Monday, September 24, 2012

T N Ninan: Our feudal democracy

Five hundred years ago, in feudal England, the nobles had private armies and their own livery. The king depended on the nobles for money and for horsemen to fight wars. Henry VII changed all that when he came to power in 1485, ending the 30-year Wars of the Roses (essentially, an endless feud between rival groups of feudal lords). He abolished the private armies, reduced his dependence on the nobles by drawing support from the rising middle classes and the trading community, and established a modern nation-state. Some version of that needs to be done in contemporary India.
The parallels become obvious when we see that our “nobles” today are the state satraps — Dame Mamata in West Bengal, Lord Nitish in Bihar, Mulayam the Duke of UP, Lady Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Viscount Modi of Gujarat, Sir Bal Thackeray in Mumbai, and so on. They each have their horsemen and livery (parliamentarians with party tags), and their power in the Delhi court depends on how many “horsemen” they can bring to our contemporary version of the Wars of the Roses — the Congress taking the place of the House of Lancaster, and the BJP of the rival House of York.
So long as the king is dependent on these nobles, each of whom has quasi-autonomous power in their duchies and earldoms, no central power can assert itself. The private armies in pre-Tudor England essentially pillaged and plundered; likewise, some of our nobles today honour horsemen (knights?) who have a record of murder and rape, they indulge in mass transfers of officials to make them toe the line, arbitrarily arrest cartoonists and those who ask questions… (you know the rest of the list). The king in Delhi does nothing because he gets unseated if the nobles withdraw support. It doesn’t help that the “king’s party” has no local presence to mount a challenge to the nobles in their duchies. So how does the nation-state function if every national issue is hostage to the nobles, and dependent on their consent — including which head of state can visit the country?
One obvious way would be to challenge the power of the nobles on their home turf, but neither the king’s party nor the main Opposition seems up to the task. A second way would be to change the rules by which a king can be unseated — Parliament has to agree on who the new king will be, before the old king makes way (which is how they do it in Germany). A third way would be to change the Constitution in another way, so that nobles who align with the king in the life of one Parliament cannot switch sides without losing their horsemen — in other words, members of an alliance get unseated if they leave the alliance mid-term. Henry VII did the equivalent of this by making all nobles swear a new oath of loyalty in Parliament. So there are a number of ways of achieving a more coherent national political structure.
The problem is that a constitutional change (necessary for two of the three solutions available) will require the co-operation of the very feudal lords whose power of veto in matters on the “central list” is sought to be minimised. But this may not be an insurmountable obstacle, as it is an issue on which both Lancaster and York have a common interest; if they combine their forces, and get some allies to play along, the required two-thirds majority in the two Houses may be attainable. Henry VII (from the Lancaster grouping) won over the House of York by marrying one of its heiresses. Could we think of something similar?!

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