Tale of Two Democracies = More Loyal Than the King
Revisionism and illiberalism
Touted controversially as the ‘Greatest Briton Ever’, the former colonist Winston Churchill once said, ‘The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter’!
The irrepressibly sarcastic Winston Churchill would have known a thing or two about the ‘system’, for he was amongst the earliest party-hoppers having donned the hat of Conservative (1900-1904), then shifting to Liberal (1904-1924) and then back to Conservative (1924-1964).
The wily politician who went on to be the war-time Prime Minister (and later picked up a Nobel Prize for literature) had an eerie sense of the lay of the land and joined parties just before they began ascending – he did so unashamedly and made light with ‘anyone can rat’ and added cuttingly, ‘but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat’! Unsurprisingly, Churchill’s greatest rivalries and insecurities were within his ranks with the likes of Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden etc.
India’s own constitution, parliamentary system (Westminster system) and politics were naturally influenced by the senses and throbs of the erstwhile British ‘system’. India’s independence in 1947 coincided with the ‘end of Empire’ as the WW2 victorious-but-bankrupt Greater Britain struggled to redefine itself in the new era, while India made its own proverbial ‘tryst with destiny’, albeit with mixed results.
Both sovereigns ushered in unprecedented reforms and changes with political twists and turns in fortunes – but the politics of populism evolved in both lands, as Macmillan was to famously claim ‘never had it so good’ while an Indira Gandhi invoked, ‘Roti, Kapda aur Makan.’
Great Britain reconciled to its justifiable level in the world order, whereas India moved up in stutters and stammers, but never to fully fructify its inherent potential. Somewhere, its sub-optimal politics and politicians never failed to fail the country.
There was one stark difference in the evolving narrative of the two democracies – politics became increasingly transparent, accountable and demanding onto the politicians in Great Britain, whereas, the much bandied tag of the ‘largest democracy in the world’ for the Indian experiment notwithstanding, it remained routinely susceptible to unhealthy faltering (e.g. Emergency), illiberality, revisionism and majoritarianism that has perpetuated cult-like partisanship amongst the cadres that never seek probity, accountability or performance.
The cadres remain unquestioning, foolishly forgiving and irrationally loyal in their unsubstantiated faith in partisan identities. Often it is the hate for the ‘other’ partisan perception that requires no facts or proof, and the power of dutifully ‘manufactured hate’, is sufficient.
Another unfortunate byproduct of this regressively paludal political culture in India is the shocking lack of ‘internal democracy’, as status-quo’ism is manifest and implied. Insecurity within the top echelons is acute and protective walls around the uniquely Indian concept of ‘high command’ cuts across all national and regional parties – it could be dynastic, it could be individualistic, or it could even be extremist, but the insistences of stale phraseology like ‘loyal soldier of the party’ has made sure that the likes of more confident, large-hearted and truly-secure Statesman like a Nehru or a Vajpayee, are invisible today, across all party lines.
Interestingly, both these ‘inclusive’ leaders were given to much internal grief from their own decidedly exclusivist colleagues, who postured more political-muscularity – if it was Sardar Patel for Nehru then it was a LK Advani to Vajpayee – yet both these colossuses of democracy accommodated the contrarian views and ensured that the democratic traditions breathed and flowered easily.
Today, change of provincial leadership in Uttrakhand, Karnataka, Gujarat to most recently Punjab (across all national parties) is reflective of the arbitrary style of functioning, where the respective ‘high commands’ issue the diktats.
Suddenness of change has tell-tale signs of centralised insecurity and highhandedness, made worse by the ostensible criteria of replacements. Almost all the changes are rooted in the unhappiness with their respective ‘high commands’ in Delhi, and subsequently rooted in the age-old curse of caste calculations, subservience and ‘palace intrigues’ that have little to do with the person on street.
Question arises in each of the changes effected (by both national parties), if they chose the most ‘heavyweight’ alternative or the relative ‘lightweights’? Did they choose the people who exemplified governance brilliance in their earlier avatars as ministers/legislators or was it a ‘safe’/malleable/compromise, choice? Did any of the newly elected Chief Ministers in all these States reflect the sensibilities, competence or profundity of thought that made them sure ambassadors of India’s future?
On the contrary, embarrassing footage and statements attributed to most of these ‘new choices’ reflects an undistinguished culture that besets all political parties, without exception. To berate the ‘new choices’ may be simplistic, but wholly inadequate, as the real rot is traceable to the respective ‘high commands’ and their extreme insecurities that simply does not beget internal democracy or meritocracy.
Sheer inability to make way for more qualified, deserving or democratically chosen candidates - without incriminations or threats to ‘spill the beans’ in case of revolt, underlies Indian democracy.
Contrast this with British democracy, where the former-Prime Minister of the ruling party, Theresa May is today a ‘backbencher’ MP who seeks to ‘devote her full time’ to serve her constituency, Maidenhead, and participates in the proceedings without rancour. She also enriches internal democracy by occasionally defying the whip e.g., on the government's proposal to cut foreign aid.
Similarly, the previous leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, had to make way for Keir Starmer – later, Jeremy Corbyn was also dismissed from party membership for making ‘anti-Semitic’ statements, and today he is fighting for his reinstatement, but not jumping ship.
Earlier Prime Ministers who could easily be regarded as ‘young’ by Indian political standards chose to leave the political centre-stage and rarely take part in partisan agendas, across both political parties like Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron (who left Prime Ministership at 49!).
Such relatively graceful acceptance of one’s time and tenure is almost unthinkable in the Indian context – on the contrary, hilariously insincere pretexts like ‘duty to my party/people/constituency/nation’ is routinely invoked to perpetuate individual, familial, or cabal-like boroughs. Perhaps barring the leftists, there is no sanctity of any ideological commitment amongst Indian politicians who incredulously justify jumping political ships as ‘the only way to serve the nation’.
The obliging masses routinely buy-in the barely self-justifying narrative, the occasional ‘questioning’ can be subjected to troll extremities like ‘anti-nationalism’, and basically the rot continues. There is no party with any difference, and only the topical ‘might-is-right principle prevails.
The only thing that can save the situation and enrich democratic culture is internal democracy through extensive ‘questioning’ – this, in the Indian political context tantamount to a cardinal and unforgivable sin, unlike the British tradition on issues like Brexit, which saw healthy divisions within parties and ultimately, cross-voting.
Indian political debates need less partisan, rabid, and hateful defense by loyalists, and a more evolved culture of healthy ‘questioning’ – this may make respective party leaderships uncomfortable and accountable, but it also benefits the party and the nation, above all. The old maxim, intellectual or questioning dissent is not disloyalty, needs to be upheld.
Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry.