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India’s slow descent into a shell democracy

Tokenism is corroding the heart of the nation’s institutions although the Supreme Court was the saviour in Karnataka

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The Eagleton Golf Course Resort is 30km from Bengaluru, on the Bengaluru-Mysore Express way. Not just golf is played there. On May 13, a day after when Karnataka’s — a relatively prosperous southern state in India — assembly election results were announced, the phones in the resort started ringing off the hook. There would be visitors, some 115 of them, managers were told. All elected legislators. Precious as gold in a politics that equates power wholly with the metal.

In last week’s state elections, the BJP had won 104 seats in a house of 222. A creditable performance by any standards. The Congress won 78, and its post-poll partner, Janata Dal (S), headed by H.D. Kumaraswamy, 38. An ally of JD (S), Bahujan Samajwadi Party won 3. All in all, the Opposition scraped together 116 legislators, most of whom were immediately herded together into a Volvo bus by the ever crafty and resourceful D.K. Shivakumar, a former minister in the erstwhile Congress cabinet, and taken to Eagleton resort, where they were served specially made tamarind rasam (thin soup) and, in a freak combination that makes clear anything goes in Indian politics, Thai fried chicken. Perverts, perverts.

Meanwhile in Bengaluru, a veteran leader of the BJP and an eternal chief minister aspirant, B.S. Yeddyurappa, had bent the governor to his will, and had himself sworn in as the BJP chief minister — for 55 hours. The helpful state governor said his friend had to prove his strength on the floor of the house in 15 days.

This order was contested by the Congress before the Supreme Court, which in a special hearing in the early morning hours of Friday cut down the Yeddyurappa’s parade window. He had to prove his majority by Saturday 4pm.

Alas, where were the legislators? Promises of huge amounts, estimated by a section of the media at Rs1.5 billion (Dh80.8 million) each, and lucrative portfolios were offered. But the legislators had been kept away from cell phones and the net.

Shivakumar had swung the day for the Congress with tamarind rasam and Thai fried chicken, which must figure on the menu of the official reception once all the legislators are all safely sworn in, hidden guns to their heads, and the cabinet formed under the leadership of Kumaraswamy, a politician not particularly averse to rasam, resorts or gold.

The president of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, who had spent weeks campaigning in the state is a happy man. Democracy has won, he said. Amit Shah, the BJP president whose strategies — such as they are: gold primarily, and muscle and hustle — won for the BJP a very commendable 104 seats, is not beaming; neither is Yeddyurappa. They believe democracy has failed.

In truth, their pains and pleasures hardly matter. What does matter is that Indian democracy is becoming a farce. Last week’s developments in Karnataka is not the first time that literal pearls have been thrown; or the temperamental swine looked the other way, abiding their time. Nor is it the first time that the legislators were kidnapped by their own parties and kept under lock and key. But the brazenness of the show is eye-popping. There is not even a pretence anymore at principles. What they are doing is trading. The 116 legislators who are back to visibility will eventually demand their pound, and they will be convinced they are doing right thing in demanding their price in alms or kind.

If the past is any indication, neither Yeddyurappa, nor Kumaraswamy, or the outgoing chief minister (Congress), Siddaramaiah is a knight in armour. Indeed, they are more like Night in Armour. But they are what the Indian version of democracy has thrown up in a state whose USP is cutting edge Information Technology.

What does it mean? Well, it means what India is seeing is its slow and steady reduction into a shell democracy. For example, there will be elections, which indeed is a great ritual of democracy. But there will be no real choices. Which makes the process is empty of any real meaning. And this is happening in any number of fronts. Tokenism is corroding the heart of Indian institutions. As a result, last week the real saviour might be seen as the Supreme Court. But don’t bet on it: the chief justice of India himself has only recently escaped an impeachment motion against him.

If fair results of a set of processes that constitute democracy cannot be predicted consistently, it just means India is up the wrong road. And there seem to be no U-turn signs to reverse and retrace the journey. And it has been one long trip so far.

C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.

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