Democracy in India is evolving. It has not yet matured. It is buffeted by elements, which are inconsistent with what it stands for. A fair electoral process is just the first step in realising democratic values. It occasionally throws up a culture of power, which threatens the fundamentals of our constitutional imperatives.
An absolute majority in favour of a political party has the tendency to threaten democratic values. We are essentially a “mai-baap” (feudal) country and easily accept the trappings of patronage. A hierarchical societal structure caters to this. For thousands of years, we have not been able to empower Dalits and the marginalised vis-a-vis the dominant Brahminical culture. Absolute majorities tend to exploit this cultural milieu.
This dominance also seeks a supplicant bureaucratic culture through patronage. After Independence, the elite ICS cadre was not subjected to the pressures of politics. With the expansion of education and rising aspirations within caste-ridden communities, the nature of bureaucracy was being transformed with the political empowerment of caste based agglomerations. After Mandal, such pressures became far more urgent and telling. Those in the bureaucracy belonging to a particular caste and community would cater to their respective interests and depend on political patronage in doing so. There was an element of quid pro quo since political patronage was used to advance the prospects of interest groups for electoral success. Mayawati would largely cater to the interests of Dalits and the Samajwadi Party to the interests of Yadavs. The present dispensation in Uttar Pradesh caters to the Hindutva agenda, again for electoral gain and seeks the obedience of the bureaucracy for that purpose. The ones in the bureaucracy, who are ready to oblige are noticed and empowered. They willingly offer obedience even if, in the process, constitutional values are jettisoned — survival within the system becomes an end in itself. The dominance of an absolute majority, therefore, weakens constitutional values. In the long-term, liberal constitutional values are sacrificed at the altar of vested interests and political expediency.
In the past 70 years, political structures have responded to the needs of a highly complex societal structure. The creamy layer of the backward communities do not cater to the needs of its most backward. This is also true of the creamy layer within the Dalits. Brahminical structures are inherently antithetical to the backward communities and Dalits since they consider merit as the only yardstick for equal treatment. Therefore, the debate on reservation for the backward classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes rages on. The dominant political structure may pay lip-service to reservation for electoral gain, but would welcome outcomes in which the dominant class seeks admissions to educational institutions and public employment on the basis of merit alone.
Of late, our constitutional values have also been diminished by a majoritarian state which has captured institutions for serving majoritarian purposes. In a highly complex socio-political milieu, there is no policy prescription which can cater to the needs of all sections of the community. A healthcare policy prescription does not have the capacity to deal with the complexity of our healthcare needs. Policy prescriptions in education cannot cater, in one stroke, to the demands of higher education and the imperatives of basic quality education at the secondary and senior secondary levels. Part of the problem, of course, is the absence of both infrastructure and adequate human resource. Willy-nilly, the political class enjoying absolute majority looks to cater to the interests of those who, in turn, will advance the political interests of the establishment.
The Hindu majority represented by a Hindutva culture will have the political strength to foist upon a highly complex social structure, its vision. All institutions serve the ends of this majoritarian mindset.
The majority, therefore, is the zamindar of political power. It seeks obedience and uses brute force against those who dare to dissent. Its representatives are rent-seekers, who demand their share as “zamindari” from both industry and trade. Patronage is distributed to serve political objectives.
I believe India, as a nation, is a coalition. It is a coalition of shared values, of interests that may be in competition, but they must still be served. It is a coalition of different mindsets with different cultural values. It is a coalition where languages identify culture, yet the commonly-valued identification is that of being an Indian. It is this coalition that has to be represented, if democracy is to survive in the political structure that seeks to take India forward.
It is my belief that coalition politics helps different interest groups to be heard. It allows policies to evolve, seeking to serve multifarious needs. We have to evolve from an illiberal mindset based on patronage to one which is tolerant and inclusive. Coalition politics alone can cater to this constitutional value. That alone will keep fundamentalism of any form at arm’s length. The coalition of minds and of politics must go hand in hand. They have served us well in the past. Their future depends on what happens on May 23.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 21, 2019 under the title ‘A polity for our times’. The writer, a senior Congress leader, is a former Union minister.