Remarks edited by former Indian Chief Justice MN Venkatachalaiah, 92, at the Monday launch of Sugata Srinivasaraju Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of HD Deve Gowda, a biography of the former prime minister.
Every worthy biography has a message. For 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 suffrage, the Western world was cynical about its success. How, they wondered, can 300 million illiterates successfully operate the modern and sophisticated parliamentary system. The same Western press, 60 years later, declared India’s democracy to be “robust” and also “the rowdiest”. It is a tribute to the uncommon innate wisdom of the common man.
A prominent political leader once said that he would rather rely on the folly of 300 million people rather than the wisdom of five judges. But this faith in the wisdom of the voter is waning. If you look at the dismal state of public life, it becomes obvious that in a democracy people don’t get better government than they deserve. We have no one to blame except ourselves in the desperate mess we have created for ourselves in our public institutions.
The underlying theme of this biography, which Sugata Srinivasaraju seeks to convey, seems to be the need to examine the strengths and weaknesses of Indian democracy. It can be held to ransom and even individuals can sabotage the democratic spirit. This history of Indian democracy, its strengths and weaknesses, is illustrated through the political career of a humble farmer who reached great heights through his brilliant understanding of the forces of control and their intelligent management.
The emergence of Gowda as prime minister [in June 1996], and the miserable and unfortunate way his tenure was cut short [in April 1997], signify both the strength and the weakness of our political system. Here is a man with no aristocratic political background or family heritage of status who became prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. But the way this has been cut short is once again exasperation that points to the perils of this fragile hope. This short period has produced a commendable record of an efficient administration.
The momentum for the restoration and resurgence of democratic institutions in Jammu and Kashmir is imprinted by Gowda and his commitment to democratic values. The remedy for the evils of democracy is more democracy.
One of the leading figures in 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 hopeful situation in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. He has visited Jammu and Kashmir four times. For six years no one went to Kashmir. You say all the time that the state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India. Yes. He is. But why did previous prime ministers not attend? Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister for five years. Chandra Shekar had a short stint, and he couldn’t go, and neither did VP Singh. But Deve Gowda has been to the state of Jammu and Kashmir four times and created a situation of hope and understanding there.
This biography comes at a time when the whole world is on the move let alone the catastrophic pandemic. The strength of a nation to survive and prevail stems from the innate character of its people. It is said that the highest office in a republic is that of “citizen”. The first duty of the state is to promote the intelligence of citizenship. The government is a powerful teacher. He teaches by his own example. Irresponsible, indecent, virulent and even vulgar political debates stoke democratic sentiments and make people cynical. People lose faith in their government and their leaders.
In science, the intense interaction of nuclear energy is said to create “critical mass”. Likewise, a negative social critical mass is generated by irresponsible and indecent political behavior, which creates mistrust of democratic processes. It generates a cynicism which is a power of destruction. It removes all the vivid color from national life and its constitutional symbols and institutions. Dr Ambedkar warned against such violent movements and unrest to achieve economic and political goals.
The trust of the people in the government is the most important factor. The great Chinese philosopher Confucius told his disciple Tze-Kung that of the three essential elements of government – food, military equipment and the people’s faith in their rulers – the people’s faith is the most indispensable element. .
Studies show that in 1958, 73% of Americans trusted the decisions of their federal government most of the time. In 2019, the number fell to just 19%. Let’s look at the figures on people’s opinions on the United States Supreme Court. In 1985, 62% of Americans had a favorable opinion of their Supreme Court. Fortunately, the figure remained the same in 2019.
Two visions of development
The leaders of today’s countries need wisdom to anticipate the enormous opportunities and challenges of technological exploits and to prepare the next generation for them. The sharp and acrimonious political rant is not the answer to the looming challenges. Sober, constructive and creative early responses are the answer. India needs to create something like 30,000 new jobs every day. Half of existing jobs are threatened with 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 allows only 10% of the population to benefit from it. The current crises which are worsening are serious. But then, as they say, “The crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” We could learn from them.
There are two conceptions of economic development. One point of view advocates growth at all costs by removing everything that is incompatible with it. The economic philosophy of development attributed to the legendary Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is that if you want development, forget about democracy. Contrary to this “Lee thesis”, there is a friendlier version of development which insists that social progress is the engine of economic development and not the other way around. The measurement of economic performance itself must design new tools, more respectful of social progress and human happiness.
MN Venkatachalaiah was the 25th Chief Justice of India.