Democracy’s fear of small numbers

A democracy is as good as its Opposition, provided the rulers are prepared to listen. It may be remembered that like speaking, listening is also a political act, but one that is unappreciated in our country today.

ByJ Prabhash

Published Mar 30, 2023 | 8:28 AM Updated Mar 30, 2023 | 12:27 PM

Lok Sabha adjourned

A political system, whether democratic or otherwise, has a lesson to learn from the death of Tolstoy’s fictional character, Ivan Ilyich.

It was towards the end of his life that Ilyich understood that he was dying badly because he had lived badly.

This is true of political systems as well. The end of an ill-managed system is perhaps worse than that of Ilyich, for it throws an entire society into chaos, and even disintegration sometimes.

A democracy is no exception to this. It can avoid such a catastrophe, or at least postpone it, only if the stakeholders cultivate their best selves.

This inter alia requires a culture of dialogue or what the cultural critique, Mikhail Bakhtin called, medias res, a process of dialogue without the possibility of a last word.

This is the modern equivalent of Socratic dialogue rooted in the belief that no one has complete monopoly of truth. This makes democracy a joint venture and rescues politics from the monologues of the ruling dispensation.

This in fact is the founding vision of Indian democracy. It may be recalled that the Constitution envisages India as a democratic republic, which was a subject of great debate in the Constituent Assembly.

The contentious issue was whether the simultaneous use of the two words constitutes a duplication of meaning.

The controversy was finally settled with Nehru and Ambedkar pointing out that there was always the possibility of the emergence of an undemocratic republic. And “republic” — derived from the Latin word, res publica — means public thing, that which stands for open and participatory decision-making.

A republic then is a people in conversation. To what extent this applies to contemporary Indian politics is the moot question.

An impasse

It goes without saying that some of the recent developments in Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies do not augur well for the aforementioned republican tradition.

Amidst charges and counter-charges levelled by the members belonging to the treasury benches and the Opposition, representative bodies have become mere caricatures.

For instance, a few days ago, the Lok Sabha passed the Union Budget, which envisages an expenditure of about ₹45 lakh crore, with hardly any discussion. Significantly, this included the expenditure of the ministries of railways, rural development, health and family welfare, panchayati raj, tribal affairs, and tourism and culture.

At the end of the day, only 54 percent and 34 percent of the time, respectively, of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, could be used for legislative business.

The reason for the impasse this time centred around the Opposition demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe into the Adani issue and the treasury benches’ demand for an apology from Rahul Gandhi for his “London remarks” on Indian democracy.

Denial of natural right to Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi

Gandhi was disqualified from Lok Sabha on Friday, 24 March, nearly 24 hours after a court in Gujarat’s Surat convicted him in a 2019 defamation case (Supplied)

Two issues stand out here, the culpability of the ruling party along with the Opposition in stalling Parliament and, the denial of the natural right to Rahul Gandhi to explain his position on what he said in London.

This is like pronouncing the judgement even while the jury is out. His remark that “if Indian democracy is functioning, I would be able to say my piece in Parliament” is to be seen against this background.

Further, the swiftness with which the Lok Sabha Secretariat has disqualified Rahul as MP following the judicial verdict in a criminal defamation case against him also raises eyebrows.

Unseemly conduct of MLAs in Kerala Assembly

Another recent development in this regard comes from Kerala where the Budget Session of the Assembly had to be guillotined due to the unseemly conduct of the legislators.

The Opposition parties here have a legitimate grievance as their demand for an adjournment motion was repeatedly turned down and the Sabha TV failed to give adequate coverage to their activities in the House.

They were also piqued by a remark made by the Speaker that Shafi Parambil, one of their MLAs, would fail in the next election. Though the Chair withdrew the statement subsequently, matters reached a pretty pause with the Opposition occupying the well of the House and staging a dharna before his office.

Kerala Speaker AN Shamseer (KB Jayachandran)

Kerala Speaker AN Shamseer (KB Jayachandran)

This ultimately ended in a scuffle between the Opposition and the treasury benches resulting in two women members belonging to the former being manhandled, one of them seriously injured with a limb fracture. In legislative terms, the Budget Session was cut short by seven days.

Instances like these are reported from other states as well.

Interestingly, all these are happening even when the Opposition does not have a sizable legislative presence in terms of numbers. It seems that our democracy is afraid of small numbers.

In fact, this is a trend one could find the world over. An interesting incident was reported from Cambodia (2017) where the ruling party dissolved the main Opposition party on the basis of a court verdict!

A democracy is as good as its Opposition

Modern-day democracies, thus, suffer from what American psychologist Dacher Keltner terms “power paradox” ie, power going straight to the heads of the political leaders of these countries.

Consequently, institutions are becoming instruments to foster their interests. As Gandhi once said, “In the end, every institution of the state, the law, the officials with their elaborate titles, are but the convenience of the powerful.”

This is the problem with us too. Everybody wants to hear what is palatable to them.

But unfortunately, the duty of the Opposition is exactly the opposite. In a democracy, the Opposition is the necessary other, and the only justification for their existence is their capacity to offer constructive criticism.

The great writer Thomas Mann was right when he said that a harmful truth was better than a useful lie.

Just as a good film is as good as its villain, a democracy is as good as its Opposition, provided the rulers are prepared to listen. It may be remembered that like speaking, listening is also a political act, but one that is unappreciated in our country today — because we fear small numbers.

(J Prabash is formerly, professor of political science, University of Kerala; visiting professor, Claremont Graduate University, California, US and visiting research fellow, New South Wales University, Sydney, Australia. These are the personal views of the author)