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Posted at: May 16, 2019, 6:31 AM; last updated: May 16, 2019, 6:31 AM (IST)

India needs to embrace politics of dignity

Ashwani Kumar

Ashwani Kumar
The excruciatingly painful spectre of a vitiated electoral process has divided citizens rather than bringing them together in pursuit of a shared future. The legitimacy and moral appeal of an elected government stand shattered.
India needs to embrace politics of dignity
Misplaced priorities: Fundamental issues that ought to be at the centre of the poll campaign have been relegated as footnotes.

Ashwani Kumar
Former Union Minister of Law and Justice

As the curtain falls on the fiercely contested elections to the seventeenth Lok Sabha, we must ask ourselves whether this ‘enormous expression of franchise’ leaves much to celebrate about. The philosophical foundation of a democracy rests on free and fair elections based on the autonomy of choice premised on equality and reason that underpins its moral appeal. 

It is assumed that the vote reflects an informed choice about people and policies anchored in reflection, deliberation and debate to secure the greatest happiness of the largest numbers in greater freedom. The debilitating course of the election challenges this foundational assumption.

Given the rancorous, abusive and an almost obscene political discourse anchored in a vicious campaign of calumny, the moral legitimacy of the resultant mandate is suspect. 

Nor can we be certain that the world's largest electoral exercise will yield a government equipped to meet daunting challenges, considering the difficulty of forging a broad national consensus on even the most critical issues, given the sharp political and personal animosities. 

The authenticity of election results is also in doubt in view of serious apprehensions expressed by the Opposition about an EVM-driven counting process allegedly capable of technical manipulation. The confiscation of thousands of crores worth of  unaccounted cash and drugs, the pervasive use of muscle power and organised poll violence in some states mock claims about the purity of the electoral process.

The ‘deluge of trivia, sensationalism and the absurd’, the oppression of propaganda and fake news, the routine tarnishing of reputations and the resultant emotional chasm defy the resilience of our democratic process. 

Overall, this election has brought out, as never before, the worst in human nature captured, in another context, by German philosopher Schopenhauer as “boundless egotism, a fund of hatred, anger, envy, rancour and malice, accumulated like the venom in a serpent’s tooth.”

Respect for consensus discovered through the ballot and entitled to respect even by those not sharing it in the best traditions of parliamentary democracy is now questionable. 

The excruciatingly painful spectre of a vitiated electoral process has divided citizens rather than bringing them together in pursuit of a shared future. The legitimacy and moral appeal of an elected government stand shattered. 

Fundamental issues that ought to be at the centre of the campaign have been relegated as footnotes. A flawed choice is sought to be imposed on the people between a muscular state presented as a condition of national security equated with nationalism, and governance premised on accountability of dispersed constitutional power, as if the two are mutually exclusive.

Indeed, a liberal democracy alone wedded to constitutionalism and accountable power can ensure bread with dignity to its citizens — the latter as important.

The choice in this election is clearly between freedom and fear, harmony and hatred, inclusion and exclusion, dignity and oppression, justice and injustice. The pressing issues of agrarian distress, rising unemployment, faltering economy, environmental challenges, increasing inequality and heart-rending inequities are the real issues relating to empowerment of the marginalised as a guarantee of freedom and human dignity. 

And yet, the focus on this alternative narrative built around the idea of India stands regrettably suborned at the altar of a slur-driven campaign, constantly plummeting in a downward spiral. 

A shocked nation is numbed by the insensitivity of its leaders for their disparaging remarks against the living and the dead alike. 

This foretells the story of a democracy in decline, a nation drifting from its civilisational moorings into dangerous territory. We know that ‘greatness’ of a democratic state is not about its muscularity. It is about “…the human capacity to transcend ourselves, to have imagination and empathy, to live in truth, create beauty and to justice….” (Rob Reimen). 

The perennial struggle for preservation of the nation's core values is a permanent project that will survive this fractious election and others since the choices are to be made afresh, generation after generation, in an unending journey. 

If, as Thomas Mann famously declared, “…the destiny of men presents its meaning in political terms….”, the lesson of this election is to rescue our electoral discourse from the depths to which it has fallen, lest the quality of our representative democracy is lost to the mob and ‘transient impulses of the moment’. 

We cannot allow our democracy to be condemned for the vice of shallowness because its ultimate superiority compared to other forms of government is in its promise to “…spread to the living the language of integrity and freedom….” 

The Indian democracy is in need of signposts. It must recognise the limits of populism and accept that “…the State’s title to obedience lay, not in the fact of its willing but in the substance of what it chose to will……”

At a time when democracies are in retreat and patience of the people stretched, India can be a beacon of hope to check the ‘democratic recession’. It can do so by embracing and broadening the politics of dignity in which citizens become moral agents of their freedom. 

We must define the boundaries of politics to reclaim the nation's moral centre as a condition of national renewal. This election is a window of opportunity for leaders to mobilise the people and themselves to that end. Yes, it is for us to interrogate the current and change the zeitgeist.

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