Democracy seems to have become an inconvenient thing

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WE ARE the stories we tell of ourselves. As a nation, India has survived this far because we have told ourselves we are a robust, plural democracy in which everyone has an equal voice. That is the story we have lived by for 65 years.

But there is a dangerous sense growing among the power elite that India is suffering from too much democracy. Decision-making, they feel, has become impossible. The country is riddled with too many challengers. It has become unsustainably raucous. Development — that new supra god — is jeopardised. How can you run something if everyone has a voice?

For surface watchers, this might seem a truism. On any given day, India looks an irretrievable mess. Colliding dreams; angry protests; reversed decisions. Deafening noise. But scratch just a layer below and it’s clear that to be impatient with India now is to mistake conversation for chaos; principled resistance for unruliness.

There is noise because there is genuine disagreement. There is noise because important questions are being brought to the table. What is the nature of development being foisted on the country? Who is to bear the cost of that growth? How can it be achieved on fairer terms? How can the environment be protected as the country develops?

But instead of clarity, governments everywhere are searching for speed. Democracy seems to have become an inconvenient thing. Ordinary citizens are being viewed merely as impediments to smooth corporate growth.

This political thought was disturbingly manifest in two recent developments. A few weeks ago, Finance Minister P Chidambaram proposed the creation of a National Investment Board (NIB) to be helmed solely by himself, the prime minister and law minister. This board was to have sweeping powers to take over decision-making on all projects upwards of Rs 1,000 crore. It could amend and overrule decisions made by any other ministry. If any project was rejected by a ministry, the project proponent was free to complain to the NIB. If the NIB cleared it, no ministry could object further. In effect, the NIB was to become a one-stop convenience store for all big-ticket projects. Other ministers were to be defanged.

Gratefully, the proposal has faced spirited combat within his own Cabinet. Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan has lambasted the NIB, calling it “unconstitutional” and “completely unacceptable”, pointing out that one board cannot usurp the jurisdiction of all ministries, and the essential conflict of interest in entrusting an investment board — whose primary job is to promote industry — with the powers to adjudicate over environment and forest-dwellers’ rights. She has also pointed to the irony that while the NIB gives industrialists the right to appeal against decisions of her ministry, it “does not even contemplate that ordinary citizens and NGOs may be aggrieved and should also have right of appeal”.

Existing systems in the country are not perfect. But the suggested alternative would have been an even greater evil. For the moment, however, it appears the inconvenience of democracy has prevailed.

But the rush to safeguard corporate interests against citizens’ discontent is not an isolated event. The Odisha Industrial Security Force Bill, passed without debate in the state Assembly on 29 August, is another dark example. As the existing police force is already over-taxed, the stated intent of the Bill was to raise a specialised force that can provide “adequate and foolproof security” to industrial units and infrastructure projects. If expansion of the police force had been its only mandate, there would have been nothing alarming. But, in effect, the Bill has authorised the creation of draconian private militias with extraordinary legal powers. It will have powers to arrest or search people’s homes without a warrant or any order from a magistrate or court. The force will also be granted immunity for any acts committed while discharging its duties. No court is to take cognisance of an offence committed by its members without prior sanction of the state government. Even more disturbingly, the force would be paid for by the company that requests its deployment and, once deployed, it would be under the administrative control of that industrial unit.

The scope for misuse; for crushing the expression of any citizen or employee discontent is too evident to be elaborated upon.

Exit Lion King. Enter, the era of Scar.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.
shoma@tehelka.com

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