Late last year, seeking to make sense of the conflict between the Anna Hazare movement and the Central Government, I turned to an essay by the Indian scholar I most admire, the sociologist André Béteille. Published some years ago in the Economic and Political Weekly, this set out a distinction between two forms of democratic functioning, which Béteille termed ‘constitutional democracy’ and ‘populist democracy’ respectively. As the sociologist put it:
‘Constitutional democracy acts through a prescribed division of functions between legislature, executive and judiciary. Populist democracy regards such division of functions as cumbersome and arbitrary impediments that act overtly or covertly against the will of the people. Populism sets great store by achieving political objectives swiftly and directly through mass mobilization in the form of rallies, demonstrations and other spectacular displays of mass support. Constitutionalism, on the other hand, seeks to achieve its objectives methodically through the established institutions of governance.’
In older Western democracies, the principal focus of decision-making has been the legislature and the executive. Strikes and street protests were, and are, rare. On the other hand, populist methods and techniques have had a strong appeal in countries like India, ‘countries that were latecomers to development and without the strong foundations for the rule of law required for the success of a constitutional democracy.’
Having made this crucial distinction, Béteille then pointed to the deficiencies of both forms of democracy in India today. Populist movements, he noted, drew on ‘the Gandhian tradition of civil disobedience used with great effect during the nationalist movement’. However, ‘one has to make a distinction between Gandhi and those who have acted in his name after his passing … . No one has shown–or can be expected to show–the restraint and moral discipline of which he was the great exemplar.’
Writing in 2008, several years before the current wave of anti-corruption protests, the wise sociologist observed that ‘it will be hard to deny that agitations, demonstrations and rallies undertaken in the name of civil disobedience have increasingly become coercive not only in their consequences but even in their intentions.’ By showing contempt for elected leaders, populism called into question all forms of public authority. Thus, as Béteille observed, ‘populism has not only become a part of our democracy, but from time to time it puts forward its demands in a very imperious form. When that happens, many naturally feel that the Constitution itself is under threat.’
At the same time, Béteille had some sharp things to say about the deficiencies in the practice, as opposed to the theory, of constitutional democracy in India today. ‘In a parliamentary democracy’, he remarked, ‘the obligations of constitutional morality are expected to be equally binding on the government and the opposition. In India, the same political party treats these obligations very differently when it is in office and when it is out of it. This has contributed greatly to the popular perception of our political system as being amoral. ’
Owing to the hyposcrisy and arrogance of politicians in power, continued Béteille, ‘the people of India have gradually learnt that their own elected leaders can be as deaf to their pleas as the ones who came from outside.’ The sociologist went so far as to say that our elected politicians had sometimes ‘shown themselves to be even more venal and self-serving than the British who ruled India.’
Even when non-violent, populist protests were often viewed by constitutional liberals as disruptive and disorderly. On the other side, the corruption and corrosion of our political class had led to an increasing disenchantment with formal processes of decision-making. Béteille thus foresaw the continuing co-existence within India of these two, somewhat opposed, understandings of democracy. The last paragraph of his essay ran as follows:
‘Our politicians may devise ingenious ways of getting round the Constitution and violating its rules from time to time, but they do not like to see the open defiance of it by others. In that sense the Constitution has come to acquire a significant symbolic value among Indians. But the currents of populism run deep in the country’s politicallife, and they too have their own moral compulsions. It would appear therefore that the people of India are destined to oscillate endlessly between the two poles of constitutionalism and populism without ever discarding the one or the other.’
The populists speak in the name of Gandhi, but, as Béteille notes, they often depart from the Mahatma’s methods. The gap may be even larger on the other side, between the founders of our constitutional democracy, such as Nehru and Ambedkar, and the Ministers and Parliamentarians of today. Whether rulers or protesters, Indians of an earlier age behaved with decency, civility, and restraint, traits so conspicuously absent in the rulers and protesters of our own time.
But we must live in hope. Perhaps, in reflecting in the New Year on the events of the last half of 2011, elected politicians may be compelled to honour their Constitutional obligations more seriously. And perhaps, on the other side, civil society activists will now act with more sobriety and less self-righteousness. To both sides I urge a close reading of the full text of André Béteille’s essay, published, under the title ‘Constitutional Morality’, in the issue of the Economic and Political Weekly dated 4th October, 2008. In my view, the essay should be mandatory reading for all thinking, reflective, Indians, in whose ranks I would (hopefully and generously) include the likes of Kapil Sibal, P. Chidambaram, Arun Jaitly, Sushma Swaraj, Arvind Kejriwal, and Kiran Bedi.