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The Missing Counterpoise to Narendra Modi

Institutional feebleness and political imperfections have given the prime minister the upper hand.

A man wearing a Narendra Modi mask. Credit: PTI

A man wearing a Narendra Modi mask. Credit: PTI

Two days ago Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, put in his papers because he thought it best to distance himself from the Theresa May government rather than be party to entrenched incompetence back in Whitehall as London negotiates the terms of its messy divorce from the European Union. In a letter to all his colleagues, the seasoned diplomat and negotiator hoped that they would “continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power.” Sir Ivan exhorted his comrades to continue to perform their basic dharma: “to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them”.

Contrast this display of forthrightness with the mannered pusillanimity in India in the wake of the vastly disruptive notebandi

Senior bureaucrats, NITI Aayog members, as well as cabinet ministers are quite willing, in private, to be dismissive of the Great Expropriation called demonetisation, but there has not been a single public expression of dissent in the ruling quarters. Rather than just bemoaning the expediency at work, the experience should be deemed deeply troublesome because it does invite a dangerous lesson that the citizens’ savings and emotions can be so effortlessly corralled, without any protest. Indeed, the prime minister, with all the gifts of a fabulist, claims to have the support of “125 crore fellow-citizens”, even as his government has hot-wired out everyone’s private savings.

The unending hardship to which the vast masses have been put since November 8 has been applauded as a reassuring commitment to nation-building and a heart-warming exhibition of deshbhakti. The prime minister’s admirers and advisers tauntingly ask the demonetisation critics to explain the absence of violence and public protest.

That is not at all difficult. Tony Judt, that astute chronicler of the 20th century’s malignancies, cites Leo Tolstoy (from Anna Karenina) to explain why millions and millions in Europe silently endured the gross injustices of their rulers: “There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him.”

The danger, then, is that the presumed ‘popular’ acquiescence in this collectivist experiment may well be interpreted as a licence for a more precipitous leadership. That ought to make us all sit up. Even if the BJP were to win every single seat in all the five states going to the polls next month, will that be a mandate for uninhibited and unlimited power-concentration at the expense of a healthy democratic equilibrium?

But, it can well be argued: who needs equilibrium? In fact, during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections the BJP had promised that if voted to power the party would restore the primacy of the office of the prime minister. That primacy stood restored, ipso facto, once the party had netted an impressive Lok Sabha majority. And, since Narendra Modi is marketed – by a very exuberant and very competent PR machine – as being endowed with ‘charisma’, he is presumed to be necessarily commanding  the attention and affection, if not allegiance, of the multitudes. A mass leader is entitled, the argument goes, to flaunt his popular credentials and use his special bond with the masses to energise the nation to greater glory. Such a leader is not to be hobbled with institutional inconveniences.

An ancient dilemma is at work here: how powerful should the king be? In the modern, democratic age, the unresolved question has been: how much power and authority should the prince be allowed? Alexander Hamilton had stressed the necessity of ensuring “energy in the executive” in the American presidency. Too weak an executive is an invitation to paralysis; too strong a leader and the republic, again, ends up courting troubles. It is left to constitutional processes and democratic energies to determine the effervescent balance. A healthy democracy is defined by its capacity to find a judicious balance.

Of late, we in India have slipped up rather badly. Almost all the political checks have wilted and the scales are tilted in the prime minister’s favour. He has come to acquire such dominance that he can ride roughshod over all potential and actual sources of restraint and accountability.

The union cabinet is no longer a collection of equals. Nor is the prime minister a primus inter pares. He is definitely much more. Unlike the last BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had to contend with a deputy prime minister and formidable ministerial colleagues such as Jaswant Singh, George Fernandes and Yashwant Sinha, Modi is surrounded by much reduced associates. All these ministers, including those who preside over North Block, are content to be told what to do, and, more significantly, what to say.

The parliamentary party – once deemed to be a healthy antidote to prime ministerial overlordship in a cabinet government arrangement – stands reduced to being a captive audience. This is not unnatural, as most BJP parliamentarians are dependent upon the prime minister’s charisma for making it to the House.

On the organisational front, the BJP is headed by a hand-picked lightweight. Every efficacious prime minister likes to ensure that the ‘organisation’ does not emerge as a rival source of authority or patronage. Modi, too, has seen to it.

Even those self-styled deshbhakts and ‘organisation men’ at Nagpur, who have traditionally arrogated to themselves a right to play  moral referee in the BJP’s internal affairs, have surrendered before the allurements of raj shakti. All those previous arguments against ‘personality cult’ have been packed away – along with the old khaki shorts.

With the possible exception of the higher judiciary, all other constitutional institutions stand effectively smothered. And, that is why the judiciary’s autonomy is resented and all efforts are being made to make it fall in line. Civil society – the Anna Hazare constituency – has been told to pack up and go home.  NGOs have been subjected to the FCRA whiplash. The state governments are being coerced into respecting, however grudgingly, the Centre’s imperial overreach. Central forces can always be deployed if a chief secretary in Tamil Nadu is to be raided and if a TMC parliamentary leader is to be arrested. The president, though for most part a ceremonial head, has consistently refused to explore the moral potential of his office. Cumulatively, the institutional feebleness and political imperfections give the prime minister the upper hand. This can be a source of satisfaction only to those who are prepared to overlook our recent calamitous political history.

Historians are bound to judge  demonetisation as an act of prime ministerial waywardness. The deed is, however, done. But there is no indication that the notebandi disaster has prompted any revisiting of the old certainties. A strange sense of helplessness and fascination looms over the republic. Yet, democracies owe it to themselves to prevent hubris at the very top. India, too, needs a bracing counterpoise.

Harish Khare is the Editor in chief of The Tribune (thetribuneindia.com), where this piece first appeared.

  • subhasis ghosh

    The very fact that the author can predict with unflinching confidence that historians will view demonetisation negatively, irrespective of what the ordinary people of the country might feel,which is expressed democratically through ballot, is proof enough of the fact that dissidence is alive and kicking in this country.