The 'Shadows' That Surround, And Don't Surround, Our Democracy
Democracy is a loud and messy option, as it entails a lot of words – perhaps one too many. But it is still better than having to observe a no-laughing, no-alcohol, no-birthdays, no-shopping, and no-happiness mourning of 11 days to mark the death of any Dear Leader/Eternal Leader, as happened recently with the forced memory of Kim Jong-il in North Korea.
So, while democracies globally are grappling with their own incipient, insidious, and unacknowledged authoritarianism, the talk is still cheap (occasionally cheery), but it need not always be worthless.
Insisting on facts, details, and transparency into the many mealy-mouthed words of the politicos, may just be the starting point to salvage sliding democracies from the slippery slopes of authoritarianism.
The pattern and journey of liberal democracies towards illiberal authoritarianism is punctuated with eerily similar pockmarks of emotions overriding facts, civilisational inclusivity succumbing to ‘manufactured fear’ and subliminal faultlines, empty bravado triumphing civilisational decency – all in the misplaced belief of the rather frenzied, ‘our time has come’!
History instructs of no such golden age following any autocracy, however redeeming it might seem, initially. It's only when the citizenry has fearlessly held the politicians to their word with the necessary measure of accountability and responsibility, has the society and the sovereign ever moved forward. Politicians across the board hate transparency and questioning. Period.
Of the many shadowy practices inherited from our colonial template of democracy i.e., the Westminster system, there is a conspicuous omission in failing to adopt an honourable one – ‘Shadow Cabinet’!
Simply put, the lack of an alternative and parallel cabinet to that of the government, which is composed of domain experts from the Opposition benches to literally shadow, scrutinise and critique the governmental actions, professionally and impactfully.
This helps bring immense accountability and rigour to the debates in Parliament, which otherwise tend to lapse into a fish market of competitive shouting, slanging, whataboutery and meaningless thunder that can conveniently allow the dispensation of the day to slip in bills, without honest questioning. Chaos, din, and walkouts by opposition ranks actually help governments, whereas clarity and probity don't.
A one-on-one between a governmental minister and a shadow minister, could bring incalculable clarity and perspective onto the possible impact, by way of executive action. Imagine a Nirmala Sitharaman as the Finance Minister having to answer a pointed query by a P Chidambaram as a possible Shadow Finance Minister, or a Dharmendra Pradhan as the HRD Minister taking on Shashi Tharoor as a possible Shadow HRD Minister?
The history of half-baked policy proposals could then be forced into serious discussions, the Ministers and their proposed policy changes could be keenly tracked and whetted for the overall betterment, and the levels of functional expertise within the corridors of power would get naturally enhanced.
But this is perhaps asking for too much clarity, probity, and answerability for the various functionaries, across both the treasury and opposition benches – the partisan leaderships on both sides, may get queasy? In the insecure world of Indian politics, leadership of all political parties brook no challenges, questions, or delegation of power, even to their own colleagues to define, beyond a point.
Another extension of this political blurriness is in the non-declaration of either the Chief Ministerial candidate or the presumptive Cabinet (logically extended from ‘Shadow/Existing Cabinet’, or otherwise). The insincere words that the ‘legislators would make their own choice’ or ‘left it to the high command’ reeks of deliberate and time-serving ambiguity amongst the disparate colleagues, who would happily undercut each other – the pretense of committed ideology be damned!
The unsaid truth of flexible-ideology that underlies most politicos is shamefully exposed by the tact of herding the flock of newly minted legislators into resorts, post the declaration of electoral results. The make and break of governments or ‘horse-trading’ is a taint that afflicts all major parties, and the wholly untrue spiel of legislators justifying jumping ships ‘in the interest of the State/Stability/Nation’ etc., cuts no ice.
What makes ‘ratting’ even more despicable is the accommodation of the turncoats into Ministerial positions, as it makes everyone look diminished i.e., Jumping ‘Jacks/Janes’, the party accommodating, and the national political culture overall, sullied and disgraced.
The worst impacted though remains the abused Citizenry, who vote for an individual under an assumed flag, but end up getting a legislator singing Rosana’s of new-found political wisdom, post results!
However, there is an unmistakable shadow surrounding the exact plans, products or policies being peddled by our consummate political salespeople – the manifestos are a laundry list of generic aspirations that are not backed by any auditable plan or validity in terms of its ‘do-ability’.
On the contrary, Indian political promises are increasingly about freebies, subsidies, reservations, renaming, ‘reclaiming’ and reselling pipedreams to gullible masses, without a word about the actual plans or ability to finance such a chimera (not to mention, promises of job creation, tax cuts etc.).
Even the crucial period just before the formal announcement of the code-of-conduct which debars announcing new projects, recruitments, or welfare programs – witnesses a flurry of announcements, inaugurations and unsubtle political aspersions by politicians holding constitutional posts, where the ‘intent’ is obvious.
Our deeply partisan electorate is sadly very forgiving, accommodating, and generous in contextualising blatant falsehood peddled by our politicos – unlike the American experiment in democracy where Bill Clinton and George Bush never heard the last of their Universal Health Care promise or the infamous ‘Read my lips: No new taxes’, respectively.
On the contrary, we have elevated whataboutery, deflections or even remaining simply unapproachable to independent media, as the new-normal of our shadowy politics. The power of partisan echo-chambers has almost drowned the ability to disagree without reckless attributions of ‘anti-national’, ‘on the payrolls of China/Pakistan’ etc., by a sophisticated force of trolls and the conveniently dubbed, ‘fringe elements.’
The days of large-hearted political disagreements a la Nehru, Gujral, Vajpayee or a Manmohan are passe – today’s hyper, personalised, and petty accusations have lowered the din to unprecedented levels. Even if only for the sake of their respective parties and partisan ideologies, the cadres and the citizenry at large, would insist on questioning their own (obviously the ‘others’ too) for more concrete plans, accountability, responsibility and openness to be questioned (without unwarranted attributions), the world’s largest democracy would behoove its civilisational profundity and dignity.
But enhanced transparency would frighten any politico or party, without exception – herein, lies the curse of ‘shadows’ that surround, and occasionally, don’t surround our Democracy.
Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry.
Cover illustration courtesy Business Standard