Pavan K. Varma | Sans wall against despotism, govt cherrypicking dharma

In this process, the interests of the State become conterminous with the personal interests of the political leader

Political leaders and political parties have to often resolve the dilemma between mechanical legality and moral rectitude. The choice is not easy since there is a third element that intervenes: power. The desire to capture power, perpetuate it, eliminate all opposition to it, and make it even more invincible, propels political leaders towards actions that justify the cynical and repressive use of the law against the moral imperative. In this process, the interests of the State become conterminous with the personal interests of the political leader.

Our civilisational wisdom in these matters is open to interpretation. Broadly, the Hindu view of statecraft reflected two aspects, both diametrically opposed to each other when seen in isolation, but in harmony when taken together. The first focussed on the imperative of preserving the state, strengthening the king and keeping enemies, both within and without, at bay. In securing these objectives, statecraft could be cynically unsentimental, ruthless and amoral. Both the Arthashastra and the Shanti Parva list a series of measures which are entirely devoted to the perpetuation of kingly power, and by extension of the kingdom.

The State was expected to be almost totalitarian, with the theoretical right to interfere in all areas of society, including family matters. To prevent subversion of the possibility of rebellion, espionage was recommended, and elaborate instructions are given in the Arthashastra on how to use it effectively. Deception, in order to confuse malcontents, was considered an efficacious tool. This could be taken to extremes by standards of conventional morality. The Shanti Parva, as expounded by the smitten Bhisma lying on a bed of arrows, states: “When wishing to smite, (the king) should speak gently; after smiting he should be gentler still; after striking off the head with his sword, he should grieve and shed tears.”

While one part of political theory was obsessed with power, the other, quite characteristically of the Hindu mind, prescribed the opposite, viz. limits to the use of that power. The king, although all powerful, was conjoined for the sake of the power that he wished to retain, to work in conformity with dharma, respect established customs, and devote all his energies to the welfare of the people by approximating to the ideal of a rajarshi or a statesman-philosopher. The king was advised to choose his ministers on merit; the ministers were also advised to state their views fearlessly. The State was expected to be sensitive to public opinion; the people were not to be excessively taxed, and cesses were to be collected, as the Manusmriti rather picturesquely puts it, only as a bee would suck honey, or a calf gently drink milk or as a leech sucked blood drop by drop. A king acquired political legitimacy by winning the approbation of the ruled, not by fear. Kalidasa defines a ruler’s rajdharma as pravartatamprakritihitayaparthivah (working for the welfare of all his people). The Arthashastra bluntly says that it is unrighteous for a king to do an act which excites popular fury. The Mahabharata explicitly sanctions revolt against a king who is oppressive, for such a ruler is no king, and has no claim to continue in power.

How does a ruler negotiate these conflicting but categorical injunctions in today’s India? Selectivity cannot be the answer, where one can cherrypick the option depending on the solution desired. Moreover, and most importantly, we now have a Constitution, that, inter alia, guarantees democracy, the rule of law, human rights and individual freedom. Democratically elected leaders must face today the right choice between the temptations to misuse power, and the imperative to do the right thing in conformity with the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

When we look back at the last decades of our existence as the world’s largest democracy, what is apparent is that democratically elected leaders have more often than not chosen power over principle in the running of the State. If this were not the case, Indira Gandhi, would not have invoked a provision of the Constitution to impose the Emergency and rubbish the democratic rights of her citizens. Governments would not have brought in laws that are deliberately draconian and can pulverise a dissenting voice by sanctioning arrest at will and the denial of bail. Rulers would not believe that, because they have been democratically elected, they have the ordained right to trample upon the democratic rights of individuals. Media channels would not be under pressure to toe the government line. And, there would not be an atmosphere of pervasive fear, where ordinary people are afraid to talk on the phone lest their conversation is being recorded, and corporate leaders too scared to voice their opinion lest they are the next to be raided by the forever compliant arms of the IT or the ED. According to reliable folklore, one of India’s most reputed business leaders was raided by the I-T recently, just because reportedly his personal preferences were in favour of political parties opposed to the BJP.

Under the awning of democracy, the predatory powers of the State to take any action that eliminates opposition, should be a matter of increasing concern. Opposition leaders now take for granted that they could be the target of State investigating agencies, and many such leaders have, indeed, already been targeted. Conversely, the most corrupt leaders, if they join the BJP, miraculously find their cases being put on the back-burner. The judiciary is, of course, one ray of hope against this litany of vindictive and arbitrary action, but even the Chief Justice himself was constrained to point out in a recent public address how the complicity between the State’s investigative agencies and their political masters needs to be curbed.

Democracy in India has yet to find a strong bulwark against a democratically elected government that resorts to authoritarian practices. For those who are less enamoured by the Constitution, and more by our ancient past, it would be advisable to read its lessons in their entirety, and not just choose portions that conform to their undemocratic cynicism.

Next Story