Can the Political Legitimacy of the Democratic Government in India Be Qualitatively Enhanced?

Political Legitimacy Defies Definition

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Political Legitimacy as ‘a virtue of political institutions and of the decisions-about laws, policies, and candidates for political office-made within them.’

The perspective of Political Legitimacy may differ vastly; from mere ‘creation of political authority by force’ to ‘moral justification by the loyalty and free will of the enlightened citizens,’ there can be several levels of Political Legitimacy. In the democratic form the government is of the people, by the people and for the people; and so the Political Legitimacy is normally evaluated using the parameters like the authenticity of the constitution, fairness of the elections, standard of governance etc.

Legitimacy is a deeper issue than popularity. Particular leaders and policies may be unpopular without generating a desire for a fundamental change of political system. Academic research based on large-scale surveys suggests that: China’s political system enjoys high levels of legitimacy; and this legitimacy has multiple sources. [1]

In an ABS survey (2008), to a proposition, “Although our political system has various kinds of problems, it is still the best that fits our national conditions,” only 11% of the people strongly agreed; 84% somewhat agreed; 4% somewhat disagreed; and 1% strongly disagreed. Obviously we cannot say that Political Legitimacy here is 100%. So it is clear that though we have to agree on Political Legitimacy most of the times, it is only for the purpose of having a working mechanism in position, in spite of obvious gaps.

The Indian Context

Julius Caesar divorced his wife Pompeia because of rumors, not because he believed them but because ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.’

The monarchs of ancient times are known to have been very sensitive about their legitimacy when the issues of justice and public opinion arose about their governance. The Chola king Manu sentenced his young son, the only prince to death when a crime had been committed against a calf! Rama exiled His dear wife, when He learnt that a washer-man viewed against His re-acceptance of Sita! There was no political or legal compulsion for such extraordinary actions of the rulers.

To give an example from the modern history, “Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned from Railways in 1956, owning moral responsibility for a railway accident. Jawaharlal Nehru tried to persuade Shastri but Lal Bahadur Shastri refused to budge from his stand. By his action Lal Bahadur Shastri set new standards of morality in public life.”

I read an interesting essay of Sri Ananya Vajpeyi entitled, ‘Gandhi, Morality and Political Legitimacy’ in the [2] He briefly discusses the ideas of Gandhi, and his relevance today. He explains how in a democracy the legitimacy of a government flows mainly from the will of the people and ‘capacities and capabilities of the government.’ He adds, “But in the end it exceeds and transcends all of these factors, and resides elsewhere, in a more subtle quality that has to do with the inherent morality of any structure of power that purports to rule a people in their name and for their own good.” His argument is that though the people’s votes establish a government (for a given period), the real legitimacy should be ‘earned’ by the way it functions. That is, the legitimacy does not come as a package for a fixed period but needs to be continuously earned and enjoyed.

He may give an impression that his expectations are slightly on the higher side but they cannot be brushed aside as being unreasonable or impossible. He does not seek to place the government on any shaky ground. He only wants that the democratic governments should function fully conscious of an ethical yardstick and sense of noble responsibility towards the people. He says, “Legitimacy has to be earned the hard way, through good governance, transparency, probity, lawfulness, justice, inclusivity and the capacity to demonstrate, both every day and in a crisis, that a government really is not just by and of, but also for the people.”

This leads to the million dollar question: Why a government with such legitimacy has not emerged in India so far? (Leave alone the present Narendra Modi’s government, which seems to be moving towards somewhere near the mark, though there is a long way to go.)

All of us know that the people get the government they deserve. For a government qualified with such legitimacy to emerge, we need two things: First, the people should have patriotism and a decent political standard. Second, the constitutional and structural framework should have been built sensibly.

When the common enemy viz. the British were there, the job of uniting the people was easier. The Congress leaders were able to inculcate a national spirit among the people. But they did not take care to preserve that spirit and strengthen it in independent India. Broadly speaking, the really patriotic Congressmen left politics after getting Independence feeling shy of enjoying the benefits of their earlier selfless struggle. Those who chose to accept public offices and serve the country, did not have the energy needed to tackle the power-hungry vultures, which rushed in, when the Congress opened the floodgates after Independence. The strength of sincere grassroots diminished and slowly became extinct; many of the anti-national, corrupt elements, who had vested interests in dividing the Indian people on the lines of religion, caste, language, region and class, easily hijacked the national Congress within a few decades.

Innumerable regional pressure groups mushroomed in the guise of ‘political parties’ and divided the people to create their own vote-banks and establish their own empires!

This could have been easily avoided if the energy and enthusiasm of the nationalists had been preserved after Independence; if the need for unity among all the citizens had been realized and strengthened; if a few dynamic measures at national level (like annihilation of castes suggested by Dr. Ambedkar) had been seriously considered; if the issues like Introduction of Hindi (referred to as ‘imposition of Hindi’ in some areas) that were sensitive and of less importance for the nation had been kept aside; if the ‘regional political parties’ had not been allowed to raise their ugly heads with their anti-national plans; if the policy of pacifism towards the minorities coupled with anti-Hindu attitude had not been encouraged in the name of ‘secularism’; if the minorities and down-trodden communities had been embraced in the main political current and encouraged to develop themselves with confidence and patriotism (by offering help and opportunities to develop instead of concessions, freebies, and ‘rewards’); and if the corruption, social indiscipline and inefficiency in governance had been dealt with strongly, mainly in high levels of political set-up and bureaucracy.

We saw to what a pathetic level a highly qualified Prime Minister could be reduced and made helpless, if the central government had to continue at the mercy of the regional pressure groups, masquerading as political parties.

Several important reforms have been pushed to oblivion and remain there for decades, thanks to these regional parties.

Thus we see that the most of the politicians of the post-Independence period did not work for a better political standard of the people; on the contrary they reduced it by criminalization of the politics and by adhering to poor political conduct and damaging the ‘service content’ of political life.

Secondly, the constitutional and structural framework also has not been improved with national fervor and enthusiasm that could be normally expected in a country that attained freedom after suffering aggression and alien rule for several centuries. Even the political strategies of the British, like the divide and rule policy, have been unashamedly continued. The dynamic measures like de-recognition of castes, introduction of uniform legal system for all the Indian citizens, educational reforms with a patriotic spirit, and emphasis on national unity would have ensured better administration and conferred the governments ipso facto with a better legitimacy.

The term legitimacy is not confined only to legality; we may even talk about the legitimacy of a law. It has definite ethical connotations also.

The main identity of all Indian citizens, irrespective of their religion, caste, language, region etc., should be only ‘INDIAN’ and everything else should come only next to that. They should be basically united with a sense of belonging to India. Till this becomes a reality, the political legitimacy of our governments is bound to be short of the mark.