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Indians debate too much democracy. But there’s not a whimper for ‘too little republic’

It’s not about democracy. Reform in India is hard because of too much social distrust.

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The debate that Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant unwittingly triggered over the extent of democracy in India was passionate, lively and largely beside the point. What is of utmost and urgent importance at this time is the plummeting level of rule-of-law and rule-by-law in the country. We have ‘too little republic’ amid growing, even competing majoritarianisms among the population and populisms among its leaders. In fact, I would venture that while a large number of adults in India understand and accept democracy as an important political value, the number of people who know what a republic is and ought to be is much smaller. We celebrate Republic Day with a big military parade in New Delhi and patriotic songs in schools and neighbourhoods, with little realisation of why exactly it is different from, say, Independence Day.

The idea of a republic goes beyond a State whose head is a president and not a monarch. It is fundamentally a restraint on tyranny — whether by the monarch or the majority. A democracy decides on issues based on popularity, often according to the will of the majority. A republic qualifies majority decisions by forcing them to be consistent with a set of principles that even majorities cannot violate. The most important of these principles are liberty, equality, fraternity and justice. That is why Indian constitutional jurisprudence upholds — and I use the present tense with a mixture of hope and anxiety — the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution. The values enshrined in the preamble, our fundamental rights, the secular nature of the State and the rule of law form this ‘basic structure’ and are beyond the power of any parliamentary majority to change. A lot of people mistakenly believe they get their rights because India is a democracy. On the contrary, they are assured of their rights because India is a republic.

Also read: Too little democracy is why India’s reforms and progress are stymied

Democracy over republic

While an odd comment by a prominent civil servant drives us into paroxysms of debate over democracy, there is scarcely a whimper at the constant, popular undermining of the republic. Here’s a brief history of the past decade. One government made retrospective laws, violating the most basic premise of the rule of law. A massive public movement rode roughshod over the parliamentary process demanding that parliament enact a law the crowd outside it made. Independent institutions were steadily undermined by a popular elected government. The Supreme Court, among others, demurred over hearing habeas corpus petitions. Protesters seeking entitlements vandalise highway and railway property. Increasingly emboldened religious processions get a free pass from the authorities. Law enforcement authorities take openly partisan actions. In the corporate world, shares change hands based on political power. All around ‘there is too little republic’ and we are not even aware of the dangers of this deficiency.

Just because we are unaware of the diminishing strength of the Indian republic does not mean we do not suffer its consequences. People might not acknowledge the declining rule of law, but they will act in ways that reveal their lack of trust in the Indian State and its institutions. The farmers’ agitation is a symptom of their distrust in the intentions, laws and processes of the Indian State. They are prepared to live with a known devil rather than put faith in the promise of an unknown god. Similarly, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime is in a mess because governments, businesses and individuals do not trust each other and insist on guarantees that add up to a massively complex system. It’s why people celebrate extra-judicial killings — they don’t trust law enforcement and the judicial system. Workers at a smartphone factory in Karnataka resort to vandalism when the employer doesn’t pay their dues because they do not believe they will get redressal through the system. Those who can afford it have made private arrangements for everything, from schools and healthcare to electricity, water and security.

Also read: Bharat Bandh — India’s slide into constitutional grey zone where politics decides right or wrong

Reform, a hard bargain

So it’s not really about democracy. Reform is hard in India because too much social distrust arising from too little republicanism has rendered our political system dysfunctional. Majoritarianism — including, but not only of the Hindu nationalist variety — exacerbates the distrust and hence the dysfunction. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scorching what was left of the middle ground, political parties and ordinary people are left with the binary choice of supporting or opposing whatever is proposed by the Narendra Modi government. As the government is discovering in the case of the agricultural reforms, this can also result in political allies parting ways. If the outcome of it all is the rejection and reversing of the necessary reforms, it is not because there was too much or too little democracy, but because too few took the constitutional path in right earnest.

As I wrote last week, “In a country where there are thousands of interest groups, with lakhs of grievances, the dissolution of constitutional constraints is a recipe for turmoil.” We need more republic, and for reasons far beyond successful economic reforms.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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  1. Well too much democracy is extremely unhealthy and India must think of some constitutional way to solve issues in order to avoid public nuisances. The greatest threat is upon reforms and development. The loosing of trust from foreign investors is another serious point. Too much democracy is too much anarchism and thereby too much nuisance. So the question is how much is too much ? Well we have constitution, judicial system, political system therefore the answer can be found out. Though difficult and complex but possible.

  2. By all accounts, India is a ‘quasi-democracy’, and a ‘republic’ in name only. The biggest deterrent to social and economic progress in this balkanized land is the destructive, scorched-earth politics, where each party vying for power uses every means possible, including naked violence, to demonize, de-legitimize and destroy the party in power. This is why this country is in such constant turmoil, with hartals, protests, strikes, bandhs…pandemonium central.
    And yes, the masses have no trust in govt, its netas or its babus…they taken the cynical view that the entire system has been corrupted beyond redeem by the corrupt, power-hungry, self-serving political class… a cynicism which helps to perpetuate the turmoil.

