Stamp out the canker thwarting democracy

A solution lies in an informal alliance of people and institutions propelling a stream of public-spirited action and activity

April 07, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

The 21st century is host to multitudinous crises impacting different sectors. For instance, the 2007-08 financial crisis seriously dented the economies of many nations, and the recovery has been slow, or sporadic. Since then, a succession of unrelated crises have heralded forebodings of still graver damage not only to the economy but also to the body politic and people everywhere.

Introspection and action

The COVID-19 pandemic provided the backdrop for dire predictions of this kind. Its impact has been far reaching, which has included an economic tsunami, upheavals and dislocation affecting every sphere of human activity, an accompanying health crisis which has not spared any nation, and the fostering of a crisis mentality. The fact that the novel coronavirus pandemic shows few signs of abating is aggravating this crisis atmosphere.

Several other negative trends are simultaneously present. A churn in the post-1945 Westphalian order is only too evident. Across different continents, we are again witness to a series of political and strategic crises. Disinformation and distortions caused by an overload of fake information are creating an impression that the world is facing a systemic and multidimensional crisis, the consequences of which are unpredictable.

The combination of circumstances is exposing the fragility of today’s party-based democracies, leading to questions about their ability to deal with newer problems. As crisis upon crisis plagues nations and countries, anger is becoming a dominant aspect. The situation demands a great deal of introspection followed by conscious action. Finding an optimal combination of authoritarian, populist and democratic trends, to ensure the material well-being of the majority and achieving economic development is, however, not easy. Concerns are that it could lend itself to the rise of new political oligarchies, masquerading in the garb of defenders of democracy, and the creation of new elites professedly seeking to defend democracy.

Fair polls under threat

Recent trends within this country tend to buttress such concerns. For instance, elections have of late become a kind of a no-holds-barred battle for power, irrespective of whether it is being held in a large State, a medium-sized State or even an Union Territory. Levels of electioneering increasingly lend themselves to abuse, rather than a highlighting of issues or policies. Innuendoes and personal remarks dominate political debates. Money power is all too evident, and violence is the leitmotif in many segments. The most threatened aspect is the concept of fair and free elections. Concerns whether the verdict reflects the true will of the electorate are, hence, bound to persist long after the results are in.

Even if an argument is put forward that many of today’s excesses do not reflect long-term reality, it is difficult to believe that the situation would return to the previous normal. Also that this is merely a dark chapter that will soon be forgotten. If this were true, it could be treated as a closed chapter, but this is unlikely to be the case. We may, hence, need to deal with this new reality, which puts greater reliance on authoritarian methods rather than on democratic means.

None of these would, however, still amount to an existential crisis. The real existential crisis that India confronts — in a period dominated by the pandemic and bitter electoral battles — is the virtual collapse of systems of governance in many States, as well evidenced by the events that took place recently in India’s Maximum City, and the nation’s economic capital, viz. , Mumbai.

Holding a mirror

What was played out in public is a searing indictment of India’s claims to be a state with an entrenched belief in order and the rule of law. No amount of rationalisation can possibly justify the saga of events that have been unfolding daily in this city, since the so-called discovery of gelatine sticks in an abandoned vehicle just across the residence of India’s richest businessman, which is located in one of the city’s most protected areas.

To this day, the police force has made no honest effort to determine why anyone should plant explosives in one of the most protected neighbourhoods in India, and believe that it would not be discovered (as so happened in this case), or what purpose was served by putting gelatine sticks without a triggering mechanism inside the vehicle. Instead, every attention has been devoted to making it a kind of free-for-all among members of the political class, the bureaucracy and the police hierarchy.

The main villain in the latest saga — which is a true reflection of the existential crisis we currently face — is a lowly assistant police inspector, S. Vaze, who personifies everything that is wrong with the system and not only of the police, whose unsavoury exploits have now become too well known. The Mumbai incident should be seen as merely the tip of the iceberg of what is the current reality, which is not confined to Mumbai city, but extends well beyond Maharashtra to other States in the country. Vaze would have been well served had he followed the sage advice proffered to Alexander the Great by a group of Jain philosophers, in the Fourth Century BCE, that ‘every man can possess only so much of the earth surface as this we are standing........., you will soon be dead and then you will own only just as much of the earth as will suffice to bury you’. Perhaps Mumbai and Maharashtra too might well have been spared the ignominy and the indignity of what we have been seeing. What comes through loud and clear, however, is that Vaze is a symptom of what ails several layers of the political, civil and law and order system across the country. What is worse is that much of this is well known to both the powers that be as well as the people at large. Both have been cohabiting in this space for years.

Even by the standards of a decline in police mores, the recent spate of disclosures confront us with an unpleasant reality that excesses of this kind, tend to occur almost daily. Established norms of conduct are sometimes given the go by during difficult periods, such as communal riots or other violent upheavals, but the extent of falsehoods indulged in by individuals in this instance has degraded not only the police force but also the entire system. What it signifies is anyone’s guess, but what is certain is that we have almost nowhere to go. This is the real existential crisis we confront today.

An alliance with a difference

It may, hence, be time to embark on a new phase. It is no longer enough to merely define good policing or what kind of a relationship the community should have with the police. The reality is that it takes more than a courageous police leadership to stand up for the right policies, including not protecting officers who have clearly done something wrong. The situation has advanced far beyond this stage.

Consequently, we need to look at newer alternatives. Repeating ad nauseum about reforming the police and establishing yet another blue-ribbon committee to undertake a thorough overhaul of the police machinery is a recipe for yet another disaster to come. This kind of thought is neither original nor revolutionary. Police commissions cannot alter the milieu in which the police are compelled to operate, in which everyone — the politicians, bureaucrats and everyone in authority or presumes to have authority — seeks a police force that they can bend to their will. Added to this is the widespread corruption that casts a larger-than-life shadow over not only police functioning but every facet of public life. It should, hence, be obvious to the meanest intelligence that no amount of recommendations or the constitution of Supreme Court-monitored investigations of police excesses can bring about any real change.

What is, perhaps, needed, or needs to be attempted, is an informal alliance of people and institutions, irrespective of ideology or interests (to the exclusion of activists of every hue, business titans and politicians) which should come together to coalesce into a mighty stream of public-spirited action and activity. Essentially, it means creating and executing a national public awareness campaign against the kind of excesses that have been allowed to continue, embarking instead on a determined campaign to stamp out the canker that is thwarting democracy and democracy-related procedures and actions. Creating such a movement and sustaining it will not be easy, but if the system is to be saved, there is a need to consider such real alternatives.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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