Ever since Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India in May 2014, his critics have been regularly alleging that India is losing fast its hard-earned democratic and secular character. But, at the same time, Modi supporters praise him for giving India what they describe as a corruption-free government which strives for good governance.
However, while praising Modi, his supporters try to overlook that India is gradually moving away from being governed by the rule of law, and instead sliding towards a cocktail of authoritarianism and mobocracy.
The rule of law, democracy and good governance are closely interrelated like Siamese triplets and it is almost impossible to point out where one stops and the other begins. India has been trying hard since its Independence to establish the rule of the law in the country with some success. But, in less than a month, the country has witnessed three major unfortunate controversies which clearly expose the fragile character of the rule of law in the current Indian democracy.
The ongoing protests against Padmavati has become one of the regular headlines of Indian media since the end of the October. The rumors about a yet-to-be-released movie showing a fictional Hindu Rajput queen purportedly "getting romantic" with a Muslim King have been enough to create not only massive violent protests in northern and western parts of India, but also issue open death threats to the female lead and the director of the film. What's worse, BJP chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have banned the movie.
The Modi government, instead of performing its constitutional obligations and protecting the filmmaker and his film, has left them almost with no option but to defer the film’s release indefinitely.
A democratically elected government, which claims to provide good governance, must follow the rule of law, but in this case the power of an upper caste mob has prevailed over getting the patronage of the government for electoral gains.
The other controversy, which has taken a prominent space in public discourse in the past two weeks, is over India’s surprise decision in 2016 to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets from France in a flyway condition. After recent media reports over the high cost of the deal, Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has been repeatedly raising this issue and questioning the motive behind the manner in which Prime Minister Modi took the decision in favour of this huge arms deal in his official visit to Paris, bypassing all relevant institutional mechanisms.
A thorough probe can only establish whether the decision has been taken in good faith or there has been any financial corruption or crony favoritism involved in it.
However, the autarchic decision-making by PM Modi ignoring the established procedure of arms procurement and years-long negotiation on a matter of such high importance of national security and with huge economic cost, shows that in India, it is not the rule of law that matters, but the rule of one man that prevails.
Over and above, in the past week another major controversy has erupted over an investigative journalist’s report of the suspicious death of CBI judge Brij Gopal Loya in 2014 while he was hearing the Supreme Court-monitored Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, in which BJP president and PM Modi’s close colleague, Amit Shah, was the main accused.
Although the main Opposition party Congress has been careful not to raise this extremely important matter forcefully due to the fear of turning it into a Hindu-Muslim issue in the forthcoming Gujarat elections (and despite the near-silence of mainstream media), the controversy refuses to go away.
In the past couple of days, several former judges and eminent personalities have come forward demanding a probe into justice Loya’s death, but the country’s judiciary and the government have still maintained silence. Whether there is any truth in this allegation or not, the growing controversy over the judge’s death raises a big question over the rule of law in the country.
If the protectors of the rule of law are not safe, who will then ensure that democracy prevails in the country.
Greek philosopher Aristotle had once said "law should govern". The use of arbitrary power by the leader or the mob is anathema to rule of law. In democracies, constitutional limits on power require the subjugation of leaders or a majority community to a country's rules and regulations. This is what the oft-cited phrase "a government of laws, and not of men" stands for.
The rule of law needs to be supreme and not the impulsive authority of any individual or a community. Without that, there is every possibility of a democracy turning into either a dictatorship, or mob rule, or both.
As the three recent controversies in India surrounding Rajput groups' agitation over Padmavati, arbitrary decision to purchase Rafale fighter jets from France, and suspicious death of CBI judge Loya lead us to seriously doubt if it's the rule of law, and not the wishes of one leader and the whims of the majoritarian mob, that is governing India.
The rule of law, rooted in equal rights and accountability, is a critical factor for the advancement of any democracy. Democracy provides a fertile setting for the rule of law to thrive, while the latter sustains democracy. Good governance is only possible when a democracy runs on the rule of law, and at the same time promotes and strengthens democracy.
So, it is absolutely illogical to expect and argue that the Narendra Modi government will be able to dispense good governance while seriously sacrificing the rule of law in the country.
Not only for democratic consolidation, but also for the sake of good governance, urgent steps must be taken to bring back the people’s faith in the rule of law in India.