  3. The People of India have resolved to promote a community of fraternal Indians in which justice as fairness prevails. They have constituted India as a Union of States and have conceived of an institution of national life designated by them as ‘the State’. They have stipulated that ;the State’ would have to make laws by applying some broad principles which they characterize as FUNDAMENTAL in governance and have entrusted the Union in Article 263 with the responsibility of COORDINATING POLICY AND ACTION focused on every creatively well-chosen SUBJECT of social relevance (e.g., fair terms of market participation by farmers; levy and collection of indirect taxes without injury to fair terms of market participation etc). The Republic conceives of the Union as the conductor of an orchestra who coordinates the production of the melodious music of GOOD GOVERNANCE by the various artists working with a common purpose; and not merely as a lead singer who would need to be supported by the “accompanying” artists.

  4. The author has adeptly explained the issue with our system. This is a thought which troubles millions of citizens and now especially our youth. Youngsters are absorbing what is happening around them and they are shocked, confused and uncomfortable. Many kids from educated and affluent families want to leave the country. Sadly these are future leaders of our Country who could help make a change with their intellect, but if they want to flee then we are doing something wrong.
    The real problem is also how people interpret democracy. Instead of using Democracy and Democratic process to voice what needs to be done to create a strong Nation, everyone uses Democracy as a immunity cloak and continue to undermine unity. It has become an explicit understanding that Democracy means ‘I have the right to say what i want’. Something which is dangerous without proper understanding of the framework one is in.
    We are a nation of people with millions of differences and if strife can create political factions the way we have been seeing, it is not far when you may have a million parties vying for power. Divisiveness at its best.
    I feel our song ‘Saare Jahan Se Accha’ has fallen silent and we need to quickly revive it and play it often around the country to remind what we need to achieve. A Nation which is best in the World.

  5. In a recent column in Washington Post, the author quotes former Secretary of State George Shultz (president Reagan administration), “Trust is the coin of the realm.” “When trust was in the room, whatever room that was — the family room, the schoolroom, the locker room, the office room, the government room or the military room — good things happened,” Shultz wrote. “When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details.” The author then goes on, “Trump’s presidency is hardly the sole cause of America’s declining trust in our institutions, which has been going on for a long time. In some ways, his was the culmination of that decline. But it’s hard to think of any person in my lifetime who so perfectly epitomizes the politics of distrust, or one who so aggressively promotes it. Trump has taught his opponents not to believe a word he says, his followers not to believe a word anyone else says, and much of the rest of the country to believe nobody and nothing at all. He has detonated a bomb under the epistemological foundations of a civilization that is increasingly unable to distinguish between facts and falsehoods, evidence and fantasy. He has instructed tens of millions of people to accept the commandment, That which you can get away with, is true.”

  6. TS Darbari – Delhi and it’s adjoining areas on Friday, November 27, bore the brunt of farmers protest. The farmers who had come to the national capital with genuine demands now seem to be playing into the hands of politicians. The lackadiasical approach of politicians has led to this situation. If the leaders had, at some earlier stage, tried to convince the farmers and the groups that are protesting, the situation could have been different. Though there are some loopholes in the bill but we must also remember that there are numerous benefits of these acts. Therefore, these loopholes can be eradicated with mutual talks and understanding.The government should not leave thousands of farmers on roads like this. There issues must be heard in open or live discussions so that the whole nation can know what are their concerns and to what extent the issues can be resolved. #TS_Darbari #Ts_Darbari_Blog #TS_Darbari_News #Ts_Darbari_Views #Ts_Darbari_Blogger #TS_Darbari_Comments #Ts_Darbari_Opinion #About_TS_Darbari #TS_Darbari_Articles #Politics #Views #Comments

  7. This is really a very good article which clearly explains the reason behind farmers’ protests. The author beautifully summarizes as:
    “Reform is hard in India because too much social distrust arising from too little republicanism has rendered our political system dysfunctional. Majoritarianism — including, but not only of the Hindu nationalist variety — exacerbates the distrust and hence the dysfunction.”
    Although the author didn’t put the blame only on BJP for majoritarianism, it’s under BJP, the distrust among various social groups has increased substantially. Look at Singapore which promotes inter-social living among the people o Chinese, Malay, Indian or other origins by reserving some flats in an appartment for each grouping. But in our India, laws are created to prevent such soacial harmony. When will this govt. realize that social harmony is a must for economic progress!

  8. The author hits the nail on the head. While we are a democracy, we don’t give two hoots about rule of law or anything that comes with being a republic. Our political leadership since independence has made a mockery of those values. when people in leadership roles don’t care about those rights, masses don’t care either. All this happens because the values of our republic mentioned in our constitution were supposed to be guarded by the judiciary. And very frankly it has horribly failed. Justice is the key. Justice is ensuring all those values of Republicanism. I am sure we will never see a judiciary that functions for everyone and without delays.

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