Harish Khare on what constitutional actors within India can learn from recent events in Pakistan

This post continues the theme addressed in the previous one. Harish Khare , the political editor of the Hindu, has a stimulating and provocative piece in today’s issue where he begins by commenting on the typical trend of reactions within India to the democratic troubles of our neighbours in South Asia: Sooner rather than later, films and cricket should provide distractions that would help us move out of our current patronising preoccupation with the developments in Pakistan. A collective sense of smugness informs most of the Indian reactions to President Pervez Musharraf’s Emergency proclamation in a country that has not been allowed by a combination of external and internal forces to construct a durable structure of governance. Arguably, it is at a time like this that we can feel good and even superior about our democratic arrangements; but, it is also at times like these that we need to summon the humility to learn a lesson or two from the turmoil next door. The foremost lesson that is obvious for us in India from the recent events not just in Pakistan but also in Bangladesh is that there would be consequences if the idiom of confrontation is pushed too far and too hard. Despite a seemingly robust institutional arrangement of checks and balances, we too are in imminent danger of giving in to a culture of confrontation, a culture that puts a premium on the right to oppose without the obligation to produce minimum orderly conduct of governing processes. This creeping culture of confrontation has already set precedents, which are stoked by all-too-over-enthusiastic, under-supervised, discourse-manufacturers. Khare proceeds to enumerate the lessons that he believes different political and constitutional actors within India should draw from recent events in Pakistan. He addresses, in turn, such lessons for the political parties, the army, the judiciary, the press and the foreign policy establishment in India. While the entire piece is worthy of a close read, I extract here his views on what our judiciary should consider: A similar lesson ought to be imbibed by the judicial fraternity in India: do not overstep the institutional boundaries. Pakistan’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry is also in part author of the mess that is Pakistan today. He and some of his brother judges allowed themselves to be provoked by the gentlemen in the black coats into a confrontation with the Islamabad establishment. The Bar and the Bench goaded each other to assume the role of the principal opposition to President Musharraf. This was presumptuous and was bound to invite reaction. Similarly, some of our judges in the Supreme Court and the High Courts would do the institution they preside over and the country a whole lot of good if they understand a simple maxim: there will be consequences, not always healthy, if you decide to play politics or decide to get involved in politicians’ quarrels. The judges’ job is to interpret the law and to promote constitutional wholesomeness; judges are not and cannot be arbiters of political morality. Moreover, there can be the most unpredictable consequences if the judges continue to refuse to set their own house in order by addressing allegations of corruption while arrogating to themselves the right to preach and prosecute an errant political class. There is the issue of the nature and content of the democratic discourse, which claims its credentials from a membership in civil society but, in fact, is a neat commercial arrangement, unaccountable and unanswerable in any democratic forum. The problem, as it manifested itself so acutely in Pakistan and which manifests itself day in and day out in India, is that this so-called democratic discourse ends up de-legitimising every democratic symbol and institution. Because of our six decades of democratic give and take and the gradual deepening of the democratic spirit, the democratic structure is able to absorb the daily assault on the legitimacy of politics and politicians. In Pakistan, this produced insecurity and irrationality at the very core of the ruling arrangement; and, there was no mechanism for self-correction. Our own media leaders need to reflect on their own institutional arrogance and their own frailties; more than that, the democratic discourse has a responsibility to ensure that it does not create conditions which may tempt the non-democratic forces and voices to step in. I think Khare makes telling points in this piece. In particular, I think he does well to focus on a tendency that is common amongst many within and outside India: of constantly extolling India’s democratic tradition by comparing it to those of its immediate neighbours. As Khare alludes to in this piece, and as astute academic observers of India’s democracy (especially in recent times) have noted, Indians can indeed take pride in their record of largely democratic rule over the second half of the Twentieth Century; however, this pride must not breed complacency or an attitude of blindness towards the several major problems that our democratic tradition continues to confront on a daily basis. Despite India’s relative success in maintaining constitutional democracy, our democratic and political culture still has far more in common with our neighbours than most of us would like to admit.

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  • Well-written article and very timely. You are right – even in our political culture, we have a lot in common with our neighbors. The broader point is something to ponder about and is perhaps true to some extent even in India though it has taken a different form. The increasingly fractious political arrangements, instability, extreme partisan rancor and the absence of even a semblance of dialogue between rivals, coupled with the numerous scandals in office have all gradually been diminishing the legitimacy of our own political system as well. Though we are decidedly better off not having to deal with dictatorships bereft of any qualms about ruling through sheer force of arms, the unelected part of government, even in our country, has insidiously made considerable inroads over the years. Apart from judicial activism, the increased power of the EC too showcases this trend. The systemic changes that the judiciary has sought to bring directly undercut the democratic mandate of the executive – the sweeping changes that led to the increased power of the CVC in the 90s and the more recent instance of seeking the CVC’s advice in place of the AG, the current effort at police reform in the states, the constitution of monitoring committees, the quasi-permanent supervision of public works projects, etc. Also, its enthusiastic policy interventions together with aggravated media campaigns force consistency in policy choices at the expense of the prerogative of the executive to reorder them in response to the vicissitudes of electoral mandates. Widely hailed as being in the public interest, the cost of such efforts is not only the toll inflicted upon those who lose out but also the short-changing of the democratic system’s inherent strength in rendering, in the long term, society’s advancement more equitable. The imposition of such undue limitations upon elected dispensations seriously undermines the claim of democratic governance; more importantly, its ability to address popular grievances is constrained severely enough to render extra-constitutional alternatives more attractive.

    Even as democracy has struck deep roots and more and more sections have come to participate in our electoral process, representative diversity has not been accompanied by a commensurate enhancement in viewpoint diversity, political sagacity or even popular acclaim. Rather, the system’s own short-comings and functional abbreviations have become more pronounced and its ability to address the more difficult questions of our time called into question. That in turn has caused many a well-wisher and good Samaritan in prominent positions to go beyond their limited job mandates to ‘fix’ the problem. Khare’s article is a good reminder of the dangers inherent even in such well-intended excesses.

  • Thanks, Dilip, for adding to the weight of Khare’s assertions, especially by pointing to specific instances.