| by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

( May 4, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In a conversation with two visiting Indian scholars this week in Colombo, the focus shifted to the seemingly easy manner in which the Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate in the ongoing elections, Narandra Modi appears to have captured the ‘technocratic’ space in the Indian political consciousness.

More ‘authoritarianism’ needed in India?

True enough, as one of these conversationalists (and a celebrated feminist) pointed out, the Indian electorate has been proved to surprise even the most astute of political watchers. But as she observed, ‘what I am most surprised by is the capitulation of much of the middle class to fiery rhetoric that promises much but lacks solid principle; it is infuriating.’

No less infuriating is the media cheering squads in this heated pre-election campaign, culminating rather astoundingly perhaps when a leading television channel hosted a show to discuss whether India needs ‘more authoritarianism’ with enthusiastic voices calling for a new ‘authoritarian’ leader. 

Certainly this dynamic can be contrasted or compared with Sri Lanka only up to a certain point. Easy equations cannot be arrived at in regard to the world’s largest democracy. The tug and pull of contrasting forces within that massive country is just too varied. The range of opinions given the breadth of Indian activism is too multifarious to invite simplistic comparisons.

Historic and stark divergences

But some reflections are opportune. Primary in this regard is the divergence between India and Sri Lanka regarding the intensity in which citizenship is claimed and worked. To be perfectly clear, we are talking here not of political leadership but of the manner in which citizens demand entitlements. And even given adoration of the Modi rhetoric by sizeable segments of the Indian business and middle class, the pendulum swing can never be too extreme. The very nature of the Indian electorate ensures that.

At one level, the historic divergence between the two countries could not be starker. When the Indian nation state emerged from the colonial regime, its great constitutional drafters gave rights consciousness generously with both hands to the Indian people. First and foremost (unlike the Sri Lankan constitution drafters in 1972 and 1978 whose pusillanimity was equaled only by their arrogant elitism), they installed the right to life as the most basic of all rights. In following decades, even with inevitable obstacles regarding the implementation of judicial orders, still the Supreme Court steered the rudder of legal protections away from the shoals of political capture.

In recent years, this heady judicial activism has lessened. The Court itself has been plagued by accusation of corruption against senior judges. Yet, the integrity attaching to the premier judicial institution in India has not diminished. Quite unlike Sri Lanka, the Indian judiciary has remained relatively untouched by scandals surrounding individuals. Indeed, the ravages wreaked on Sri Lanka’s institutions would not have occurred in India, given a stubbornly ‘homegrown’ consciousness on rights. In post-war Sri Lanka however, conferences, talk sessions and the mere issuing of statements in legal theory continue merrily even while the law literally dies around us. Amusingly enough, we see the very individuals who were once contributory and collusive in the ugly degeneration of judicial independence during the Sarath Silva Court for example, now waxing eloquent on the Rule of Law. These are the stuff that ribald comedies are made of.

The law has stood its ground in India

Moreover, the investigation and proof of allegations against Indian federal Supreme Court justices is not merely by partisan politicians but is subjected to initial inquiry by a committee drawn from the legal community. It is only thereafter that the matter goes to both Houses of Parliament. A truly scandalous event such as the 2013 witch-hunt impeachment of the Sri Lankan Chief Justice will be impossible in that country; the storm of outrage that would follow would bring down a government. This is an eventuality that will not be risked politically.

The bigger context is that, except for extraordinary exceptions in India, the law has stood its ground. On the other hand, the exception has become the norm in Sri Lanka. The absence of law enforcement is the order of the day. Let alone the seething issues of minority grievances, we have abandoned the basic working of the law. There is indeed an irresistible impulse to break out laughing when non-adherence to law and regulation is solemnly discussed, as was the case recently in regard to the ‘casino debates.’ Is there any need to even talk of the law? Who really cares?

The survival of the Indian institutions

And as we note World Press Freedom Day, there are significant differences in the manner in which the media works in both countries. Corporatism and political partisanship had wreaked its own damage on Indian media. But its reach and credible impact is far different to the Sri Lankan media. We do not need censorship any more. Indubitably we have become our own best censors. Other struggles are also illustrative. Thus, the right to information (RTI) in the Indian polity has been obtained not through political concession but by hard battles on the streets. RTI has been used to exposes corrupt judges, politicians and public servants. These are not easy victories; the list of RTI activists who have been killed grows year by year. But yet, the stubbornness of the RTI spirit prevails.

All this goes to say that whatever tumult may occur in regard to the Indian Premier stakes, the Indian people need not fear the degeneration of their institutions. Whatever harsh criticisms that one may have of Indian foreign policy, the results of the Indian democracy project lies in its claiming of a bold, sometimes raucous but always arrestingly vibrant citizenship.

We may well feel envious. As the parroting of meaningless nonsense masquerades as democracy and as we put up with the most profound indignities for the sake of ‘survival’, our deadened ‘state of citizenship’ surely cannot pose a greater contrast than this.