At the India Foundation’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley asked: “Are we weakening the authority of the elected and creating a power shift in favour of non-accountables?” The question is obviously rhetorical because Jaitley knows the answer all too well. In the tenure of this government, it has become popular to construct a false binary between the elected and the unelected, and to project the former as the only valid expression of the popular will and the latter as an unpatriotic and suspicious mass without a conscience. But as gamblers know, numbers games are notoriously fickle. Numbers change, and what appears to be compelling when one has a strong hand may appear to be ridiculous when the tide turns.
Besides, the legislature is not the exclusive repository of democracy. In fact, all the checks and balances that keep our democracy in working order keep an arm’s length away from the House — an independent judiciary, an independent media, civil society and, of course, on paper, the central bank and the CBI. Some of these institutions have begun to police the perimeter and push back against interference. There are also institutions outside the formal apparatus of the four pillars which act either as incubators or the immune system of democracy — schools and universities, social and cultural bodies, think tanks, non-governmental organisations and even individuals and activists who intervene in the public interest. None of them are elected. That is not a deficiency but rather a strength, because they are relatively unaffected by the tides of electoral politics. To attempt to delegitimise them is to knock out the props on which Indian democracy — any democracy — stands.
In Kerala, BJP president Amit Shah offered an absurd binary, ticking off the Supreme Court for passing what he deems an un-enforceable order on the Sabarimala Temple issue, while threatening the state government with political consequences if it persisted in enforcing it. Shah may be excused this oddity for he is a political animal. But Jaitley knows the law, is remarkably adept in both its letter and spirit, and has often been the voice of reason underlining why it’s the centre and not the extremes where discourse is more enriched. Surprisingly, he offered another specious binary, preferring social reform over government mandate. But the very examples he offered — the abolition of sati and child marriage — would have been stillborn without legal force and a commitment to enforcement. Jaitley has himself suffered the consequences of the demolition of institutions. He was one of the many who lost their liberty during the Emergency, when the higher judiciary became a handmaiden of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who knew a thing or two about the power of the elected, the president signed off without demur and the entire press — with significant exceptions — accepted the enormity without question, allegedly in the national interest. More than anyone else in the government, Jaitley knows what the loss of institutions means for a democracy. If the pillars weaken, the edifice will crumble. In a democracy, there is no nation vs institution. It’s a nation — renewed and strengthened by its institutions.