“The nation needs an accommodative democratic politics, based on conciliation and consensus,” writes Dr. Ashwani Kumar, India’s former Law Minister, in the following article. He implores the victors of the recent state elections—in which his party was badly defeated—“to recognize that democratic triumphalism is not an invitation to transgress constitutional constraints on the exercise of executive power.”

Dr. Kumar offered no specifics on how, under the Indian winner-take-all Parliamentary system, it would be possible to avoid majoritarianism. In a system where a state Chief Minister belongs to the majority party and holds all executive and legislative powers, expecting consensus politics is nothing but a pipedream.

Even when there’s a coalition running the executive branch, the Parliamentary system grants all powers to the parties that make up the coalition and none to any others..

The U.S. Presidential system, by contrast, gives every party a say in executive decisions. Their executive branch has no legislative power, and the legislature rules give minorities a significant say, so a President or Governor is usually forced to build a wide consensus among lawmakers to pass any program.

If India adopted a similar system, Dr. Kumar would have a real basis to hope for consensual politics.

-Bhanu Dhamija

[Excerpts of article published on The Indian Express website on 24 March 2022.]

India wants a different politics – and a leader to deliver it

[By Dr Ashwani Kumar]

In a deepening of India’s electoral democracy, voters in the recently held assembly elections have scripted a new political narrative, catapulting Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as the challenger to a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP’s success in stitching cross-caste alliances across states, buttressed by the seductive pull of Hindutva and nationalism, enabled it to duck anti-incumbency sentiment against the Yogi Adityanath government. The “spell of an idea”, presented as a promise of development and assurance of national security, and assiduously communicated and disseminated by the Prime Minister, added to the BJP’s appeal as the voters’ preferred choice in four of the five states, further cementing its position as the central pole of India’s polity.

But it is the AAP’s spectacular victory in Punjab that has caught the national imagination, alongside the stunning electoral defeat of Parkash Singh Badal, Sukhbir Badal, Amarinder Singh, Navjot Singh Sidhu and the then chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi from both constituencies. Their defeat represents a clinching denouement of the ancien regime and its politics. The AAP’s Punjab victory has understandably fuelled its national ambitions. Its ability to lead or co-lead a possible alternative national coalition will test the sagacity of its leaders, their negotiating skills and the breadth of their vision over time. Clearly, the party’s win in Punjab will endure only if it yields a stronger constitutional democracy in which the exercise of state power is accountable to the community’s sense of justice and institutional constraints. And for the AAP to succeed as a party of change and renewal, it must embrace and broaden a politics of dignity that enables citizens to become moral agents of their freedoms and liberties.

Elections are democracy’s signposts, not its destination.

The nation yearns for a break from the debilitative political discourse and affirmation of the inviolability of the testing standards of right and wrong. To recall Lord Hailsham, a former Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, in another context, “We have to face the questions, old and new, to which the prohibition and injunctions of conscience ….. give rise, and we may note that new questions are constantly arising”. The need to interrogate our democratic processes to ensure that the majority vote is a guarantee of freedom and fairness in a just society, rather than a legitimation of the state’s encroachment of fundamental freedoms, is self-evident. After all, elections are democracy’s signposts, not its destination. It is imperative, therefore, to reject a “manipulative conversation about our future”, affirm the centrality of idealism in the pursuit of politics and assert the power of truth as the ultimate vindication of democracy.

The moment is right and history is turning a page. The resilience of our democratic politics to deliver the larger national goals of unity and inclusion will define our tryst with democracy. And electoral victories as a symbol of democratic resurgence must yield leadership defined by a largeness of vision and generosity of heart, befitting the challenges of our times. The discredited processes of political democracy that destroy collegiality and defeat consensus-building must yield to an overarching national aspiration for politics as a cooperative enterprise of national renewal. The end purpose of democratic politics is to create conditions for expanding the “circle of human dignity”. A democracy in a state of perpetual conflict ill-serves this ennobling aspiration. The assault on individual freedoms spurred by intolerance, bigotry and fundamentalism, a weakening commitment to the constitutional ethic, diminishing empathy for the marginalised and a twisted definition of nationalism that pits freedom and dignity against national security as if these were mutually exclusive, challenge the fundamental assumptions of democracy. The nation needs an accommodative democratic politics, based on conciliation and consensus anchored in a constructive contest of ideas, as part of an ongoing national conversation. Securing a bipartisan commitment towards this end will be the test of leadership.

In the finer traditions of parliamentary democracy, the winners and the losers are both challenged to restore the credibility of a presently dysfunctional system.

It is also incumbent upon the victors to recognise that “democratic triumphalism” is not an invitation to transgress constitutional constraints on the exercise of executive power. In the finer traditions of parliamentary democracy, the winners and the losers are both challenged to restore the credibility of a presently dysfunctional system and reinforce a larger construct of democracy in which people “construct their own ideal” and reject the personalisation of power. Those aspiring to lead the nation must recognise the non-severability of justice, freedom and dignity in the service of democracy. They must take the lead to invest politics with a larger moral compass and reverse the intellectual amorality that has robbed our democratic experiment of its elevating function. Nursing a flailing democracy to vigour is an “unending journey, guided by lights, warnings and insights”, which will require a demonstrative commitment to man as “the measure of all things”. Those who scoff at this “unrealistic utopian dream” may wish to remember that the truth of a conviction is best tested in its repeated assertion and that vindication of the ideal of democracy requires us to proclaim our convictions aloud.

Finally, leadership cannot be inherited or willed, nor can it rest on a flawed understanding of national sensitivities on issues that touch the nation’s inner core. Compulsive cynicism and routine personal targeting of political adversaries diminishes leadership which, as Hegel reminded us, is about understanding the will of the age, telling the age what its will is and accomplishing it. Indeed, the leader of the nation must also be the leader of the times.

The writer is a former Union Law Minister.