Classic case of a crass democracy
The justifiable absence of a counter-balancing provision to scrapping Haj subsidy points to another clash in fundamental values of democracy.
Two events in the past week lent a semblance of totalitarianism to the facade of democracy. Perhaps such possibilities are not absolutely incompatible with the dynamics of democracy. People choose their government. People do not choose how their government will function. The government is accountable to its people. Most people in this rapidly developing country have limited understanding of optimal functioning and effective governance, most of it measured in terms of long-term impact. People always have the power to change their government if it fails to deliver. But this removal does not guarantee that the new government will give a contrasting performance with respect to governance and not just politics. This is still very much a (lowly) democracy.
The Judiciary is third among the equals to ensure minimised difficulty to the citizens and society in a larger spectrum of functioning. The Legislature and the Executive are entrusted with making and executing laws respectively. The Judicial scope pertains to interpreting laws so as to deliver justice to any party approaching it with a grievance. Judicial independence is a method to effectively check any violation or anomalies in implementing laws, carrying out duties, or functioning in general. This is to say that a judiciary under any kind of influence compromises its ethics to be just. Although the Judiciary is independent, it cannot be disconnected from the Executive and the Legislature. Conspicuously in the highest offices, this associated independence and not being limited by the other two wings of governance is an enduring challenge to the Judiciary.
With the death of a High Court judge hearing a critical case, it comes rather clear that the degree of judicial independence, in practice, depends on the sensitivity and significance of a particular case. The unprecedented act of dissent by four senior-most judges of the country point to irregularities in judicial order to the extent that not only its impartial functioning is hampered, but also that people must be aware of any induced malfunctioning. But, to what extent, and what range of people are capable of comprehending this institutional disorder? Here lies another anomaly: how far have the governments, irrespective of the party/coalition, succeeded in empowering people ‑ beyond earning a basic minimum living or achieving a minimum target of school enrollment – but actually empowering people in a manner to comprehend the government's own doings and enable them to raise their concern against it? The instrument of such a lasting empowerment is education.
Apparently, giving due importance to the need for education and upliftment (to a certain community exclusively), the Union government acted upon the Supreme Court order of 2012 (rather prematurely) as per which the subsidy for Haj should be phased out in 10 years and the money be used for the "uplift of the community in education and other indices of social development". Acknowledging various facets of this decree in the present context (primarily FDI in the aviation sector and changing dynamics with Saudi Arabia), a more considerate step would have been to announce a similar change for all other popular religious undertakings. But, conversely, pilgrimages contribute significantly to the government's income so it makes business sense to promote such establishments and their administration within the national territory.
But the justifiable absence of a counter-balancing and neutralising provision points to another clash in fundamental values of democracy: the will of the majority to prevail with due respect to needs and demands of the minorities. The right to education and right to life with dignity are Constitutionally as fundamental as the right to practice a faith of one's choice. When a government provides for arrangements that are conducive to personal religious undertakings, it is a voluntary move made by the government without any Constitutional binding. Withdrawal of any such provisions is also the discretion of the government. But the sensitivity of such matters deserves due consideration so as to not be exploited for political and electoral motives.
Empowerment without appeasement is a fancy idea because in order to implement methods to bring about empowerment, some appeasement has to be initiated. A pertinent example is when a polio eradication project succeeded everywhere among the listed areas except one in Uttar Pradesh; the reason was that this modern method of disease control was not compatible with the general perception and frame of mind of people of a certain community. It took a some amount of appeasement and convincing to accomplish that national project. Also, empowerment of tribal communities, for instance, is also an undertaking that must begin with appropriate appeasement – by convincing people and establishing that integrating them in the mainstream is not to homogenise them and dissolve their identity.
Scrapping Haj subsidy is clearly an economic decision. But the reason behind this decision is stated to be socio-economic. As it seems, this announcement is prioritised over a sense of general social well-being. Though not in a place to be contested, the government's decision to withdraw from supporting religious pilgrimage of one community and staying silent about providing for (much greater) convenience to the majority communities is toeing the secular line without violating it. The only questionably undemocratic aspect of this is uneasy announcement is compromising respect to the minority. But since there will be no dissent on this account, this normative democratic notion will find no voice. Democracy makes no sense unless people are empowered to understand what they want and how to have it, and question the government as and when necessary. Good governance ought to be devoted to the betterment of the quality of democracy.
(The author is Senior Copy Editor with MPost. The views expressed are strictly personal)