In recent days, three photographs have received wide publicity. They tell an interesting story about the nature of Indian democracy. We normally moan about the failures of our politics by quoting statistics, commenting on executive silences, lamenting judicial inaction, or analysing harmful policy impacts. Rarely do we refer to a photograph to make a political point. Yet, these three photographs are very telling in what they reveal about our democracy. Over the years we have resisted being described as a ‘flawed democracy’, or a ‘developing democracy, or even as just an electoral democracy (in preference to its alternative an electoral autocracy) and have indicated that the appellation we are happy with is the world’s largest democracy. But this appellation does not tell us much about our evolution as a democratic nation.
The three photographs do. Limited as they are, they give us abundant material for critical discussion. The first photograph is of Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari stuffing the mouth of Eknath Shinde, the newly sworn-in Chief Minister of Maharashtra, with a mithai. We have seen party presidents, in celebration, stuff the mouths of Chief Minister-designates with ladoos. This is to be expected, even normal, in our new political Parampara. But when a Governor happily did so, many of us raised our eyebrows not sure about its acceptability. Are Governors not expected to be equidistant between winning and losing candidates? Does the impartiality of office require no public display of excessive joy by the Governor unless it is to establish the legitimacy of the constitutional process? Is a handshake enough for this display or perhaps a namaste, but stuffing the victor’s mouth with a ladoo? Is that right? Over the years one has not seen many photographs of Governors stuffing the mouth of new office bearers with ladoos. None really. This was a rare photograph.
In our zest to decolonise, like we did when we replaced ‘Abide with me’ with ‘ Aye Mere Watan ke Logon’ during the Beating Retreat ceremony on January 29, 2022, we could argue that this was an act of decolonisation. In our Indian democracy this is how we do things. Decolonisation is a powerful reason to replace the shaking of hands with the stuffing of ladoos for by doing so, we are Indianising our political culture, making it desi. Should the President of India then do the same after swearing in the Chief Justice of India? A Chief Justice of India with a ladoo in his mouth would make for a great visual.
I am not being facetious here when I belabour this point of Governor Koshyari having seemingly transgressed an important symbolic line of our democracy. Propriety defines where this line should lie. Protocol reinforces it. In fact, many protocol books, part of the paraphernalia of government, set out the rules of permitted and proscribed behaviour. Protocol officers are tasked with the job of advising holders of office on what should and can be done. The Koshyari photograph shows that everyone, all officials who accompanied the Governor, even the gentlemen in uniform, approved the celebration. Which means it passed the propriety requirement. The ambiguity hence lies with us and not them, democratic theorists and not democratic practitioners.
A new class, a sanctity
This judgment on transgression of propriety is, however, more easily made in the second photograph which shows the Shiv Sena rebel Members of the Legislative Assembly dancing on tables in a hotel in Goa after the announcement of Eknath Shinde as the new Chief Minister. This is a new meaning to tabling a no-confidence resolution. Some officials from the hotel had to dissuade them from persisting with the practice. For elected representatives to show their joy by dancing on tables is an unusual expression of our democratic culture.
Perhaps we must shed our diffidence once and for all of wanting our democracy to meet standards of public behaviour crafted in the West. A new class of representatives has entered the public domain and so it is not reasonable to expect them to act in ways they are unused to, like those stuffy Etonians. Boris Johnson is hardly the model to follow. Why should we seek certificates from elsewhere?
If we persist with this line of thinking, however, the third photograph throws us out of gear. It is the solemn photograph of the Prime Minister handing over the nomination forms of the presidential candidate, Droupadi Murmu, to the designated electoral officer. In this photograph I want us to focus only on the official who continues to be seated. When the most powerful person in the country, and perhaps one of the most powerful Prime Ministers of India, stands before a middle-ranking official of the Indian state to hand him some forms, propriety requires that the official keep sitting. At that moment he is after all, the embodiment of the Constitution. Irrespective of who is before him the authority that he is given by the Constitution, to accept the forms, makes him the most important authority in the room. The propriety of the nomination process requires that the supreme authority of the Constitution be on display. It was. It could not have been easy for him to keep sitting before the Prime Minister, and we may even have forgiven him if he stood, but he kept sitting. Few probably even recognise his name or his face now, days later, but at that moment all eyes were on him. As the electoral officer he was required to display the authority of his office, which he did without a moment’s hesitation. No transgression. Unlike Governor Koshyari. No pedas were distributed. And there was no dancing on tables either.
I am not stretching the point. The three photographs have contrasting messages, two on one side, one on the other, two suggesting transgressions of constitutional propriety, one indicating conformity with it. Propriety is an important component of any society. We get up to offer a seat to an elderly person on a bus. We touch the feet of the people we respect. We garland successful winners and offer ladoos to those who have secured good marks in examinations. India is a ritually dense society. It affirms our sense of ourselves as a common community. This, in itself, is good.
Decolonisation of democracy
As a post-colonial society, however, we need to decide which rituals, inherited from the colonial past, we wish to keep and which we wish to discard. Some years ago, in the Supreme Court of India, lawyers were asked to discard the use of ‘Milord’ (my lord) when referring to members of the Bench. Breaking coconuts has replaced the breaking of a champagne bottle on the hull of a ship when it is launched. Yes, we need to craft new rituals for our democratic society, to give it Indian adornments. This is necessary to uphold the sanctity of office and the greater sanctity of the Constitution from which all authority flows. If this sanctity is diminished, then the distinction between politician and official gets lost. The umpire becomes a player. Impartiality of office evaporates without which the state becomes an instrument of rule by the most powerful, or the most cunning, or the most resourceful. I am not sure that MLAs dancing on tables, or the Governor stuffing ladoos in the mouth of a Chief Minister elect’s mouth, meets this standard of propriety.
Peter Ronald deSouza is the DD Kosambi Visiting Professor at Goa University. He has recently co-edited a book, ‘Companion to Indian Democracy: Resilience, Fragility, Ambivalence’. The views expressed are personal