Archive for August 30th, 2011

Elephants in the Room

August 30, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)


In the great torrent of words inspired by Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement what is not being discussed has proved to be almost as significant as what is being said. As a writer I have always been fascinated by the silences that suddenly congeal within the ceaseless argumentation of our collective life. In this instance some of these silences are so striking as to make one wonder why nobody ever mentions the herd of elephants in the room.

Here is one relatively minor instance: on innumerable occasions over the last couple of weeks commentators have excoriated the Congress Party for it ‘lack of leadership’. Yet not once have I heard anyone remarking on the fact that this is not just a figure of speech – it is literally true. Sonia Gandhi, the actual leader of the party and the fount of its power, is indeed absent, and is known to be incommunicado because she is recuperating from an operation. It is as if some kind of taboo had arisen around this subject.

But here is a much more significant example: several members of the Congress Party have spoken with great eloquence about the importance of respecting the sovereignty of Parliament and about the dangers of creating an extra-Parliamentary source of legislation. Thus for example Mr. Chidambaram: ‘Do not diminish the sovereign right of Parliament to make laws. The day this right is diminished even by one millimetre, that will be the saddest day for our democracy.’

Reading this, anyone would imagine that the functioning of Mr. Chidambaram’s own party conformed to some ideal model of a Westminster-style democracy. Yet, a basic premise of a parliamentary democracy is that the office of Prime Minister is held by the leader of the dominant party: in other words executive and political power are vested in the same person. Could we imagine for example, a situation in which David Cameron, having led his party to victory in an election, would pick a member of the House of Lords to be the Prime Minister?

The truth is that members of the Congress Party are singularly ill-placed to wax indignant about the dangers of bowing to an extra-Parliamentary power. They looked to Sonia Gandhi for leadership even when she was not in Parliament; nor is the legislature the real source of her authority. This is indeed the root of the problem for the Congress party today: it is itself structured in such a way as to divorce power from the legislature. The Prime Minister has never won an election; the country knows that his authority is limited and that he is not the government’s guiding force. This has created an opacity at the very core of the political system: the situation would generate mistrust even if the protagonists were blameless.

The differences between the Westminster model and our own political system are obvious. Why then are they so rarely mentioned, even while the model is constantly invoked? Is it because we have become so accustomed to being lauded as the ‘world’s largest democracy’ that we can no longer see what stares us in the face? Or is it because this rhetoric has made us unwilling – or unable – to distinguish between form and substance in politics?

When we look at the form of our political life it is indeed a parliamentary democracy – and considering the available alternatives this is undoubtedly a good thing. But there is another equally important aspect to Indian politics, a dynastic aspect, and it has nothing to do with Westminster: it springs from the same soil that has bred the political dynasties of  Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Phillipines.

In Pakistan the pre-eminent dynasty has played no small part in plunging the country into crisis. But a crisis sometimes brings certain truths to the fore. It is not an accident that the term ‘deep state’ was coined in Pakistan, to describe a situation in which the actual mechanisms of power are hidden behind a public performance of electoral politics.

But the ‘deep state’ is now no longer exclusive to Pakistan; its workings are discernible also in some of the world’s leading democracies, including the United Kingdom and the United States: they were evident for example, in the ways in which these countries were led into the Iraq war in the teeth of widespread popular opposition; no less were they apparent in the way that the interests of banks were privileged over the interests of ordinary people after the financial crisis of 2008.

To millions of people around the world it has become evident that the forms of democracy are not in themselves a safeguard against the manipulation of government by unseen powers. The most moving articulation of this came perhaps from the indignados – the protesters who filled the streets of Spain earlier this year: ‘Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic and social outlook that we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice… Instead of placing money above human beings, we shall put it back to our service. We are people, not products. I am not a product of what I buy, why I buy and who I buy from.’

In India the events of the last couple of years have unmasked, as never before, our own ‘deep state’. As scandal after scandal has unfolded, it has become evident that the collusion between politicians, corporations and the media, is of a staggering magnitude, and that it operates on a scale that far exceeds anything that most people could even imagine. Indeed it has become apparent that the locus of power in the country has largely moved away from New Delhi to the corporate towers of Mumbai; it is apparent also that the political class is unable to rectify this.

Something clearly had to be done; it was clear also that the formal institutions of Indian democracy were incapable of doing it. The movement that has filled the gap offers cause for both hope and misgiving. In its insistence on bringing political processes into the open it is trying to restore some of the content that has leached out of governance in India. In failing to address the role of the private sector in corruption it is itself ignoring the elephants in the room. What is undeniable is that its emergence is a development of enormous significance. The movement has already tasted power and in the months to come it could turn in many directions: the political class is right to be apprehensive about this. Yet it was this very class that allowed the substance of politics to leak from its grasp even as it clung to the forms. Inasmuch as the country, as a whole, has allowed this to happen, we are all to blame.


Amitav Ghosh

[A version of this article was published in the Hindustan Times, New Delhi, on August 29, 2011, under the title ‘The Grand Illusion’.]

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