D. N. Bezboruah
The word default has interesting origins just as it also has one interesting meaning imparted to it by the advent of computers. What is even more interesting perhaps is that the computer-related meaning should have been derived from the phrase by default rather than from the word default in isolation. The origin of the word default can be traced to the Middle English word derived from Old French defaut from defaillir ‘to fail’ based on Latin fallere ‘disappoint, deceive’. The word default is both noun and verb, and in present-day English, the noun has two meanings: (1) failure to fulfil an obligation, especially to repay a loan or appear in a law court; (2) a preselected option adopted by a computer program or other mechanism when no altertive is specified. The second meaning of the noun is the one imparted by the advent of computers. Actually it refers to the option that the computer gives the user for a particular function unless he/she specifies an altertive option. It is the computer’s way of saying, “Well, if you are uble to let us know what precisely you want, you will have to take what we have planned for you.” The two verb meanings more or less match the noun meanings. As verb, the first meaning is ‘fail to fulfil an obligation’ or declare (a party) in default and give judgement against the party, while the second meaning is ‘revert automatically to’ (a preselected option). The second meaning of the word as verb corresponds to the second meaning as noun more or less foisted on us by the advent of computers. But what is relevant for today’s column is the phrase by default which means ‘because of a lack of opposition or positive action’.
What I have in mind is the fact that the world’s largest democracy has an off-key brand of democracy merely because of the lack of opposition or positive action by the people who ought to be the principal determiners of what democracy should be, but who are not vigilant or concerned enough about the very visible aberrations of our democracy. And so we have a form of government set up every five years (or sometimes more often) with the help of the ground rules democracy (mainly just the elections) but a government that turns out to be anti-democratic because it has no respect for the common people who put power in the hands of our rulers, and also because those in power have no respect even for the rule of law that is one of the primary requirements of a democratic structure. They go about breaking the rules related to the underlying principles of democracy in order to establish a brand of neo-feudalism that is primarily geared to creating small and big dysties all over the country. Unfortutely, no lessons have been learnt from what has happened to India’s largest political party ever since it chose to become a dystic party. Two of its prime ministers were assassited and the number of Congress MPs in the Lok Sabha kept declining until it was no longer possible for the Congress to rule on its own. It had to form coalitions like the UPA to remain in power. But in 2014 even the UPA coalition came to an end when only 44 Congress MPs were elected to the Lok Sabha.
Democracy in India is what it is today largely because of the aberrations that have been accepted as inevitable. Perhaps the downfall started in right earnest when Indira Gandhi declared in Parliament that corruption was a universal phenomenon. Since then there has been no looking back for the Congress (or even other political parties). But a far greater aberration of democracy in India arises from the fact that our politicians have no real respect for the people. They show mock respect to people for a couple of weeks just before the general elections. Thereafter the people are out of their minds for the rest of their terms in the Legislature. Most MPs and MLAs think of themselves as some kind elected kings. Common people can have no access to their elected representatives, and getting them to raise questions of vital concern for the people in Parliament or the legislative assemblies is almost impossible unless the issue has come up in the media and it would look silly for a legislator to fail to raise a question in the House. In fact, there was even a time when MPs expected to be paid something for raising any question in Parliament on behalf of their electorate!
However, a far greater aberration arises from the reluctance of many legislators to accept the ‘rule of law’ requirement of democracy. Legislators of other democracies too may cut corners now and then, but nowhere else in the world do we have the phenomenon of lawbreaking lawmakers. In India, most legislators regard themselves as being above the law. This tendency is in inverse proportion to their level of education. The less educated a lawmaker is, the stronger is his conviction that he is above the law. He is convinced that lawmakers like him make laws only for other people, not for themselves too. The uneducated lawmaker may realize that he has no direct hand in making any law. His more educated colleagues make the laws (often with a lot of help from bureaucrats), and he may just raise his voice or his hand to support a new law. But the fact that a law cannot be passed if he and his colleagues do not lend the support of their numbers, makes him see himself as being inevitable for the laws they ect for others, but will not abide by. The first phase of the Assembly elections in progress has demonstrated how ready our lawmakers are to flout the laws of the land and the code of conduct for elections. Several MLAs were seen openly distributing yarn for looms, blankets, mosquito nets and even cash to the voters. This was a serious breach of the code of conduct. In some constituencies, even cash was distributed as freely as prasad is distributed. This was done both by lawmakers and former legislators. The Election Commission that should have cracked down on such election candidates very firmly, just pretended not to know or see what was happening. Of what use is our Election Commission if it cannot punish lawbreaking legislators and debar them from contesting elections even in the face of such flouting of the code of conduct for elections and the laws of the land?
That the largest democracy in the world can turn democracy itself into a farcical ritual is best borne out by what it can do to elections that are the sole remaining rituals of democracy in India. Instead of holding elections to let people exercise their franchise and elect their representatives freely and without fear, it can, at times, conduct elections against the wishes of the people and thrust them down their throats. The people of Assam cannot afford to forget the general election of 1983 that was thrust on them against their wishes. It was an election that was imposed at gun-point. It was an election where civil liberties were curtailed and newspapers were restrained. Section 144 remained operative throughout Assam. It was an election without the freedom of speech. No wonder, it was an election that also established a record for low turn-outs. Sivasagar district, which C. S. Mullan had predicted would remain Assamese-domited for a longer time, witnessed polling by just five per cent of the electorate. The six constituencies of Lakhimpur district had a voter turnout of something between three and four per cent. Biswarayan Shastri won the election to the Lok Sabha with just one vote—his own. This must be a world record of sorts. The CPM got 0.98 per cent of the vote, the CPI 0.60 per cent of the total votes, and the Congress(S) got just 1.18 per cent of the votes of the total electorate! And yet, this is what we insist on calling democracy. The proceedings in Parliament have shown that in our brand of democracy there can be no question of performance because a dystic political party that has ruled us for decades is down to just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. Given our political culture, does anyone honestly believe that the Congress, which has just 44 of the 545 Lok Sabha seats now will calmly sit in Parliament and wait for the next elections? It will not. If it has no means to perform because it is out of power, it will ensure, through disruptions in Parliament, that the political party elected to power is not able to perform either. So the kind of democracy that the world’s largest democracy is destined to be content with is one where elections alone are the sole indicators of a democratic structure, where we have draconian and anti-people laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, where the rulers corner everything that is scarce (like electricity and potable water) leaving nothing for the people, where the ability to disrupt counts for more than the ability to perform, and where disintegration, violence and unlawful activities are encouraged by the rulers rather than integration, peace and the rule of law. This is what we call democracy and this is what we are destined to live with by default, because we have not been vigilant enough to let our rulers know in very categorical terms about the kind of democracy that we are prepared to die for.