Populism Trumped: Moment Of Truth For Democracy

Preetesh Kapur , Senior Advocate
18 Nov 2020 7:32 AM GMT
Populism Trumped: Moment Of Truth For Democracy

Democracy today stands on an inflection point precariously poised on a path that forks towards oligarchy, riding on pandemical waves. And yet, the ballot still holds hope for the people to reclaim the fading political standards that must form the bedrock for the working of a constitutional democracy.

Trump's comical yet profoundly telling Freudian slip a few weeks ago, calling for herd "mentality" instead of herd "immunity", essentially betrayed the political philosophy behind rabble rousing populism, preying on deep seated insecurities and frailties of the human mind. The mantra is simple : Create different herds amongst the voters and prey on the seductive instinct of self preservation so that the individual feels compelled to trot along with their 'own' herd.

To say democracy thrives in the power of a vote is a myth if we live in an age of oligarchic manipulation of this intrinsic herd mentality of the voter. To say that a voter has a choice would be a naive consolation in an era of floundering opposition. To say that governments are truly accountable to the people despite destruction of the independence of institutions, is the illusion that every majoritarian government would happily sell.

One had hoped that the American populace expressed an outright repudiation of the politics of demagoguery with the power of their ballot. The popular vote of the American people may have been a rejection of the politics of falsehood and divisive propaganda. Yet, the extensive vote in favour of 'Trumpism' ominously hangs like a sword on the world stage for populist leaders to emulate; the cul-de-sac that begins with the arrogation of patriotism.

Whether it was the lack of insight or the lack of choice that led the American people to this fractured verdict, is a question that shall haunt them for a long time. But the deep chasm within the American society was never more evident in recent times than through this pandemic ridden election. And an acutely significant factor responsible for this vitriolic divide, is the utter lack of impartiality in the electronic media. Different networks reflected a distinctly bitter bias whether for or against Trump, leaving the uninitiated wondering if in fact they were narrating tales of the same candidates. Across the globe, the destruction of independence of institutions and odious polarisation of media has brought Democracy itself on the edge of Oligarchy.

World over the distinction between news and propaganda seems to be stealthily fading into the past. Our own Supreme Court has nonetheless recognised that the factum of air waves being public property, places the added obligation on broadcast media of ensuring a genuine plurality of ideas and opinions so that the ordinary voter can make an informed choice.[i]

The oversimplification of a democracy as a "government of, by and for the people", and the reductive synonymisation over time of 'people' with 'majority', has unwittingly laid seeds of blind majoritarianism. Constitutional democracy on the other hand is quite far from mere governance by majority. Constitutional democracy entails governance within the bounds of individual rights & liberties, zealous protection of independence of the myriad institutions that work this democracy as well as accountability of policymaking within the limits placed by the Constitution. "Social democracy means a way of life which recognises the trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity as principles of life".[ii]

It is for this reason that the Constitution places the momentous task of holding the elected to account in the hands of Constitutional Courts. Though the desirability of policy may be judged only by the court of the electorate, the constitutionality of every governmental action is to be weighed by a Constitutional court and is the fundamental check on power.

Happily, these geopolitical parallels between the world's oldest and the largest democracies go no further. The fact that our history has never witnessed such blatant clinging to power despite an electoral loss, is a poetic tribute to the maturity of our democracy.

Trump had been brazen enough to admit that the seat left vacant as a result of the death of Justice Ruth Ginsburg was filled in undue haste so as to select a person with leanings towards his dispensation. But he ought to have been reminded that on donning judicial robes all leanings of the past are to be sacrificed at the altar of the constitutional oath.

A fiercely independent judiciary is the very soul of constitutional values. In the unerring words of Chief Justice Das : "The heart and core of a democracy lies in the judicial process, and that means independent and fearless Judges free from executive control brought up in judicial traditions and trained to judicial ways of working and thinking. The main bulwarks of liberty and freedom lie there.."[iii] For the sake of the American people, indeed for the sake of Democracy itself, it is hoped that their Supreme Court, the last bastion in any Constitutional democracy, takes a truly independent view of this ugly controversy, were the question of transition of power to ultimately knock on the doors of their apex court.

Views are personal.

(The author is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India)

[i] Secy., Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Govt. of India v. Cricket Assn. of Bengal, (1995) 2 SCC 161

[ii] Dalmia Cement (Bharat) Ltd. v. Union of India, (1996) 10 SCC 104, at page 117

[iii] Bidi Supply Co. v. Union of India, 1956 SCR 267

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