Democracy’s fig leaf

AFTER one of the inconclusive elections in Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler ordered his Nazi deputies to vote with the communists — even though the idea was nauseous to him — to bring down the government of Chancellor Franz von Papen.

Sensing the plot to topple him, Papen got President Hindenburg to sign a decree to dissolve the parliament. How Hermann Goering, the Nazi speaker of the Reichstag, foiled Papen’s plan is captured by William Shirer in some amazing detail. It has the flavour of political vaudeville, the type of which has since been repeated in many democracies, including India.

Shirer writes: “When the session reconvened Papen appeared with the familiar red dispatch case which, by tradition, carried the dissolution order he had so hastily retrieved. But when he requested the floor to read it, the president (speaker) of the Reichstag managed not to see him, though Papen, by now red-faced, was on his feet brandishing the paper for all in the assembly to see.

“All but Goering. His smiling face was turned the other way. He called for an immediate vote. By now Papen’s countenance, according to eye-witnesses, had turned from red to white with anger. He strode up to the president’s rostrum and plunked the dissolution order on his desk. Goering took no notice of it and ordered the vote to proceed. Papen, followed by his ministers, none of whom were members of the chamber, stalked out.

“The deputies voted: 513 to 32 against the government. Only then did Goering notice the piece of paper, which had been thrust so angrily on his desk. He read it out to the assembly and ruled that since it had been countersigned by a chancellor who had already been voted out of office by a constitutional majority it had no meaning.”

It is axiomatic that dictators use the façade of democracy as a useful fig leaf to gain legitimacy for their unpopular mission.

Hitler would return to parliament every four years to get his rule rubber-stamped though, really speaking, he didn’t need to.

Pakistanis are all too familiar with military dictators aligning the constitution to their requirements rather than keeping it perpetually suspended.

Of course it doesn’t always take a dictator to subvert the people’s mandate. Democracy can be and quite often is sabotaged by popularly elected deputies. Two examples come to mind where the speakers of Indian state assemblies, both incidentally belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), followed Goering’s lead with remarkable similarity.

For one, India’s Supreme Court this week censured the speaker of the Karnataka assembly who had arbitrarily disqualified 16 members of legislative assemblies (MLAs) ahead of a trust vote last year. The BJP survived the contest after 11 party rebels and five independent deputies were removed from the arithmetic in the house. The apex court said the disqualifications were illegal.

“There was no compulsion on the speaker to decide the disqualification application … in such a great hurry within the time specified by the governor to conduct a vote of confidence in the government … The element of hot haste is also evident in the action of the speaker. The procedure adopted by the speaker seems to indicate that he was trying to meet the time schedule set by the governor for the trial of strength and to ensure that the appellants and other independent MLAs stood disqualified prior to the date on which the floor test was to be held.”

Indian politicians have at least one trick in common with wicketkeepers in a one-day match. They make loud appeals to distract attention from a no-ball. In a similar vein, when the Karnataka governor suggested that the Supreme Court’s decision could be used to throw out the BJP government in Karnataka, BJP leaders rushed to the Presidential Palace in Delhi to get the governor dismissed. They wanted everyone to forget in the melee that the BJP was guilty of serious parliamentary subterfuge.

It wasn’t for the first time that the party followed Goering’s example to outwit the opposition with facile recourse to democratic procedure. In October 1997, Uttar Pradesh speaker Kesari Nath Tripathi, a BJP nominee, deliberately split the Dalit party of current chief minister Ms Mayawati. It didn’t really seem to matter that the nation was aghast at the brazen high-handedness used to help the BJP win that particular trust vote. The approach is par for the course for other major parties, including the Congress, except that it has a history of bribing MPs to win crucial parliamentary trust votes instead of seeking to split opposition ranks. That’s what Prime Minister Narasimha Rao did in 1993. That is what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was accused of doing in 2009.

It so happens that in our quest for elusive democracy we get so exhausted fighting dictatorships of subtle and brazen varieties that we forget to read the fine print that comes with people’s franchise these days. In the Fareed Zakaria-style American utopia, democracy is no longer a standalone desire. It is referred increasingly to as free-market democracy or more directly as capitalist democracy. It doesn’t matter if the new frontiers to implement the new resolve are located in the backwaters of Afghanistan or Iraq. That is what Mr Zakaria would have us believe.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking moment for modern democracy came in Russia some years ago when tanks were used to flush out elected deputies. It was a direct stand-off between the free-market worldview advocated by President Boris Yeltsin and the contention of elected deputies who had opposed the planned rapid transition to capitalism. With his pledge, Yeltsin received strong backing from the leading powers of the West, particularly the United States.

He sparked popular unrest with his attempted dissolution of a parliament that was increasingly opposed to his neo-liberal economic reforms. Tens of thousands of Russians marched in the streets of Moscow seeking to bolster the parliamentary cause. Eventually when free-market won, not without the help of tanks that were aimed at the heart of the Russian parliament, even the West applauded it as a high point of democracy.

When the communists were booted out from West Bengal last week and also when the Arab Spring was riding a crest of popularity without changing the reality of the essential political-economy, I remembered the pithy observation my Dalit scholar friend Chandan Kamble made in the 1970s. “In communism man exploits man. In capitalism it’s the other way around,” he had chortled apropos of nothing in particular.

Goering would be smiling at Kamble’s observation. He was perhaps the first to show the West how the hollow form of democracy adapts itself to new ideological epithets without yielding new ground under a new dispensation.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.