The Post-Truth Requirements of 'Development' and Parliament as an Artifact

Although India is still saddled with a parliament, a colonial bugbear, the last six years or so have seen a gradual, but now more rapid, informal switch over to a desired and desirable presidential form.

Christopher Jaffrelot has taken upon himself to say that whereas “transparency” is the hallmark of democracy, India is cultivating an “opaque” state. This old-fashioned, Nehruvian averment seems out of sync with the post-truth requirements of “development.”

Be it the matter of electoral bonds, of the RTI, sealed cover transanctions etc., good governance is that which keeps distracting give-and-takes from public view, so that what corruptions used to be obvious and upfront, raising outcry, are nicely systemised and made cutely legal. Jaffrelot fails to see the benign aspect of the new opacity.

Same pertains to the delicacy which informs the proceedings and conduct of parliament now.

The principle of representation may, sadly, still be a necessary legitimation of “democratic” governments, but anybody can see that parliaments tend to function more as obstructions to advancement than any very essential institutions of furthering the people’s interests.

Indeed, extensive parliamentary debates and concerns about answerability have been yet another debilitating Nehruvian legacy that needs fervently to be rectified. It is said Nehru never missed a day in parliament, and carried his own files to the House. Clearly, that fetish testified to the fact that the man had nothing better to do.

Thankfully, this malady does not afflict Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who knows better than to waste precious executive and propagation time in the Houses of pointless hullabaloo. Direct addresses made from obliging TV channels far better serve the purpose of democracy, in contrast to taxing structural and systemic obligations and arrangements. Nothing proves this more than the efficacy of announcements thus made, such as demonetisation, the coronavirus lockdown, the call to sound utensils from house fronts and balconies, and so forth.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds up a placard advocating social distancing during his address to the nation on March 24, 2020.

Had all that been left to parliament, you can imagine what discord may have ensued. Indeed, even the cabinet can more often than not simply serve to obstruct speedy diktats essential to the health of democracy and of the masses at large.

Exemplar of the principle of efficiency

Which is why the just-concluded session of the Indian parliament must go down as having been an exemplar of the principle of “efficiency.” When has any parliament passed seven governmental Bills in under four hours of sitting, and all by voice vote, often even inaudible?

The Indian rightwing has always understood how parliaments hold back the expeditious conduct of executive business.

Recall that during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime, a Constitution Review Committee had been set up to examine whether a presidential form of government would not, after all, be more suited to Indian needs.  Pusillanimity stymied that laudable endeavour.

This despite the likely fact that were a poll to be conducted among the elite sections of Indian demography, the vote for a presidential system would be overwhelming.

It is to be much doubted that more than a percent or two of such elites see either the logic, or the value, or the need for a parliament, indeed, for democracy itself.

In their educated view, the panacea for the ills of Indian backwardness is not a party-political system but a strong and self-evidently all-knowing leader who may be given the freedom to pick his own officers to man the various functions of governance, such as he (since “she” is never in any rightwing contemplation of the exercise of power, be it in the household or in public life) may hire and fire at will—the reason why, for example, the US under Donald Trump has been making such waves in world-estimation. When “off with his head” is incorporated as the effective tool of administration, inefficiencies and corruptions fall by the wayside instantly, not having to wait for either cabinet or parliamentary approvals. Not to speak of the motivated delays wrought by Select or Standing Committees—adjuncts that merely cater to the egos of no-good-fussy parliamentarians.

Going deeper, the elite have never truly assented to the root idea of democracy, namely, the notion of social, or legal equality of all citizens, or their right to be heard on any issue that concerns them or the more lofty purposes of the state.

Nor are they taken in by the fashionable view that forms or government or government policies are ever responsible for the miseries of a majority of people. Secure in the thought that it is their merit which puts them at the apex of society, they have the wisdom to know that what the poor suffer owes entirely to their karma and their stubborn refusal to exert themselves to better their conditions – a sort of cussed conspiracy to malign the dispensation of the day.

Also Read: India Needs a Reminder on How Parliament Is Supposed to Function

A strong leader

In this sanguine view, nations are best governed by a compact between a strong leader, enterprising corporates, high priests of a religious monoculture, and a loyal and ferocious army. Only such a nationalist compact can reliably determine and identify the nation’s internal and external enemies, and let them have it in a complete unison of comeuppance.

Given that the elite always have access to the agencies of government, any government, the necessity of representation is felt only by the hoi polloi, since politics is their only avenue to social or economic transformation and betterment—reason why they tend to vote in large numbers—the outflows of prosperity are best guaranteed under a presidential scheme of the exercise of power.

So, although it may well be the case that India is still saddled with a parliament, a colonial bugbear, the last six years or so have seen a gradual, but now more rapid, informal switch over to a desired and desirable presidential form. Jaffrelot clearly does not see the ingenuity that informs this switch-over, or the great benefits that flow from it.

This work-in-progress, if anything, succeeds in converting parliament into family silver or bone china artifact, to be brought out briefly lest fingers be raised against the status of democracy, but then quickly also to be shelved again safely without too much exposure to the corrosive air and water of dissent and to prevent either rusting or damage to the crockery.

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi on the premises of the Parliament House during the monsoon session, New Delhi. September 20, 2020. Photo: PTI/Kamal Kishore

Unfortunately, India’s opposition elements continue to remain wedded to the old paradigm. The result: a primitive ruckus demanding answers to questions which, far from being of any consequence to good governance, only waste executive time and embroil the innocence of citizens in motivated controversies. In any strong regime, the right to information and access to people’s minds must remain with the strong leader and his chosen mandarins. Once such access is proliferated, all sorts of fissiparous and anti-national cacophonies receive the energy of a very destructive and conspiratorial sort, burdening the police and justice system with chargesheets running into thousands of pages.

What better answer to queries may be imagined than the metaphysical presence of the strong leader, always available to electronic channels and sundry public fora, rendering the silly insistence on press conferences and so forth redundant and vestigial.

Where Jaffrelot fails to see this progression, India’s media, with some obtuse exceptions, seem now to be fully cognizant of the salutary make-over that Indian democracy is undergoing, with, every passing day, more and more opinion-makers—that breed of self-appointed busybodies—inclined to fall in line as the light dawns on them. Many, far too many, of course, still remain recalcitrant, foolishly willing to suffer the consequences of that recalcitrance.

The question may be asked then as to why we need a new parliament building, when parliamentarians now feel obliged to stay out rather than stay in.

The answer is simple: what great monuments in history were ever meant to be sites of crowded concourse. Their majesty is best secured in their untouched grandeur.

That grandeur must reflect an indigenous flavour and architectural stamp rather than a foreign facade. Only then may they become sites of tourist interest and exemplars of a national genius.