Every time I go to Germany, as I did last month, I ask myself: How did such sensible, cultivated people make the catastrophic mistake of choosing a shrewd, worthless charlatan as their leader who had achieved nothing in the first thirty years of his life and who led them into a ruinous war that killed 80 million people, including 7 million Germans? Why did they let him trample and destroy the superb Weimar Constitution (on which much of the Indian Constitution is based) and spawn a regime of bullying and bluster, fiat and fear?
I now live in a country where another shrewd, worthless charlatan has made a mockery of the US Constitution, filled every key office with partisan sycophants ready to carry out his behest, and created an atmosphere of hate and intolerance. Repudiating both US laws and historic political traditions, he has refused to demonstrate financial probity, nepotistically appointed unqualified relatives in government, discriminated openly against non-white and non-Christian citizens, cruelly and illegally denied refugees any hearing, separating children from parents, and consistently replaced policy with whims and candor with lies.
The lesson is what Plato had warned us about. The tools of democracy can be turned around by an astute, unscrupulous politician to subvert democracy. The institutions of democracy can be maintained as a reassuring façade to fool the people, but their core can be hollowed steadily, imperceptibly to make those just a gizmo of the Supremo.
The recent national election in India has resulted in a landslide for the BJP. Every survey shows that people voted overwhelmingly for its leader, Narendra Modi, who repeatedly told people that a vote for any BJP candidate was really a vote for him. Studies also show that people voted for him because they believe he is a strong, capable leader who will fight India’s enemies and deliver results.
Therein lies the first corruption of our polity. We had chosen a cabinet system of government, where elections must be fought on a party’s policy platform, not on a leader’s charisma. That is what distinguishes our system from Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea or Saddam’s Iraq and identifies us rather with Britain or the Netherlands. In this election there was not even the pretense that it was fought on a distinctive policy that has now been approved by the people. Rather it was openly declared ~ Give me the guardian’s or chowkidar’s role, and I will deliver the result.
No longer is there a pretense either that we intend to follow the other critical rule of cabinet government: all key decisions are taken jointly by the group of ministers. In fact, the Prime Minister is supposed to be the ‘first among equals,’ the coordinator or at best the arbiter of all collective decisions. The idea that in a national election the voters would choose for one person as the country’s saviour is anathema both to our Constitution and our democratic tradition. When Lincoln chose a ‘team of rivals’ or Obama chose his principal adversary as his first Cabinet choice, they paid homage to this vital non-personal concept of governance.
It will be naïve, however, to say that this election was totally exempt from policy implications. While there was virtually no explicit unraveling of proposed policies, no debate on policy alternatives, not even a press conference by Mr Modi to debut his vision, there is no question that the voters were given ~ wink wink nudge nudge ~ a pretty good idea of what they could expect
On foreign policy, it was all summed up in the so-called surgical strike. A telling but totally mendacious metaphor that gave no clue to either what the surgery was and what good it accomplished. Until now we have no precise information about the terrorists killed or training camps demolished. One can shoot missiles in the sand and break up shanties in the desert, but what lasting difference it makes in thwarting murderous designs is quite another question. Without a well-formed strategy of disabling camps and annihilating principals, such ventures ~ besides risking the life of precious pilots ~ is little more than a gimmick to impress a gullible electorate.
To kill all the terrorists in Pakistan and to wean its government, at least the Inter Services Intelligence, from destructive designs, it takes more than a highly publicized public relations ‘strike.’ It takes longstanding meticulous intelligence gathering and pinpoint airstrike capability for the former, and for the latter an innovative new approach to convert an adversary into, if not an ally, at least a neutral, peaceful neighbour. Clearly Imran Khan is not Yahya Khan, and not even Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and he seems on better terms with the army than his predecessor. He may be the best chance India will have in a long time to negotiate if not an accord, at least an understanding.
There has been no such beginning, during Mr Modi’s rule, there is no indication that it is even being considered, and it is fair guess that what we can expect is more of the same ~ stagnation and skirmishes. Meanwhile, reports suggest our closest neighbour and most distrusted enemy seems positioned to build bridges with our other and bigger hostile neighbour.
On domestic policy, there has been little talk and no longterm strategy about the biggest problems ~ slowing growth (the high rate drumbeat earlier appears to have been a concoction), destitute farmers (hundreds have been committing suicide) and massive unemployment (millions of youth facing a blank wall, with Europe closing its doors and President Trump about to choke the US route). The entire thrust has been on putting the minorities, the Muslims really and the Christians incidentally, in their place. The person Time magazine calls the Divider-in-Chief has been spurning the secular Constitution to put intolerance on steroids, and now, with a huge majority on his side, he and Hindu acolytes will really be on the hunt. It will be no surprise to see mosques, churches and synagogues desecrated and anybody suspected of the high crime of eating beef pummeled and stabbed by Hindu enthusiasts, while a saffron turbaned leader says a quiet benediction.
Every new election raises hope of a new beginning. This time unfortunately the party and the leader who have received the mandate have shown no inclination to chart a different course. The realist has little option but to expect more of the same. The gospel of Hindutva, a perverse facsimile of Hinduism’s broadbased liberalism, the pervasive mood of aversion for minorities, the steady corrosion of the civil service and widespread corruption of democratic institutions such as the educational institutions, judicial services, election management, local governance, the police, intelligence and security services. The 200 million Muslim citizens of the country, whom some of BJP enthusiasts would like to push into sea and who now experience discrimination at every level of society, are likely to be cornered into further alienation and insecurity. This in turn will attract negative attention abroad and international repugnance for what could well have been an advancing, successful, generous and hospitable country.India has been home to many cultures and religions for decades, but its people, either in pique or in search for a new identity, have voted in a regime that is wedded to a doctrine of pugnacious bigotry. The future, on a simple projection of the immediate past, can only be one of pettiness and intolerance and predictable violence. This is a march on the road to catastrophe. Unless, one hopes desperately, something changes radically.