Democracy without safeguards

The excitement over the tractor rally on the Republic Day, which commemorates the day India adopted its Constitution, overshadows the irony of this exercise. Organised by farmers protesting the three farm laws, it is an example of the many liberties the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has taken with the Constitution. The rapid passage of the three farm laws with almost no debate and consultation cannot be described as a process envisaged by the architects of the Constitution. Yet this modus operandi is characteristic of the government’s disregard for the guardrails instituted by the Constitution. It is notable that the number of Bills that have been referred to parliamentary committees has shrunk dramatically, from 68 in the 15th Lok Sabha to 24 so far in the 16th Lok Sabha and zero in 2020. Yet the last two years have seen the passage of laws that are deeply consequential for India, such as the reading down of Article 370, passed at warp speed without any reference to the Kashmiri people, whom it impacted, the Citizenship Amendment Act, which went in for selective definition of immigrants.

The executive and judiciary, the other two institutions that are expected to safeguard the Constitution, have played their part in weakening it, too. Nothing reflects this more than the executive’s chosen method of operating through Ordinances. As temporary laws passed when Parliament is not in session, Ordinances offer the executive a short-cut typically in emergency situations such as the outbreak of a pandemic. All governments have occasionally taken recourse to Ordinances but this government has wielded this blunt instrument with greater frequency — the record of 10 Ordinances a year in the first term outstrips 7.2 a year under the UPA I and five under UPA II.

This wielding of unchecked executive power derived from a dominant majority in Parliament has transmitted itself to the brute power of security forces. It is evident in the prolonged incarceration without bail and on flimsy evidence of social activists and academics in the Bhima-Koregaon controversy, the arrest of or threats to dissenters of all hues — exemplified most egregiously in the detention of a Muslim comedian Munawar Faruqui for anti-Hindu jokes he did not make. Jailing someone for an intention to do so — as his right-wing vigilante accuser has alleged — is surely an inversion of the basic tenets of the law. Mr Faruqui’s situation is amplified by the thousands of detentions that the Centre has made after Jammu & Kashmir lost its special status. It is remarkable that the Supreme Court, which has found the time to deliberate on the detention of a TV anchor and confer on itself unwonted executive powers over the farm laws, has not thought it necessary to wield its habeas corpus rights of these Indian citizens, nor ponder on the constitutionality of the Citizenship Amendment Act.

In the long run, this collective institutional support for an illiberal polity, replacing the post-independence consensus of multicultural secularism, will ill-serve the country. From the vortex of criticism emerging on the global stage, India is facing a considerable diminution of its soft power — that too at a time when it is clear that India has seen a relative loss of hard power.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel