as a central fact of Indian life by Ram Manohar Lohia and the insights into tribal life by Elwin.

These and other leaders have continued relevance. The splendid economic boom that India is in the middle of will inevitably be socially disruptive as well. It is a well-documented fact that the social strain of such disruption often leads to rebellion or hyper nationalism, to anarchy or oligarchic rule. We see early signs of all these in India, in tribal rage harvested by the Naxalites and the flag waving encouraged by the mainstream political parties. It is critical at such as juncture that India remains in touch with the enlightened political thought that emerged in response to colonial rule and later gave us a liberal republic.

A sound understanding of Indian political traditions would also help us understand the importance of Ambedkar’s perceptive warning on 25 November 1949. [Read the whole thing at Mint]

That Ambedkar’s Grammar of Anarchy speech should make it into the book is appropriate. Contemporary India must read and reflect on perhaps the most prescient set of warnings that the republic’s founding fathers left behind. Ambedkar is well-known, even if his actual ideas are now forgotten, but Mr Guha has done well to commemorate lesser known, not no less brilliant thinkers too. (The book has Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Ambedkar, Periyar, Raja Rammohan Roy, Syed Ahmad Khan, Jotirao Phule, Gokhale, Tilak, Tarabai Shinde, Jinnah, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Golwalkar and Lohia)

Mr Rajadhyaksha rightly points out that Mr Guha’s work will be contentious because of who it leaves out. I personally think Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, or “Gora”, should be more than a footnote in modern India’s intellectual history. There are many more.

So why not share who you think ought to be considered a maker of modern India in the comments space? (Note: if you are linking to a URL, please ensure that you enclose it in valid HTML tags)

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