Ulysses vs Narendra Modi

Once a decade or so, a book comes along that is so clear and insightful that people instantly recognise it as a masterpiece. The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria is one such.

It tears to pieces romantic notions of democracy as a panacea, and highlights how democratically elected leaders the world over have been corrupt oppressors. Illiberal democracy is appallingly common, from Africa and Central Asia to Narendra Modi’s Gujarat.

What really matters for a country, says Zakaria, is not elected leaders but independent institutions that prevent elected politicians from indulging in excesses. Checks and balances can be more important than majority rule.

Seen in this light, India’s major achievement is not that it has had elected governments for half a century, but that an unelected body, the Constituent Assembly, created a book of liberal rules that has prevented elected rulers from running amok.

Zakaria’s book was written before Narendra Modi swept the Gujarat state elections. Yet it shows that this is exactly the sort of excess one can expect from majorities that are too easily manipulated by sectarian, financial and other lobbies.

Hitler was elected democratically in 1933, winning 44 per cent of the vote, as much as the next three parties put together. He later turned dictator, yet was so immensely popular that he would have trounced any rival in a fair election. Many dictators like Nasser and Tito won elections regularly, were genuinely popular, yet quashed civil rights.

The main hope for restoring liberal values in Gujarat does not lie in fresh elections, which may mean fresh communal majorities. The main hope lies in the strictures of the Supreme Court, an unelected body, which has denounced Modi’s handling of the Best Bakery case as an eyewash that violates all canons of good governance. The Court has declared that Modi has failed in his constitu-tional duties. Modi is in no immediate danger of dismissal. Yet the Court strictures will put pressure on him to change his behaviour in ways that electoral pressures never would.

The unelected Supreme Court is not at all impressed by the fact that Modi has been elected with a huge majority, and is arguably following the wishes of the majority of voters. Legitimacy, says the court, flows not from electoral victory or public approval, but from observance of liberal rules laid down by the Constitution.

In India we claim to be proud of our democracy. Yet every opinion poll shows that the public regards elected politicians as rogues. The institutions enjoying the most public respect are the armed forces and the Supreme Court. Neither of these is elected.

This is not because India’s politicians are especially corrupt or incompetent. In the US, says Zakaria, the three most respected institutions are the Supreme Court, the armed forces and the Federal Reserve Board, all unelected bodies. Meanwhile, elected politicians are routinely denounced as opportunistic scoundrels.

The lesson? To uphold the liberal humanism brought in by the French and the American revolutions, we need not just elections but independent institutions (mandated by constitutions, laws or social norms) that check the populist excesses of elected politicians.

Politicians resist constraints on their power, and often seek to undercut laws and rules (as in evident in India’s criminalised, corrupt politics). A well-functioning democracy is one where politicians have the vision and public spirit to place checks on their own power, to bind themselves.

Zakaria gives the analogy of Ulysses in The Iliad. The ship of this Greek hero had to pass by the island of the Sirens, whose magic singing could force mariners to cast themselves into sea to their destruction. Ulysses filled the ears of his crew with wax so that they could not hear anything. He told the crew to bind him to the mast, and not release him regardless of what he might say.

When the ship passed by the Sirens island, Ulysses was enchanted by the music, and threatened, begged and screamed to be untied. But his sailors kept him bound, and this enabled the ship to pass this danger safely.

This carries a lesson for politics too. A successful democracy needs to bind politicians to the mast in the form of liberal rules, and create institutions to enforce those rules regardless of their threatening, begging and screaming.

We have an independent Sup-reme Court, but it is not enough. We badly need an independent police and prosecution authority that cannot be manipulated by home ministers, in Gujarat or anywhere else.

Crime detection and prosecution should be independent of political discretion or direction. Any home minister trying to influence outcomes should be prosecuted for obstructing justice, the offence for which Nixon had to resign as US president.

But to create an independent police authority, we first need a political Ulysses who recognises the need to bind himself.

What do you think?