The Constitution is just a document, a voluminous compilation of inanimate paper unless its spirit is alive and vibrant. The mechanical enumeration of right and duties, and the allocation of work, means little if governments forget the larger message in the maze of legal jargon. A system of checks and balances, which is so essential to any polity, must work in actual practice if we are to call ourselves a true democracy. Otherwise, the shell prevails, while the substance proves elusive.
These thoughts come to me as I review the many aspects of our democratic fabric. We have the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, and the manner in which each of them works, either weakens or strengthens democracy. The legislature is today heavily dominated by the BJP. The party has a brute majority in the Lok Sabha, which it has won through democratic elections, and a “managed” majority in the Rajya Sabha, which it has managed to secure through the absence of a united Opposition, and adroit floor management. What this essentially means is that any proposed bill, in whatever form, can theoretically become law simply because the ruling party has the numbers. What goes missing in the process is the reflective aspect of lawmaking, so what we are left with is legislative tyranny in the garb of democratic preponderance.
Several bills, in recent times, have been a victim of this “democratic preponderance”. For instance, the Triple Talaq Bill was necessary, but the possibility of passing an effective and better law was obviated simply because the ruling party did not have to bother about what the Opposition had to say. The proposed law was neither sent to a select committee of Parliament nor were many of the constructive amendments moved by the Opposition taken into account. The BJP had the numbers, and hence the right to pass the law in the manner it wanted.
The executive, consisting mostly of the bureaucracy mandated to implement the government’s legislative and governance agenda, has always been the weakest element in the democratic chain. Bureaucrats are like litmus paper. They take on the colour of the ruling establishment. Hence, we are seeing situations where so-called independent institutions in the larger executive, such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the income tax, and the Enforcement Directorate, appear to have become the handmaidens of the government. Nothing else — to give just one example — can explain the inexplicable coordinated targeting of Ashok Lavasa, a sitting Election Commissioner. His wife, his son and his sister received notices from the income tax department, in what was obviously a pre-planned fusillade. Perhaps there is sufficient reason for the notices. Or, perhaps they have something to do with the fact that Mr Lavasa penned two dissenting notes when his two other colleagues in the Election Commission sought to exone
rate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah for electoral offences during the last election.
The judiciary is the last resort for justice in a democracy, and it has, by and large, lived up to this expectation. But, some recent decisions by the judiciary are cause of concern. On October 1, the Supreme Court (SC) refused to order a stay on the August 5 decision to abrogate the special status of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). To do so is the court's prerogative. However, should the SC have adjourned the next hearing to November 14, well after two Union Territories are created on October 31? Could not the SC have seen the urgency behind the sheaf of petitions seeking a judicial verdict on the reading down of Article 370? Many people also expected the judiciary to be far more proactive with regard to the detention of citizens. Personal liberty must indeed be balanced with considerations of national security, as the SC said, but are gag orders on those who meet with leaders like Farooq Abdullah really necessary?
Two months ago a chief judicial magistrate in Bihar passed an order that has led to an FIR been filed now for sedition against nearly 50 eminent citizens, including Ramchandra Guha, Mani Ratnam and Aparna Sen, for writing a letter to Mr Modi expressing concern over the rising instances of mob lynching. Is the judiciary, in this case, upholding constitutional rights and civil liberties, or is it reinforcing a state where any form of dissent is considered seditious? These questions need to be asked because it is the judiciary to which citizens go for protection when the state appears to be losing a sense of democratic restraint.
The media is rightly considered the fourth pillar of a democratic nation. It is the watchdog that governments fear, for its dharma is to pursue the truth notwithstanding the whitewash governments often present. But there has to be something terribly wrong with large sections of the media today for people to be actually turning nostalgic about Doordarshan which had a monopoly on telecasting some decades ago. The absence of robust interrogation, of corrosive enquiry, of questioning, of exploring a point of view other than that espoused by the government, is the depressing truth about most of the media today. On the contrary, the sycophantic endorsement of anything the government says seems to have become the norm. A media that has lost its objectivity, that refuses to speak truth to power, and has apparently decided to collectively capitulate to the powers that be, is nothing short of a tragedy for a nation that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.
We are still a democracy, and a proud one at that. But democracy itself requires periodic introspection about its credentials.
There are many trends today that are a cause of concern. If these trends are not nipped in the bud, we could, incrementally, have a terribly undemocratic polity within a so-called democratic state. The lines of Iqbal come to mind: “Vatan ki fiqr karna daan musibat aane waali hai, tere barbadiyon ke mashware inhain aasmaanon mein: O unheedful, think of your country, calamity stares you in the face, the signs of your ruination resound in the skies.”