Religion has become a means to deflect attention from what should really matter in a mature democracy, which is governance.
As the nation waits to see the results of the Gujarat and the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, and for the transition to a new president of the Congress Party, it is time to ruminate on a few things, perhaps less important in the immediate term, but far more significant for our Republic in the long term.
Democracy is, by definition, about competitive politics. But, even so, must winnability acquire so much primacy that all links with ideology and principles are severed? As legatees of Chanakya, have we finally distilled his philosophy of sama, dama, danda, bheda, which was meant to be exercised against an enemy, not a democratic opponent, as the only factor that matters? Or, perhaps, for those less familiar with the overall philosophy of Chanakya, is the English saying — all is fair in love and war — the only guiding tenet in the working of the world’s largest democracy?
In a globalised world, where instantaneous and relentless information flows enable the world to observe in detail how Indian democracy plays out, are religion, caste and money power the only issues that animate the political class? For days now, the prime time debate on TV is about whether Rahul Gandhi is a Hindu or not. Registers are being pulled out to see whether he signed on the one meant for non-Hindus or for Hindus. His assertion that he is a Hindu, and a Shiva bhakt, has become grist for a kind of politics in which the selective use of religious exclusion is far more important than issues about the performance of a government. It would appear to any foreign observer that in India elections are not about such vital issues as the state of the economy, and the fulfilment of promises that touch the lives of ordinary Indians — roads, hospitals, schools, jobs, agricultural productivity — but about who, among Hindus, is a real Hindu.
The simulated furore this issue has created is amusing, to say the least. Buddhism began by negating the basic tenets of Hinduism, including the sanctity of the Vedas, and yet many Hindus consider Lord Buddha to be an avatar of Vishnu. For a religion so tenaciously accommodative to deviations — because of the inherent beliefs in its own strengths — to be reduced in the hands of cynical politicians to such an abysmal level of illiterate rejection is an insult to Hinduism. And yet, the juvenile debate goes on, even as the citizens of the country wonder when real issues that directly affect the quality of their lives will be discussed.
Religion has become a means to deflect attention from what should really matter in a mature democracy, which is governance. A peculiar form of ultra-nationalism is being whipped up for precisely the same reason. Certain leaders from the great pantheon of our founding fathers are being cynically invoked to show which party has neglected whom, when the people want to actually know which party has neglected their legitimate expectations in the present. Caste loyalties are being manipulated to conjure a winning electoral formula, when citizens want to know what is being done for them beyond merely seeing them as part of a statistical calculation of communities.
Cynicism has seeped into our electoral politics like a poison. The anger of a community against a particular film is allowed to go berserk because the votes of that community are important. If in this process, Hindus begin to resemble some abhorrent Talibani hybrid, no matter. Threats to cut off the nose of an actor, or the announcement of large bounties to behead her, or to chop off the hands of the director, are bandied about as though this is not India but some ISIS ruled territory. Action against those who besmear Indian democracy, the rule of law, the Constitution, Hinduism, and all the civilisational values that are such a vital part of our culture, is deliberately muted. These matter far less than the imperative of winning elections.
What is worrying is that in this atmosphere, serious concerns are rising about the integrity of national institutions. It is, at least for me, still not clear why the Election Commission delayed the notification of the model code of conduct for the Gujarat elections even while imposing them on Himachal Pradesh. It is also not acceptable that the dates for Parliament were so casually postponed to suit the BJP’s single-minded focus to win the Gujarat elections, where as many as two dozen and more Union ministers have been deployed for party work. It also seems a trifle incredulous that agencies like the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate, and the Income Tax department, seem to find skeletons in the cupboard of only the leaders of Opposition parties, and nothing is done about allegations against leaders of the BJP.
Media reporting, in particular in the electronic media, has also become highly polarised, with the majority of channels quite reconciled to becoming the voice of the ruling party with a blatancy that is often quite startling. The disquieting news about the “malfunctioning” of EVMs is another cause of worry. What is worrisome is not that occasionally they do malfunction, but that whenever they do, only the BJP button lights up irrespective of which party you have pressed the button for. In the fitness of things, the EC must redouble its efforts to reassure voters of the impartiality of the electoral process, or we should seriously consider reverting to the system of paper ballots.
Our democracy is in the grip of a malaise that politicians and political parties, in the race to win elections, refuse to recognise. Any party that reduces itself to just a relentless electoral machine must understand that it will then relentlessly erode the ethical foundations on which a democracy must run. This will have long-term deleterious consequences that will go far beyond the transient euphoria of winning an election or two.