Should there be less of democracy in the time of COVID-19? Or in a time like this should we practice democracy in letter or spirit? How is the concept of time related to democracy? One can approach these questions at two levels.
First one relates to the handling of the coronavirus by the government. Let us make it clear that everything was not hunky-dory in India before the spread of the virus. The economy of the country was in bad shape. The vital statistics showing why the economy of the country was in bad shape have become folklore by now.
To understand the downturn of the economy and its causes are also too well known to debate and discuss them anew. In a digital age our memories have turned momentary. They are of surfing duration. It feels as if we are ages away from the pre lockdown time now. Do we remember those days when the country was afire in anti-CAA agitation and police were rampaging the academic campuses looking for the agitators?
So the coronavirus set in when the time was tremulous in India. The virus was scary. It was such an emergency that it overpowered all other issues including the CAA movement. In the circumstances, the virus was a blessing in disguise. Though to many it will sound sacrilegious to say so.
Now how does democracy count in a country when the situation demands urgent measures? This is also the occasion to consider how the concept of time is related to democracy. The urgency or emergency doesn’t mean that democratic decision making process can be compromised.
May be it needs more of democracy because democracy is not a show piece and a peace time luxury. What is the essence of democracy? The essence of democracy is not only a mandate for majority rule. It is a process of consensus building through negotiations, in the light of informed knowledge. That is how the best decisions are arrived at.
Again democracy has to be practiced not only in letter, but also in spirit. Democracy in letter is important because in the absence of democratic framework the best of intentions may derail. Again without democratic spirit a democratic framework is nothing but a ritual and formality.
To declare a lockdown in a presidential style in a county like India in four hours notice without any consultations with the opposition is not a democratic process of decision making. The results are there everywhere to be seen. Then, there are other issues too. For example take the issue of PM CARES Fund. This fund was created to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Now the PMO says that no information about this fund can be sought through RTI as it is not under the ambit of RTI.
When the money for the fund was raised from various public agencies apart from the private donations why this shouldn’t come under the RTI act and why it should not be audited by Comptroller and Auditor General of India?
Again, federalism is an important ingredient of democracy as democracy also means decentralization of power. But presently we are witnessing just the opposite. I quote here a portion from an article published in Business Line: “As India’s battle against Covid-19 completes two months, worrisome trends in Centre-State relations have come to the fore. With Prime Minister Narender Modi steamrolling policies on cash-strapped States, the fiscal demands of fighting the current pandemic have put extraordinary pressures on State finances.
“From imposing pan-India policies on subjects strictly within the States’ domain, prohibiting sale of alcohol, withholding of GST compensation, denial of State disaster funds from the benefit of CSR contributions to the suspension of MPLADS, the Modi government has ensured a consolidation of fiscal powers not only threatening fiscal federalism, but the very foundations of the federal structure evolved over the past decades.”
What does this mean? This means that democracy was discounted while dealing with the pandemic which added to the suffering of people.
While democracy was discounted while dealing with the pandemic, otherwise too it is being seriously compromised. That the fundamental human rights of an individual cannot be curtailed under any circumstances has been said time and again by the legal luminaries.
We have not forgotten the history from ADM Jabalpur case to Kesavananda Bharati case. What Justice H R Khanna said in his dissenting note in ADM Jabalpur case: “Life and liberty are not conferred by any Constitution. They inhere in men and women as human beings.”
These golden words will remain immoral forever. But authoritarian dispensations always try to trample upon the rights of men and women. That is why Akhil Gogoi and other leaders of the KMSS are languishing in jail presently. And they are now arresting anti-CAA protesters in Delhi and other places too. Here what Justice Anup J Bhambhani said in taking civil rights activist Gautam Navlakha from Delhi to Mumbai.
“While ordinarily this court would not see too much cause for hurry in this case, in view of the inexplicable, frantic hurry shown by the NIA in moving the applicant from Delhi to Mumbai while this matter was pending and the NIA had itself sought time to file status report, this court does get a sense that all proceedings in this jurisdiction would be rendered utterly infructuous if an element of urgency is not brought to bear on the present proceedings,…”