A grown-up democracyhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/a-grownup-democracy/

A grown-up democracy

India needs a much more robust culture where leaders are exposed to the people’s criticisms rather than treated like the old rajas.

India needs a much more robust culture where leaders are exposed to the people’s criticisms rather than treated like the old rajas.

The first six presidents of the US came from only two states — Massachusetts and Virginia. The sixth president was the son of the second one. There was controversy,but everyone obeyed the rules of decorum. The seventh president,Andrew Jackson,was a hick from the Frontier territory of the West and knew no manners and obeyed no rules of decorum. He and his followers were the new breeze of democracy for the country. He defeated John Quincy Adams,the last president from the old elite. America had grown up as a democracy and continued with its rambunctious style of politics from then on.

India has had 13 prime ministers,eight of whom came from Uttar Pradesh,three from the same family,two from the south,two from Punjab and one from Gujarat. All except one were,or had been,Congress members. There is some diversity,yet the mould has not been broken. The Congress has pervaded Indian democracy so completely that it seems like sacrilege (at least to most Congress members) to criticise the party or its leaders. Yet,it lost its monopoly of power in 1989. Since 1969,Congress has ceased to be a party in the normal sense. It became a personalised possession of its leading family. Since the split in 1969,Indira Congress is the most appropriate name for it. It is difficult therefore to criticise the party without taking on the leadership. That is what makes it not look like politics,but a personal vendetta.

This election is beginning to challenge the old mould and hopes to break it. Narendra Modi is more of an outsider than Atal Bihari Vajpayee was. The people who crowd his meetings seem to come from outside the decorous groups which come to Congress meetings and are definitely louder. He himself is a powerful but abrasive speaker. This is a style of speaking which is very popular in the regions. Ram Manohar Lohia used strong language against Nehru whenever he felt like it. His followers in the Hindi belt,such as Lalu Prasad Yadav,practise this style. It is a style which entertains and informs the listeners who rarely read,but flock to meetings for their bulletin of politics. But they also want to enjoy the experience of listening to a leader. Modi is the one leader who talks to them directly,and not at them from above. That is what makes Modi effective as is seen by the complaints from the Congress about noblesse oblige. And any criticism of the Congress leadership seems by definition a breach of the rules.

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These people should come to UK and see how much contempt and derision the politicians face all the time here. Steve Bell,the genius cartoonist of The Guardian,draws Cameron as a condom day after day. He used to mock John Major by drawing him with underpants outside his trousers. Neil Kinnock used to be drawn savagely as a turnip and much worse. In the US,Barack Obama is insulted all the while by Tea Party supporters who doubt his American birth.

Too much respect is bad for a democracy. India needs a much more robust culture where leaders are exposed to the people’s criticisms rather than treated like the old rajas. When democracies are young,it is alright to think of the leaders like parents — Founding Fathers. But soon enough,they have to come down to the level where the voters are,and serve them rather than expect servility.

The most dangerous argument is that any criticism of the Congress leadership is an attack on the foundational idea of India as a secular,tolerant democracy. Yet this Idea of India is hardly a monopoly of the Indira Congress. It was forged in the years of the Independence movement and in the early years after when the Congress was an inclusive organisation. The Constituent Assembly was an ecumenical gathering of different political views. The first Cabinet of independent India had as many non-Congress members as Congress ones,including the anti-Congress Ambedkar and Syama Prasad Mookerjee,the founder of Jan Sangh. The need of the hour was ability,not party loyalty. They forged the idea of India together and it belongs to India,not to any one party.