The Caesarism of parties

The institutional frame of the republic continues to be hollowed out. If there is one thread running through every crisis we face, it is this. A vast majority of our politicians simply do not understand the meaning of one word: institutions. And their inability to do so is undermining our power of any kind of collective action or credible intervention. Every single story last week made citizens want to scream, "It's about institutions, stupid."

I was discussing the Lok Sabha debate on the anti-rape bill with a group of young, idealistic students, preparing to dedicate their lives to public policy. Even though the bill passed, the debate left them disillusioned to the point of exasperation. One of them offered a description that seemed to be apt for our politics: a bunch of fraternity boys playing a casual parlour game with serious issues. It is hard to contest this description. This is an important legislation dealing with serious issues like violence against women. It raised important questions about the relationship between law and society and the limits of criminal law. And it was introduced against the backdrop of a national crisis. Till Supriya Sule's well-judged outburst, the debate indeed seemed casual if not downright misogynistic. But the importance of the legislation was not just the law itself. This was supposed to be a teachable moment, where the highest authorities come together, draw new moral red lines, and display a resolve to combat a challenging social problem. Instead, the final parliamentary outcome looked more like a grudgingly casual caving in than a moment designed to induce greater self-consciousness. More than half of the MPs were missing, including prominent ones like Rahul Gandhi. It might be unfair to pick on Rahul Gandhi. But his absence matters for two reasons. Read Morris-Jones to remind yourself how Jawaharlal Nehru used all his personal authority to shore up the authority of Parliament. And the absence suggests a contempt for institutions that is worrying. Rahul Gandhi has legitimised the thought that party narcissism trumps everything else. Institutions are not the first priority, they are objects of whims and fancies.

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