Edited remarks by former Chief Justice of India MN Venkatachalaiah, 92, at the launch on Monday of Sugata Srinivasaraju’s Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of HD Deve Gowda, a biography of the former prime minister.
Every worthy biography has a message. To me, what Sugata Srinivasaraju wishes to convey is relevant in the context of democracy in India. Faith in democracy is faith in its institutions. It is well known that when India declared its intention to adopt the republican model of parliamentary democracy with universal adult franchise, the western world was cynical of its success. How can, they wondered, 300 million illiterate people successfully operate the sophisticated modern parliamentary system. The same western press, 60 years later, said Indian democracy was “robust” and also the “rowdiest”. This is a tribute to the innate uncommon wisdom of the common man.
It was once said by an eminent political leader that he would rather trust the foolishness of 300 million people than the wisdom of five judges. But that faith in the wisdom of the elector is waning. If one looks at the lamentable state in public life, it becomes evident that in a democracy people do not get a better government than they deserve. We do not have any others to blame, except ourselves, in the hopeless mess we have created for ourselves in our public institutions.
The underlying theme of this biography, that Sugata Srinivasaraju seeks to convey seems to be the need to look at the strengths and weaknesses of Indian democracy. It can be held to ransom and that even individuals can sabotage the democratic spirit. This story of Indian democracy, its strengths and weaknesses, is illustrated through the political career of a humble farmer who rose to great heights by his brilliant comprehension of the controlling forces and their intelligent management.
The emergence of Gowda as the prime minister [in June 1996], and the unfortunate and unhappy way his tenure was cut short [in April 1997], signify both the strength and weakness of our political system. Here was a man without any aristocratic political background or family inheritance of status who became prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. But the way it was cut short is again exasperation that points to the perils of that fragile hope. That short period tossed up a commendable record of efficient administration.
The impetus for the restoration and resurgence of democratic institutions in Jammu and Kashmir have the imprint of Gowda and his commitment to democratic values. The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.
One of the political personalities of Kashmir politics, Saifuddin Soz, said something worth quoting: “I want to tell you one thing, which only I can tell you. The prime minister [Gowda] created a situation of hope in Jammu and Kashmir state. He went to Jammu and Kashmir four times. For six years, nobody went to Kashmir. You are all the time saying Jammu and Kashmir state is an integral part of India. Yes. It is. But why did the previous prime ministers not go there? Narasimha Rao was the prime minister for five years. Chandra Shekar got a short stint, and he could not go, nor could V P Singh go. But Deve Gowda went to Jammu and Kashmir state four times and created a situation of hope and understanding there.”
This biography comes up at a time when the whole world is in flux not to mention the catastrophic pandemic. The strength of a nation to survive and prevail stems from the innate character of its people. The highest office in a republic is said to be that of the “citizen”. The prime duty of the state is to promote the intelligence of citizenship. The government is a potent teacher. It teaches by its own example. Irresponsible, indecorous, vituperatory and even vulgar political debate debases democratic sentiments and makes people cynical. People lose trust in their government and their rulers.
In science, it is said that the intense interaction of nuclear energy creates a “critical mass”. Similarly, a negative social critical mass is generated by irresponsible and indecorous political behaviour, which creates distrust in the democratic processes. It generates cynicism which is a power of destruction. It takes away all the bright colour of national life and its constitutional symbols and institutions. Dr Ambedkar cautioned against such violent, agitational movements to achieve economic and political ends.
The trust of the people in government is the most important single factor. The great Chinese philosopher Confucius told his disciple Tze-Kung that of all the three essentials of government – food, military equipment and faith of the people in their rulers – the faith of the people is the single-most indispensable element.
Studies show that in 1958, 73% of Americans trusted their federal government’s decisions most of the time. By 2019, the number fell to just 19%. Let us look at the figures on peoples’ view of the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1985, 62% of the Americans held a favourable view of their Supreme Court. Fortunately, the figure remained the same in 2019.
Two views of development
The leaders of today’s countries need the wisdom to anticipate the enormous opportunities and challenges of the exploits of technology and prepare the next generation for them. Shrill, acrimonious political diatribe is not the answer to the imminent challenges. Sober, constructive and creative early responses are the answer. India needs to create something like 30,000 new jobs every day. Half of the existing jobs are at the risk of imminent automation. Small traders and small farmers need protection.
It is politically immoral to potentially use them as a vote bank. The existing economic structure enables only 10% of the people to benefit from it. The present deepening crises are serious. But then, as it is said, “Crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” We could learn from them.
There are two views of economic development. One view extols growth at all costs suppressing everything inconsistent with it. The economic philosophy of development attributed to the legendary Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is that if you want development forget democracy. As against this “Lee thesis”, there is a more friendly version of development which stresses the point that social progress is the spur of economic development and not vice-versa. The measurement of economic performance itself has to design new tools, more friendly to social progress and human happiness.
MN Venkatachalaiah was the 25th chief justice of India.