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A democratic language, an authoritarian writ

Powerful populists are holding representative institutions hostage to their own projects of power

There was a time, not so long ago, when substantive disagreements marked debates on democracy. Minimalist theorists held that democracy is valuable; it enables the peaceful transfer of power through free and fair elections, and grants legitimacy to the new government. Those who lose out do not ‘reach for the gun’, they impatiently wait their turn. Maximalist theorists argued that democratic governments are obliged to provide the basic preconditions for a life lived with dignity, from civil liberties to political, social and economic rights. Democracy ensures justice. This is what human beings are owed.

These disputes intensified when democracy expanded dramatically in the aftermath of the Cold War. For international lending agencies insisted that democracy was an essential precondition for financial aid. By the second decade of the 21st century, democrats were in for a rude shock. Even as they were busy debating its finer points, right-wing populist governments, across the world hollowed out democracy. Interestingly, they retained the language. Democracy is after all a ‘hurrah’ word. And the crucial question — what the impact of populism on democracy is — was propelled onto the agenda.

Whither institutions?

The answer is clear by now. Populists appeal to an indeterminate entity called ‘the people’ on two planks, a corrupt elite and an inefficient and useless institutional structure. They have succeeded. The consequences are momentous. Democratic theory holds that power should be vested in institutions and exercised according to procedures. But the populist embodies in his corporeal body the people and the country, the nation and the government. Not surprisingly, such leaders interpret criticism of their policies as anti-national. They respond much as Shakespeare’s Richard III responded to Lord Hastings who dared question him. “Talk’st thou to me of ‘ifs’? Thou art a traitor. Off with his head.”

Populists do not tolerate criticism either from individuals, or from forums of deliberation, such as Parliaments. Parliaments are not only law-making bodies. They are forums that enable deliberation, encourage mediation, facilitate criticism of government policies, and make possible the hammering out of compromises and the offering of alternatives. Today, powerful populists hold representative institutions hostage to their own projects of power.

Republican blockade

Take the United States. A Republican-controlled Senate has succeeded in blocking progressive legislation debated and adopted by the House of Representatives. Members of the Democratic party, which controls the House since the 2018 elections, have initiated and passed a number of pro-democracy bills. These range from anti-corruption and pro-democracy reform measures, to net neutrality, to equal pay, to health care, to infrastructure, to re-establishing the role of the U.S., in Climate Change negotiations. Once these bills reach the Senate they are blocked by the Republicans. The majority leader in the Senate from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, refers to himself as the ‘grim reaper’ of legislation promoted by the Democrats. The ‘grim reaper’, recollect, personifies death. It is represented by a skeleton clothed in a hooded cape that carries a scythe.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, referred to the federal chamber as a grave of progressive legislation. Repeated stand-offs between the two Houses has led to legislative paralysis. Both parties have assented to a few Bills; for example, the decision to reopen the government after the shutdown initiated by U.S. President Donald Trump. He had shut it down after his request for funds to build a wall on the Mexico border was rejected.

Journalists and organisations allege that the Federal chamber concentrates on confirming Mr. Trump’s nominees to the judiciary. According to Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, or Lambda Legal, an American national civil rights organisation that supports the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, and people living with HIV/AIDs, the President has packed the courts with the appointment of biased judges. The appointments are for life. Reportedly, the President has appointed 144 judges. Regrettably the Senate tradition that members of the minority party will have a voice in decisions affecting their home state has been replaced by rushed confirmations, without proper procedures of enquiry.

In July 2019, despite warnings from former Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, about the danger of foreign powers interfering in the 2020 election, the Republicans blocked an election security bill in the Senate once again. The Bill had been passed by the House of Representatives. A day earlier the Republicans blocked three related Bills. The autonomy of the Congress has been eroded despite the Separation of Powers doctrine.

Crisis of representation

On August 28, 2019, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a determined bid to curtail the debating powers of the British Parliament. He announced that Parliament will shut down for five weeks, from September 9 to October 14 of this year. Committed to a no-deal exit from the European Union (EU) on October 31, 2019, Mr. Johnson intended to pre-empt debate on the issue in the House of Commons. Law makers would hardly have time to debate on a fresh proposal, or on the desirability of abandoning the idea of a no-deal Brexit, or on the need to abandon Brexit altogether. Economists have warned the government that the country will descend into economic chaos if it leaves the EU without a deal. But Mr. Johnson persevered. However, he misjudged the political moment.

Last Saturday, thousands of people in the U.K. protested against the prorogation of Parliament. Conservative party members expressed outrage at this constitutional impropriety. Opposition parties moved quickly to thwart suspension of Parliament. On September 3, even as Mr Johnson was reporting to the House of Commons on the G-7 meet, one of his colleagues in the Conservative Party, the former Justice Minister, Phillip Lee, crossed the floor and joined the Liberal Democratic Party. Mr Johnson now runs a minority government.

Another constitutional outrage was committed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government on August 5, 2019 in India. On that day the Home Minister asked the Rajya Sabha to approve of a fait accompli, the dismemberment of Jammu and Kashmir which is a constituent State of the Indian federation. No one seems to remember that J&K existed several decades before India became independent and proceeded to integrate over 500 princely states into its territory. Every protocol that the territorial boundaries of an existing State in the federation cannot be altered without the assent of the representatives of the people has been infringed. Parliament, which in its majesty represents the Indian people, has been reduced to a handmaiden of the ruling party. When a democratic and representative institution like Parliament loses power and misplaces its capacity to challenge power, it ceases to represent the interests, the needs and the aspirations of citizens. We are deprived of the right to be represented. The right to participate is neutralised in the process.

Populist leaders have established their sway over large parts of the world. They speak the language of democracy but their solutions to the problems of the people are rankly authoritarian. Once upon a time, democracy was a subversive term. Anti-feudal and anti-colonial movements deployed the vocabulary in their fight for their freedom. Democratic institutions replaced colonial and feudal bureaucracies. The wheel has turned full circle. We are back to the days of personalised power and suppression of democratic institutions. The person of the executive replaces representative government.

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 11:20:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-democratic-language-an-authoritarian-writ/article29325479.ece

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