The crisis is the cure. The colossal crisis which the country is passing through demands a colossal cure. The corona crisis is no ordinary one. A crisis like this occurs once in civilisational history. At a time when death, destruction and despair are staring us in the face and humans are scared of each other, when the ringtone of the mobile phone fills one with instant doubt and fear, when acute helplessness makes one numb and senseless, when one loses faith in mortals and in the divine, when one hunts for spirituality in cowardice, then mankind needs to find an answer to human frailty. One can easily look for an excuse and find solace in solitude but unless a deeper analysis is done, mankind will be condemned to repeat it.
The crisis, Covid or corona, could be called a medical crisis which requires medical answers, but corona in India is not a medical calamity alone. It is the reflection of a bigger malaise, one that was waiting to happen while we all were living in our own make-believe worlds, intoxicated in our delusions that a country led by a superhuman, could face any crisis and would emerge stronger with every fall.
But now, when we are naked before reality and facing the fragility of human existence, we must dig deeper. When the country is approaching its 75th year of Independence, we must ask ourselves, is the parliamentary form of democracy the solution or is it a problem in itself? Seventy-five years is a long time in history. The Independence that we attained begs this question of its children: Did we inherit the right form of democracy or do we need change?
I am not here to find faults with our founding fathers and condemn them for choosing the parliamentary form of governance, but I am certainly asking questions. I know that the Constitution was launched with a lot of fanfare; given the tradition of the freedom movement, this was the best form which was to evolve but the question that needs to be asked today is - has this form lived up to its expectation and evolved for the better, or has it become worse?
In my opinion, the form has definitely regressed, rather than progressed. Today, when I look around, I am reminded of the words of Sir Ivor Jennings, who once wrote, (and we Indians need to think about this) “The flexibility of the cabinet system allows the Prime Minister to take upon himself a power not inferior to that of a dictator, provided always that the House of Commons will stand by him.”
The Indian Constitution is based on the separation of power but at least twice it has slipped into a one-man system, when the three arms of the state fused into one, democracy turned into a facade and the Prime Minister became a superhuman. First, this happened between 1971 and 1977, when Mrs Gandhi was at the helm. This was the time when Mrs Gandhi, after the creation of Bangladesh, discovered superhuman qualities in herself and assumed she was the cure for all the ills of the country. Granville Austin writes, “Although politically secure from 1971 onwards as she never had been, Mrs. Gandhi moved away from constitutionalism towards absolutism. Aware of her people’s adoration, she came to believe that she had the ‘divine right of support’.”
Austin elaborates the dangers of Mrs. Gandhi’s absolutism. He writes, “Mrs. Gandhi’s grip on the Congress Parliamentary party exceeded the power typically enjoyed by Prime Ministers in parliamentary systems where Prime Ministers heed as well as lead their followers. The executive branch came to dominate Parliament to such a degree that the Parliament lost any effective identity of its own. And authority within the executive became concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office. ... the two branches, if they still could be called that, attacked the third branch, the judiciary, intending to end to function as a co-equal branch of government.”
Further, he writes, “Mrs Gandhi’s attack on judicial independence struck at democracy’s heart as Parliament acquired a rash of presumption of omnipotence.” Does it sound familiar in today’s India?
Nehru was different
It is debated that Mrs Gandhi trampled over democracy as she was faced with enemies within her own party and outside. She did it for her own survival. But it is not to be forgotten that her own father did not have a smooth sailing to begin with and at least three times, he threatened to resign from the Prime Ministership. But he admired the basic ethos of democracy and respected differences of opinion. It was Nehru who severely criticised his own father Motilal Nehru when he wrote the Nehru report in 1928 and in turn, was severely criticised by his own son-in-law, Feroze Gandhi.
In contrast, Mrs Gandhi treated her opponents as enemies and anti-nationals. Her style of working undermined every institution in the country, in the name of the social revolution she aspired for, with a committed bureaucracy and a committed judiciary. Every branch of the government surrendered before her. Only ‘she’ was the government.
Today, the country is witnessing the same phenomenon. No branch of the government is free and no one dare question the all-powerful Prime Minister. His control over his party is total. Like the Congress of 1970s the BJP parliamentary party is just a tool to facilitate his power, ministers and partymen are puppets and Parliament is no longer an institution of debate and discussion. There is no fixing the accountability of the government but just signing on the dotted lines. The abrogation of Art 370, the farmers’ bill and the bill making the LG of Delhi as the face of the government, are a few examples.
The Supreme Court no longer charms citizens with its verdicts, more often, it gladdens the heart of the government. Matters of extreme urgency like the petition of habeas corpus are not heard for months and years on end.
The fourth estate, that is the media, has literally become the spokesperson of the Prime Minister’s Office; the election commission has become the refuge of the loyal bureaucrats; the CAG is there to only justify the omissions of the government. The crumbling institutions have made the Prime Minister superhuman. And when a section of the bureaucracy and party colleagues discover divinity in him, then a crisis of the magnitude of corona is bound to take place.
For almost a year, global experts and Indian scientists have been writing about the second wave of corona. Enough literature was produced to suggest that the virus would be more lethal, but no action was planned. Institutional response was missing. All depended on one man’s initiative. He was busy announcing to the world that India had triumphed over the virus and had produced a model for others to follow.
This was happening in a country whose parliamentary democracy in the past was hailed as the model for others to replicate. Today, when thousands of people are dying, lakhs on a daily basis are getting infected and the country is gasping for oxygen, who should be held responsible? Who will fix the responsibility and who will make him accountable?
If the present form of parliamentary democracy fails in its duty, then why should its functioning not be thoroughly discussed, debated, and reviewed and if need be, new constitutional reforms carried out that could put fetters on Prime Ministers and ensure that constitutionalism is not reduced to absolutism. Democracy does not need super-humans with divine powers. It needs structures which can ‘lead’ the leaders.
The writer is author and Editor, SatyaHindi.com