South Asia’s ailing political culture —A G Noorani

None of the political parties in our democracies is run democratically within its own organisation. Change can come only with infusion of new blood
“Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Feudal, Dr B R Ambedkar might have added. He was addressing the Constituent Assembly of India on November 4, 1948 as chairman of its Drafting Committee on a motion to consider the Draft Constitution as settled by the Committee.

It is neither chauvinistic nor presumptuous to say that what Ambedkar said of India was equally true of the entire South Asia. Far more than we realise or are prepared to admit, we have a fairly common political culture which is distinctly South Asian.

What other democracy in the world has anti-defection laws? India has its “aya rams gaya rams”, Pakistan has its lotas, Sri Lanka probably has an equally expressive epithet for such merchants of the vote in Parliament.

But this isn’t all. We have yet graver affinities and they all stem from the basic malaise. Burke warned that “the law sharpens the mind, by narrowing it”. Ambedkar was no mere lawyer. He was steeped in history, political science, and economics. He administered three warnings a year later on November 25, 1949, just as the Assembly was about to adopt the finalised draft. “It is quite possible for this newborn democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact.” This in fact happened, at some time or the other, in all four States — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Ambedkar’s warnings were ignored at our peril. “The first thing, in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to Constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives”. He added: “The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it, social democracy.”

I advisedly skipped the second for quotation at the end in extenso because it touches the roots of our feudal structure.

“The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy; namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions’. There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot, Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty…. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

It is a failing rooted in our culture.

There are as many as six common features in the post-independence histories of South Asia’s States.

1. A charismatic leader coins populist slogans and marginalises other leaders (Indira Gandhi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, SW R D Bandaranaike and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman).

2. Unable to deliver on tall promises, the supreme leader turns authoritarian. In Sri Lanka this was left to Mrs Sirimao Bandanaike to accomplish.

3. There is a spell of dictatorship (“the emergency” in India in 1975-77) or army rule. In 1962 there was an abortive coup in Sri Lanka. In 1975 Sheikh Mujibur Rehman installed his dictatorship.

4. In each of the four, the leader was assassinated: S W R D Bandaranaike, Mujibur Rehman, Indira Gandhi and Z A Bhutto, with useful help from the judiciary.

5. In each, dynastic succession followed.

6. In each, in consequence, there was a sharp polarisation of political forces between “them” and “us”.

South Asia’s countries are split polities and this has warped democratic governance. The middle ground shrank. The legislature, the civil service, the judiciary, the media, federalism and not least political morality were undermined. In 1973 Indira Gandhi’s advisers formulated the doctrine not only of “committed civil servants” but also of “committed judges”.

We are forced to learn old truths anew because their neglect has cost us dear. What Balfour wrote of parliamentary democracy describes the lot of our split politics.

“Multiplicity of political parties is not the only vice that can impair democracy. Let the political parties be reduced to two (admittedly the most convenient number for Cabinet government), but let the chasm dividing them be so profound that a change of administration would in fact be a revolution disguised under a constitutional procedure.”

In India the split between the Congress and the rest was replaced in 1998 by that between the BJP and the rest. In each case a coalition had to be forged to oust the populist party. The BJP nailed its colours to the Hindutva mast in 1989. Even now, its leader L K Advani declaims (June 27, 2008) that “the country will not be satisfied unless a magnificent Ram temple comes up at Ayodhya”.

Demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, for which he has successfully avoided facing criminal trial all these years, has not assuaged his lust for dominance. No wonder it is now a clash between the BJP and the rest.

There is, however, yet another common feature that binds our split polities. The ruling party stifles debate; the opposition refuses to accept defeat and continues to topple the elected government. This, Ivor Jennings remarked, “is one of the causes of the failure of so many of the progeny of the Mother of Parliaments and of the supersession of parliamentary government by dictatorship”.

This should not drive us to despair, however, but to introspection and correction.

In 1976 some Labourites defended Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship and argued that democracy was ill-suited to India anyway. They drew a withering retort from Professor W H Morris-Jones, Constitutional Adviser to the Viceroy of India in 1947.

In a letter to The Times (London) on June 25, 1976 he pointed out that the “jibe about exhibit A of the Westminster model abroad misses the point that it had become a specifically Indian achievement; it only adds insult to the injury already suffered by Indian democrats. Such denigration has long been a sport in which high imperial Tory and revolutionary Marxist could find common enjoyment…. Unitedly, Indian democracy had freely mobilised demands and grievances; in its place is put none of the usual alternatives.”

This is true of all of us in South Asia. The people have not failed democracy, only their leaders have and they prevent the people from running their parties. Add one more common feature in our political culture. None of the political parties in our democracies is run democratically within its own organisation. Change can come only with infusion of new blood.

A G Noorani is a prominent lawyer and a commentator on regional affairs

Source: Daily Times, 7/7/2008

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