Sunday, Aug 13, 2023

Suhas Palshikar writes: The rise of bulldozer governance

Besides routinely discarding procedures, it betrays cynicism about all forms of accountability

Nuh violence demolitions"Both physically and metaphorically, the mode of bulldozer governance is upon us," writes Suhas Palshikar. (File)
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Suhas Palshikar writes: The rise of bulldozer governance
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India is going through a transformation from an incomplete and ongoing project of democracy, living with the imperfections of democratic practice, to a surreal sense of having achieved democracy by discarding many practices that would normally be associated with it. While we await indigenously minted theorisations arguing how non-democratic practices make a democracy, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves of the many departures and distortions India’s democracy is in reality experiencing.

Take the case of the bulldozer as a symbol of democratic government. It is not very often that elected governments and leaders seek to present themselves as being extra-tough and even vindictive towards citizens. In fact, the idea of minimum government (with maximum governance) emanates from the need to reduce unnecessary and intrusive regulation. A government that has to use physical coercion frequently or in an exemplary manner and exhibit it as tough action to restore law and order should be clearly seen as departing from the democratic norm. But this is no more in New India where new norms of governance are evolving.

Both physically and metaphorically, the mode of bulldozer governance is upon us. As we celebrate yet another Independence Day, it might be worthwhile to ask whether citizens have any energy and agency left in them to even mull over this form of governance and what it represents.

This question has acquired salience in the immediate context of the brazen use of demolitions by the Haryana government in the wake of communal violence in Nuh. But Haryana has only followed in the footsteps of other state governments that have employed this form of governance with pride. While the Punjab and Haryana High Court took suo motu cognisance of the Nuh demolitions and stayed them until further hearing, this was by no means the first time in the recent past that a government was using bulldozers allegedly in an indiscriminate manner to punish the supposedly guilty localities, communities or group of people. Over the past six or seven years since the emergence of bulldozer governance, we have failed to systematically adjudicate on this primary matter of unregulated power, not to speak of theoretically comprehending this phenomenon. Courts have more generally acquiesced albeit with meek protestations occasionally and critics have stopped at pointing to its grotesque nature.

Governments have often claimed that they have enough knowledge of who the perpetrators are in cases of unrest and communal violence — thanks mainly to various surveillance techniques. The large-scale deployment of CCTVs is passé with the use of more citizen-unfriendly measures such as drone surveillance and facial recognition. Legislatures have never bothered to hold governments accountable for such intrusions of privacy and executive impunity. Similarly, barring immediate shock and headlines, the media has not made an issue out of various forms of high-handed governance. Besides the abdication or condonation by various institutions, the fundamental issue lies in the acceptance of executive high-handedness by many sections of society. This acceptance allows the perpetrators of these actions and their intellectual fraternity to claim that there is an element of democratic sanction behind bulldozer governance. That a chief minister can flaunt the tag of “bulldozer baba” and another chief minister who earlier prided himself on being called “Mama”, a rather affectionate term, too resorts to the same tough stance, speaks volumes about the growing societal acceptability of the idea of instance justice.

An associated strategy is giving a “free hand” to the police. Instead of trying to inquire into and avoid encounter killings, many states publicise their governance record on the basis of the number of such killings. The celebration of the elimination of suspected criminals, as by Telangana police of suspected rapists in 2019, is instructive for this free hand for public approval of the same.

It could be argued that all this happens because of our failed criminal justice system. While the weaknesses in that system are well known and even well documented, let us not forget that the strong arm of the state invariably crushes the weak, the poor and the marginalised. The stinging term “ethnic cleansing” used by the Punjab and Haryana High Court might appear to some as exaggerated, but in all the instances of bulldozer governance, the poor and the marginalised have been at the receiving end. We have never heard of such strong bulldozing of any economic offender. For the powerful, even allegations of repeated sexual harassment do not qualify for any drastic action. So, we shall be only diverting attention by discussing the question of the criminal justice system and its failings. The direction of this new mode of governance is quite clear. It applies to the less privileged sections of society. If you are less privileged and accused of a crime, the strong arm of the executive will take justice into its own hands and the judiciary will remain a pontificatory witness.


But let us also not make a mistake in thinking that bulldozer governance only means literally using bulldozers and employing encounters. Our democratic sensibilities have become so weak that more and more metaphorical instances of such steamrolling of norms and principles are emerging day in and day out. A stark example of this can be seen from legislative functioning. The reduced recourse to parliamentary committees to vet bills, the ramming of legislation without enough discussion, the sleight of hand in converting ordinary bills into Money Bills, are various techniques of bulldozer governance that are practised more and more frequently. To add to that, the instruments of suspending members of legislatures for long and indefinite periods and muting their mikes when they are speaking in the House are some more strategies that are fitted into the armoury of this genre of governance.

Coupled with these forms of subterfuge, there are also efforts to ensure domination of the executive arm in appointments and supervision — even to the extent of intervening in the sphere of the states, violating the federal principle. Some of these developments might appear only as rather exaggerated echoes of the more globally prevailing trend of executive dominance. But, it is necessary to guard against such misleading generalisation because precisely as a response to executive dominance, modern democracies emphasise procedures and keep searching for more and more nuanced mechanisms for procedural safeguards, whereas our version of bulldozer governance shuns procedures and even seeks to produce an atmosphere of popular ridicule and impatience with procedures.

Besides routinely discarding procedures by the wayside, bulldozer governance is deeply associated with cynicism about all forms of accountability. This cynicism is born out of the myth that somebody is so paternal and benevolent that all our wellbeing —individually and collectively — hinges on the authority and wisdom of the ruler(s). In other words, elected paternalism would have us believe that accountability is a waste because of the ultimate popular approval of the leader. Analogies of “ek akela” fit into this paradigm perfectly.

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Independence was about asserting our individual and collective identity as citizens. Ironically, as we complete 75 years and more of that assertion, we find ourselves voluntarily reduced to the status of willingly bulldozed multitudes.

The writer, based in Pune, taught political science

First published on: 11-08-2023 at 15:10 IST
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