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Damaging Democracy


The Times of India, Dec. 6, 2007

Is democracy merely about conducting elections at regular intervals? How should an elected representative of the people conduct public affairs in a democracy? Does he lord over his subjects or should he serve the electorate, including those who voted against him? Can he promote a social and political agenda that refuses to acknowledge diversity of opinion in a society?

These questions arise in the light of recent experiences in various Indian states. Politicians seem to think that an electoral victory is an endorsement to rule the people any way they like.

They fail to realise that democracy is a process, in which elections are only the means to elect representatives of the people to make public policy and govern according to norms laid down by a constitution. Democracy doesn't stop after elections. The popular vote is merely the starting point of a process to ensure fairness within a framework of law and rights.

The rule of law is central to democracy. A mob might refuse to accept the conditions and process laid down by law.

But a public official, or for that matter any individual citizen, can't afford to be swayed by the mob to violate the law. Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi's remarks on the custodial killing of Sohrabuddin should be seen in this light.

Here's an elected representative of the people, holding the constitutional office of chief minister of a state, approving the murder of a citizen. This is after the Gujarat government admitted in the Supreme Court that Sohrabuddin's murder was extra-legal.

The life of a citizen can't be taken away except by the procedure laid down by law. No court had sentenced Sohrabuddin to death; he was not even found guilty of any act of terrorism. A chargesheet prepared by the Gujarat police said trigger-happy police personnel had killed Sohrabuddin, an alleged gangster, to gain promotions.

The same anti-terrorist squad also killed the dead man's wife to cover their tracks. Are we to assume that Modi is unaware of the police chargesheet and his government's affidavit in the Supreme Court? As chief minister, he is morally and legally responsible for upholding the Constitution.

The Election Commission, the Supreme Court, the B.J.P. and the citizens of Gujarat should ask if Modi has done justice to the office he holds. The impropriety of a chief minister openly flouting the provisions of the Constitution is worrying for the future of democracy in India.

There appears to be a design in Modi's call for death to terrorists. He has followed the remarks on Sohrabuddin by seeking to hang Mohammad Afzal, convicted in the Parliament attack case, even though Afzal's mercy petition is pending with the president.

Modi's may be a conscious attempt to whip up emotions and polarise Gujarati society ahead of the assembly elections.

Perhaps Modi is bored with his proclaimed vision of a vibrant Gujarat. More likely, he has read signs that indicate he might not have a cakewalk after all and harsh, polarising rhetoric may be necessary to garner votes.