The real threat to the ‘India as we know it’

That the country appears more divided than it has at any time in the recent past, and this worsening in the run-up to the general election, is cause for concern

February 21, 2024 12:16 am | Updated March 29, 2024 04:44 pm IST

‘On the eve of what is being posited as possibly the most critical election in this century, politics is highly polarised and is further exacerbating divisive tendencies’

‘On the eve of what is being posited as possibly the most critical election in this century, politics is highly polarised and is further exacerbating divisive tendencies’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

With the 17th Lok Sabha having ended, the stage is now set for the general election. The final session of Parliament, unfortunately, proved to be as divisive as several of the previous sessions, with both the ruling and the Opposition parties trading charges and conceding no quarter to each other. This unseemly spectacle has given rise to concerns about the future of parliamentary democracy in the country.

We in India have been more fortunate than many other countries in being able to sustain democracy, and in earning a reputation of adherence to the best of parliamentary practices. The Constitution of India, one of the finest written Constitutions to be found anywhere in the world, includes among other Articles, a set of Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties of its citizens and the Directive Principles of State Policy, which have been our safeguards in sustaining democracy. Looking at the current decline in parliamentary practices, people, however, worry whether Parliament can be depended upon to sustain a stable democracy in the future.

This situation has nothing to do with India’s external or internal dynamics. India is today better placed than it has been for many decades in connection with these two points. The global political environment may be murky, but India has hardly been impacted adversely, notwithstanding the ongoing war in Ukraine, the turmoils in West Asia and other similar tensions. China remains a matter of concern demanding extreme vigilance, but it does not pose an immediate threat. Pakistan, embroiled in its internal problems, is hardly a threat to India.

The internal dynamics, no doubt, are more problematic, but India has been fortunate, of late, to be spared of facing major terror attacks. There are quite a few internal security issues that lurk just below the surface. While some defy early solution, they are not insoluble. The farmers’ agitation in the Punjab and Haryana has, no doubt, the potential to turn into a ‘prairie fire’, but if handled properly, can be controlled. The northeast region remains unsettled, with Manipur representing a microcosm of the problems that have plagued this region for years. But again, it is manageable. Communal violence is under check, even though communal tensions could be exacerbated in an election year. Left-wing extremist violence is at a low ebb as of now, even though it could see a revival in an election year.

A ‘divided’ nation

What is a matter of concern though is that the country today appears more divided than it has at any time in the recent past. The Prime Minister himself has been constrained to observe that the Opposition is creating a “North-South Divide and that the Opposition was speaking the language of breaking the country”. He has levelled serious charges against the Congress, stating that it was intent on “creating a divide among people in the name of caste, language and religion”. During the interim Budget session in Parliament, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman went to the extent of personally attacking the former Finance Minister and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, of having failed to discharge his responsibilities adequately during his tenure, and of failing the nation in its hour of need. Not to be left behind, the Opposition has been pouring vitriol on the Treasury benches, accusing them of vitiating the atmosphere in Parliament and of violating existing guidelines concerning parliamentary practice and conduct. In an election year, it is not unexpected, or unknown, for political parties to trade barbs. It is, however, the element of viciousness that is seen in these exchanges, which does not augur well for either Parliament or the nation. This departure from past parliamentary traditions has resulted in a widening of the gulf between the ruling party and the entire Opposition. This is most regrettable.

The impact of a polarised politics

On the eve of what is being posited as possibly the most critical election in this century, politics is highly polarised and is further exacerbating divisive tendencies. No issues appear beyond the pale when carving out winning strategies and ensuring bigger victory margins. Even the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya — which most Indians have welcomed — has become an election issue, with both Houses of Parliament passing a resolution terming the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya as ushering in a “new era of governance and public welfare”. The spectre of ‘Hindu majoritarianism’, whether intended or not, thus looms large in the minds of sections of the public, alongside a perception that ‘Mandir’ defines the nature of politics in an election year.

Federalism, on which the Constitution-makers placed great store, is becoming a victim of this situation. While some aspects could be viewed as symptomatic of the steady and gradual decline in democratic practices over the years, there is a difference today, and possibly some substance in the Opposition charge that the ruling dispensation at the Centre is breaching the federal principle with impunity. The Opposition charge sheet includes aspects such as attempts to enforce an Uniform Civil Code, alongside manifest attempts to push through the concept of ‘One Nation, One Election’, possibly intended to undermine the role of regional parties.

Defections have been a major bane of Indian politics, but engineered defections, particularly of the kind being reported in this election year, are making a mockery of democracy and electoral politics. More to the point, ongoing efforts to induce members to change sides through inducements are undermining the entire election system. A rash of defections have occurred which includes top leaders from other parties, to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party at the Centre. A conspicuous example of this kind has been inveigling the Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, to change sides with the implicit promise that he could continue as Chief Minister under a new dispensation (headed by the BJP). Many other instances of engineered high-level defections to the ruling party at the Centre are again taking place across the country, undermining democratic principles and practices. This conveys an impression that electoral democracy stands today at the crossroads; and that constitutionally mandated rules and practices are being trampled upon with impunity. While no one party may be responsible for this situation, given that the majority of engineered high-level defections have been to the ruling BJP in this election year, the import is loud and clear, viz., that those holding the reins of power are better positioned to alter electoral verdicts by other means.

No rules-based order

Distinct from this, but intrinsically linked to it, are perceived violations of constitutionally mandated conduct by centrally-appointed Governors in certain States. The role of Governors in Opposition-ruled States has become a major issue between the Centre and the Opposition-ruled States of late, with these States alleging — and not without reason — that the Centre was using Governors to checkmate the policies and programmes drawn up by Opposition-ruled States. In some instances, and in certain situations, it is leading to a virtual breakdown of relations between the Centre and the States.

The situation clearly calls for dispassionate analysis. It may be that the ruling dispensation at the Centre is not alone to blame and that the Opposition also demonstrates a disregard for constitutional niceties and the principles of federalism. The onus, however, lies mainly on the Centre. What is apparent, and most lacking today, is the absence of a rules-based order in regard to Centre-State relations, and with regard to party-to-party relationships. In the absence of this, there is every danger that the system could overturn altogether.

All this is tantamount to a virtual collapse of Constitution-mandated rules of business. There is again every danger that if these were to continue, what we understand by democracy under a constitutional mandate would cease to exist. Tolerating differences is, hence, the first order of priority. Next, everything has to be subordinated to the requirements of the Constitution. Third, managing the subtle interplay between interests and values and reaffirming a firm belief in the Constitution is a basic necessity. There are no rivalries that cannot be managed within a constitutionally-mandated system, and this is essential if India, as we know it, is to survive.

M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser, and a former Governor of West Bengal

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