I maintain some very vivid memories of the French General Election way back in 1986 when I was spending some time in Paris towards a fellowship. Francois Mitterand was well ensconced in the Elysse Palace as the President but his Socialist Party was not tipped to win in the race for the Prime Minister.
It was quite obvious to any discerning observer that the right wing parties were on the ascendency. However the general feeling at the time was that none of the parties would be able to procure a majority on their own.
The favorite at the time was Jacques Chirac. He was interviewed by the French television and asked a very pointed question-whether in the event of not obtaining a majority ,would be consider an alliance with the racist and the xenophobic National Front of Le Pen.
Chirac was quite categorical ;he declared without any equivocation that he would prefer not to govern rather than contemplate alliance of any form with Le Pen and his party as they represented values which were inimical to democratic principles. When pressed further, he went on to state that he would much rather see the socialist in power than offer any facilitation to the racists.As it happened ,that did not turn out to be necessary; Chirac ended up getting an overall majority.
A few years later in 1991, when I was in the United States, the governor’s post in Louisiana came up for re-election. As per the US practice ,both the parties held primaries to select their candidates. The Republican Party ended up choosing one David Duke.
The only problem here was that Duke had a past; he had not that long ago been a Grand Wizard with the ultra-racist and violent. Ku Klux Klan an organization known for intimidating the non-Caucassian population using measures like burning crosses outside their dwellings. George Bush Sr. who was the President at the time took a stand. He implored all his fellow Republicans to vote to the Democrat Eddie Edwards to ensure that Duke,his own party candidate lost the election! And that is the way it happened!
I am also tempted to recall another episode this time in Northern Ireland. Reverend Ian Paisley was a politician known for his visceral dislike of the Roman Catholics. He had a massive following and had also founded the Free Presbytarian Church of which he was the supremo in addition to a political party called the Democratic Unionist Party of which he was again the undisputed leader. His diatribes against the Catholics were frequent and offensively vituperative and he was a source of endless embarrassment to the United Kingdom politicians. One of his main lieutenants George Cartwright once declared in a public meeting that the Catholics were all fit to be burnt in an incinerator. Even Paisley was forced to act against him as it was considered that he had crossed the line. Cartwright was expelled from the party and sent to political oblivion.
The reason I am recalling these events is because they left a deep impression upon me. I was almost certain that this could not have happened in India.
Chirac and George Bush Sr. were known to be hardcore politicians . In their long political careers they ended up taking some decisions that many of their countrymen fundamentally disagreed with. And some very disconcerting questions were raised about their ethical commitments. But on this count, there was absolutely no doubt as to where they stood.
In order to sustain democracy ,we have to draw its frontiers and be very clear about them. The two leaders in question felt that those who did not believe in the fundamentals of democracy should not be entitled to enjoy its fruits and bask in its glory because that would pervert the democratic process itself.
Perhaps it was easier for them to comprehend this as both had lived to witness when this principle was not adhered to . The Nazi Party had come to power through ballot and it was through ballot that they went about enacting sinister laws . Strictly speaking nothing that the Fuhrer did could be construed as illegal under the German Law at the time. The only part that was not observed by the German electorate at the time was that they entrusted democratic governance to individuals who harboured contempt for democratic values. The consequences simply do not bear recall!
As a card carrying senior citizen , I am often constrained to wonder whether we as Indians have learned adequate lessons from this lapse. Every now and then I am gripped by a sense of despondency when I observe the political horizons.
The latest instance that forced me to deliberate was Raj Thackeray’s rantings against the Biharis. I must state here that I was born in Bihar and have several relatives in that state. But I would like to believe that I speak as a committed Indian with a very firm belief in the Indian Constitution when I express my distaste for what Raj had to say.
It is true that Raj Thackeray has been at this for ages. We all have grown accustomed to his cheap vituperation and would perhaps ignore it but for the fact that his goons do indulge in violence and get away with it.The analogy between burning the auto rickshaws and crosses to intimidate is unnerving at least for myself.
Raj learned these methods during his Shiv Sena days. Those like myself are old enough to recall how Raj’s uncle and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray spew venom against the South Indians in the 60’s. The community was subjected to strong arm tactics completely violative of every tenet of the Constitution.
And yet he got away with this anarchy. Every political formation sought an arrangement with the Sena purely for expedient reasons which only served to feed into his megalomania. He enjoyed more or less total insulation from the legal process. The only person who managed to unsettle Bal Thackeray was ironically the unscruplous Baburao Patel widely reputed to be a blackmailer himself.
I am on record having stated that the ultimate failure of the Indian state to ensure legal protection its citizens are entitled to was the metaphorical genuflection we observed from the high and mighty within Bollywood including the venerable Amitabh Bachchan. Bal Thackeray had a free run ensured by all political parties. He went on espousing profoundly undemocratic, illegal and unconstitutional positions unabated. The Bharatiya Janata Party entered into an alliance with him unmindful of the fact that he openly admired Emergency and Sanjay Gandhi’s methods and unapologetically promoted a dynastic culture which the BJP claims to hold in contempt.
And now we are treated to a de ja vu with Raj’s pronouncements. More disconcerting for me are not the pronouncements themselves but the reaction to them by the fellow politicians. There has been no serious effort to curtail the illegal anarchy that he so unapologetically promotes.
And I do not think there is any realistic chance of that happening. We must remember that Raj has been at this for ages. While the Congress (I) and the NCP has utilized his services time and again , we must also not forget that this very man was the state guest at Narendra Modi’s swearing in as the Chief Minister of Gujarat.Perhaps it was this bonhomie that cost Modi dear in the recent Bihar elections. And if my memory serves me right, Raj was a guest at the wedding of the Mumbai Police Commissioner’s son a few years ago when he was already facing charges of inciting violence.
There is one inviolable democratic precept that we ignore at our peril; people who do not have an inclination to extend democratic space to others should not be accorded a place in the democratic polity. Expediency driven toleration of this subversion can only compromise the future, not just ours but our progeny!