I wonder why the very values of our republic that we celebrate are also the ones we choose to wantonly decimate. Politicians pretend to embrace the constitutional values they often efface with contempt. The freedoms we claim to cherish are left on the statute books unprotected.
Let me attempt to enumerate the indices to test the strength of a functioning democracy. The values necessary for it being robust ultimately lie in the hearts of men and women. In 1944, Learned Hand, the great federal judge, said, in the context of our freedoms: “I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts.” Those were prophetic words.
Public discourse in this country places too much stress on the values enshrined in our Constitution as if that, by itself, ensures their protection. We mistakenly believe that those in government are committed to the values and democratic principles regarded as the foundation of our republic. We lament occasionally that courts, when called upon, fail miserably to uphold the Constitution and law. Neither the Constitution, nor law, nor the courts by themselves can uphold the values of humanism, which are at the heart of democracy.
It is only when the mind of the public is influenced by values that ensure accountability of public institutions and are imbued with a sense of justice will democracy reside in people’s hearts — then alone will we elect leaders with stature and the capacity to govern by embracing the free flow of ideas. It is only when our society’s culture imbibes a “moral universe”, the touchstone on the basis of which actions of men in power will be tested, will our democracy begin to flourish. It is only when acts of all public institutions are pegged to the same “moral universe” will they be aligned to the values of our republic. It is only when the bureaucracy, industry leaders, professional organisations are all brought to account, will we see a ray of hope for democracy to take root. It is the deeper understanding of this “moral universe” that will make us realise how important it is for this to be suffused in the minds of the young so that they grow up imbibing values of which we can be proud of as a nation.
This “moral universe” will remain a far cry unless people value and protect the freedom of expression and celebrate the culture of dissent. A country intolerant of this culture cannot call itself a democracy. At the heart of tolerating dissent is the ability to trust each other; the ability to presume that those who disagree are equally committed not just to the cause of democracy but to its onward march. But when speech is distrusted, motives are ascribed to the free expression of views, and when laws are misused and courts choose to ignore such onslaughts, we fail the test of democracy. A country where protectors of law invade such values and the courts do not bring them to account develops fault lines.
But dissent and the free flow of ideas can never become evergreen if the channels of information are polluted with open biases or manipulations which seek to support those who need to be made accountable. There could be instances where speech may appear to be free but if the channels of communication block, distort, abuse or mock free speech, there is loss of freedom.
Democracy needs to be preserved not for perpetuation of power but for the perpetuation of democratic values. If the agenda is to win public support and channels of communications allow themselves to be misused for that end, the political class succeeds in devaluing democracy. A culture in which people accept the inevitability of this consequence and plead their helplessness in opposing it is least suited to democracy.
Societal balance is built upon institutional frameworks that ensure that no one institution has primacy over others. That allows for managing contradictions and disagreements. Absent this, personal, partisan and political agendas run amuck, and the spirit of liberty gets devalued. That balance is carefully engraved in our constitutional edifice. Central to maintaining that balance are the country’s courts — they are the final fortress securing that balance. The quasi-federal structure of the country’s polity is reflected in the manner in which powers are distributed between the states and the Union. Lately, that balance has often been seen to be disturbed by the Union’s attempts to destabilise state governments by using its investigative, political and fiscal clout. The delicate balance between the larger interests of the state, under the guise of public interest, and constitutionally protected freedoms, is occasionally disturbed by oppressive state action by misusing the law.
Diversity — cultural, religious and linguistic — that’s at the heart of thriving democracies, is victimised at the hands of a state espousing majoritarian agendas. Institutional balance within Parliament and between Parliament, executive and the judiciary is destabilised by invasive diktats both overt and covert. If courts stand by and eschew judicially manageable corrective measures, democracy is not just bruised but maimed.
Ever since Donald Trump came to power in the US, that sense of balance based on the touchstone of the “moral universe” was absent. Yet men of stature and of commitment to democratic values ultimately won because they stood up to the one who sought to disturb this delicate balance. Here in India, the balance has been lost long ago and the spirit of liberty is slowly dying.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 21, 2021, under the title “Democracy’s moral foundation”. The writer, a senior Congress leader, is a former Union minister