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The collapse of parliamentary democracy in India


Suspended Opposition Members of Parliament Photo: PTI/Kamal Singh


The collapse of parliamentary democracy in Bharat that is not India

Indian Express

December 21, 2023

 

One might ask, why does the government have to act in such a high-handed manner? It has a parliamentary majority. But as with many things with this government, the impunity is a point: In a democracy attracted by power rather than constitutional form, power will continually need to be projected.

 

It is a monumental tragedy that the government’s suspension of more than 140 MPs is still being seen merely as a political contest between the government and the Opposition. It is rather the latest expression of a radical change in the type of regime we inhabit: The collapse of parliamentary democracy.

 

The biggest challenge we face in acknowledging this fact is that we are still bewitched by the pseudo constitutional façades of our Republic — as if the forms and processes of Parliament, rules of procedure, legal redress, constitutional morality, institutions or even the terminology of parliamentary democracy can save us. The recourse to this formal language of democracy serves increasingly to provide a constitutional veneer to what is in effect, an unconstitutional concentration of power.

 

The Chief Justice of India can give almost a daily lecture on constitutional morality, even as the Supreme Court loses any will to stand up for it. The ruling dispensation can, without a trace of irony, speak of parliamentary decorum, even as Parliament is effectively dead as an institution. The media speaks of this as a contest between the government and the Opposition, even as the government puts chains on the wrists of Opposition members and silences them.

 

The site of public opinion formation, the media, with a few honourable exceptions, fecklessly worships power, or even worse, creates appropriate diversions for it. Elections are still keenly contested, even though post-election we do our best to ensure that any contestation over policies, ideas, or any measure of accountability is effectively muzzled.

 

It is no secret that the separation of powers has long been dead as an idea. In most parliamentary democracies, executive and legislative power has increasingly been fused. This has been a process long in the making and has roots in the nature of party government. It is for this reason that many writers, most recently Bhanu Dhamija, have been advocating a presidential system – at least it makes the nature of our politics explicit.

 

As we are learning, neither presidential nor parliamentary forms are guarantees of liberty. One of the challenges of this moment is that there are two incommensurable languages, both claiming to be democracy at work.

 

In one language, democracy is about the personification of popular will. This is the popular will institutionalised in a single person, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and enacted through his party. In this conception, he wields power, without any seriously effective constitutional limitations.

 

This is as near to an elected dictatorship as we can get — unprecedented concentration of power and monopolisation of all organs of the state.

 

This is being opposed, not by a counter-power that can equally project a popular imprimatur — it is rather speaking the language of rules, norms, processes and discussion. It has to put together a coalition of competing groups, not a party with a united will.

 

In the former conception, democracy is about organising effective power and personifying it; in the latter, it is about dispersing it and making it safe for liberty.

 

The disquieting thought we have to confront is whether we are in a democracy that is instinctively now attracted by power.

One might ask, why does the government have to act in such a high-handed manner? It has a parliamentary majority. It would have done the Home Minister no harm to give a textbook statement on the canister episode in Parliament.

 

But as with many things with this government, the impunity is a point: In a democracy attracted by power rather than constitutional form, more by the personification of popular will than liberty, power will continually need to be projected.

 

And nothing speaks of power projection more effectively than a form of constitutional impunity. In fact, one of the paradoxes of Narendra Modi is this: The more he is accused of impunity, the more his attraction grows, because the criticism ultimately acknowledges and reinforces the fact of his power, even as it seeks to question its legitimacy.

 

Marx had written perceptively of Victor Hugo’s critique of Louis Bonaparte III: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historical facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

 

Even criticisms, such as Hugo’s, that ascribe the subversion of democracy to one man, “ended up making that individual great”, against the author’s own intentions, “by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history”.

 

The permanent revolution of this government is the constant deployment of power till all countervailing power is extinguished.

 

The disquieting question is: What is the social condition that makes putting personality in the place of a constitution attractive?

 

This monopolisation of power can be deployed for many purposes. Some of these purposes are instrumentally attractive. But if it is aimed at altering the fundamental nature of our regime, it is nothing short of a constitutional coup d’état.

 

India’s laws on civil liberties have never been perfect. But the direction of almost every legislation this government has introduced has one singular aim: To weaken the protection of individual rights, to give the government more powers of surveillance and control and to render the citizens more transparent to the government than the government is to the citizens.

 

The three criminal code bills that the Lok Sabha has just passed and the Telecommunications Bill are just the two most recent instances. The Criminal Code Bills attest to the inverted politics of our time.

 

First, the Bills are being touted as an act of decolonisation. The three bills are named Nyaya, Nagrik and Sakshya, as if they were about justice, citizenship and transparent evidence.

 

It is astounding that decolonisation has come to mean more arbitrary power to the state. They are attractive not because they decolonise, but because they consolidate more power and constitutionalise impunity.

 

This is not the place for a detailed analysis, but if you think giving more police powers to the state is your idea of decolonisation, then you have become an exemplar of the worship of state power that Indian democracy is increasingly becoming.

 

But, in a way, the lack of public outrage on the Bills, or indeed on virtually the entire Opposition being suspended, may simply be a function of the fact that there is no appetite for constitutional forms left.

 

When Modi assumed office, he kissed the steps of Parliament as he entered it on May 20, 2014. It was a nod to the sanctity of Parliament. But it turned out to be him kissing his own power.

 

For Parliament without Opposition is simply the unbridled power of the executive. He was kissing, not a representative institution, but a Parliament that now rests entirely in the personal power of the leader.

 

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Indian Express

 

© The Indian Express Pvt Ltd

 

 

 

 

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