Addressing the National Management Convention of the All India Management Association earlier this week, Union home minister Amit Shah, while emphatically declaring that India will be a $5 trillion economy and praising the Narendra Modi government for its bold and decisive acts, raised doubts about the usefulness of a multi-party polity. He said that the debates of the Constituent Assembly showed that the founding fathers had hoped that a multi-party democracy would create a welfare state, but after 70 years it seems that the people have realised that multi-party democracy has not succeeded. The Press Information Bureau, in its redoubt of the home minister’s speech, quoted him as saying: “But after nearly 70 years of Independence, there was a question in the minds of the people whether the vision of the founding fathers had been realised. Whether the multi-party democratic system had failed to fulfil the aspirations of the citizens of the country?”
The spokespersons of the government and of the party are sure to say that Mr Shah had made the remark in passing, and that his focus was more on the decision-making abilities of the Modi government compared to the Manmohan Singh government’s “policy paralysis”. They would also say that there was no need for concern or apprehension about his passing remark on the issue of multi-party democracy. But the spokespersons’ take cannot be accepted without caveats.
It is true that the theme of Mr Shah’s speech was not about the party system in India, and that it was about the virtues and achievements of the Modi government in the past five years, and therefore his comment on the issue of the perceived failure of the multi-party system cannot be treated as a considered view either of the Modi government or of the BJP. It cannot, however, be denied that Mr Shah himself seems to consider the multi-party democratic system in India to be ineffective and a failure. And it cannot be denied that he is raising questions about the keystone of a liberal democracy, which affirms the principle of a multi-party democracy.
Political scientists and political philosophers from Plato’s time have always lamented the factionalism and internecine feuds in a democratic system, but the lived experience of democracies in Europe, America and parts of Asia and Africa has shown that a multi-party democratic system is a protection against the domination of a single party and a single leader. The problems and challenges posed by the existence of many parties jostling with each for power and influence are never in question. But it was found that it is the apparent anarchy of a multi-party democracy that guarantees the liberty of the people. It prevents the emergence of a dictator, however popular and democratic he may be.
It has also been a popular talking point whether Communist Party-ruled China’s successful emergence as an economic superpower was due to the fact that it did not have to contend with the irritations of a political opposition and that decisions for building the country could be taken and implemented without much ado, and that the stumbling block in India’s economic progress was its democracy. This debate has been raging within India, especially among the middle classes, and many a time the ultra-nationalists have argued that it is worth dumping democracy if Indians could be provided the basic amenities of life and India could be made a stronger country.
The opposite view that it is worth preserving India’s democracy and that economic progress would be achieved more efficiently through a democratic government than through the authoritarian rule of a single party. The more persuasive argument in favour of democracy has been that innovation in technology is possible in the conducive atmosphere of democracy, which is based on freedom of thought and expression. Nobel laurate and BJP’s bete noir Amartya Sen has always held that India’s achievements were better and superior to those of China’s because of India’s democracy.
It is Mr Shah’s democratic right to cast doubts about the efficacy of the multi-party democratic system in India. It is also the case that there are a large number of middle-class people who would concur with Mr Shah’s view. It is legitimate to critique the wobbly -- and who can deny that it is not wobbly -- multi-party democratic order, but if it is to be a prelude for transforming India into a single-party democracy, then the alarm bells should be ringing across the country. From 1952 to 1967, the Congress was the single dominant party in the country, but no one in the Congress had suggested that India should do away with multi-party democracy. It is true that there were many who had argued that India should have a two-party system on the lines of the Conservatives and Labour in Britain and the Republicans and Democrats in the United States. But it was a foregone conclusion that in a diverse polity like that of India, the Anglo-Saxon model of a two-party system would not work, at least not without considerable modifications.
Mr Shah’s passing reference to the failure of the multi-party democracy in the country is accompanied by his eulogy, which is but natural, of the efficient decision-making of the Modi government of the past five years, and how the goal of a $5 trillion economy would ensure that every Indian would own a house, have a bank account, electricity at home and road connectivity by 2022. The implication is clear -- that the rule of the BJP is beneficial to the country, and that the existence of other parties would only be an impediment in making the country prosperous and the people secure and comfortable.
According to BJP working president J.P. Nadda, the latest membership drive has raised the figure of BJP members from 11 crores in 2014 to 18 crores in 2019. And Mr Nadda has disclosed that there are places where all voters are also members of the BJP. If Mr Shah’s condemnation of the multi-party system and the BJP’s membership tsunami is juxtaposed, the dystopia of BJP-ruled India on the lines of the Communist Party-ruled China looms menacingly on the horizon.
The writer is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst