About 40 Tea Party members of the Republican Party in the US House of Representatives successfully engineered the shutdown of the US government last week. That position has come about because the speaker of the US House, John Boehner, followed an unwritten rule called the Hastert Rule, which does not allow the minority party in the House to bring a vote to the floor if a “majority of the majority" party does not support it. Stalemate. Shut down.

Nearly 320 million Americans are now being inconvenienced or hurt by the ongoing federal government shutdown. The “what is open, what is closed" list reads like fiction. Over one million active duty military personnel will be paid but nearly all of the employees of the Internal Revenue Service and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network will be furloughed. Federal parks and museums are closed. Writing in The Atlantic magazine, James Fallows calls this constitutional coup an “8 million to 1 leverage ratio—the ability of certain individuals to inflict damage on their fellow citizens".

This is a bizarre example of how a principle of majority can be hijacked by a minority with an extreme view. Examples of majoritarianism, minoritarianism and election authoritarianism abound in history. What John Stuart Mill called the tyranny of the majority is in full view in the Turkey and Russia of today. In one such manifestation, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently used riot police to clear peaceful protesters from Taksim Square in Istanbul. Legitimate election mandates were converted in Nazi Germany and Vladimir Putin’s Russia to election authoritarianism. Minoritarianism is less common, but the apartheid regime in South Africa was one such. Soft minoritarianism (putting certain interests of the minority above the majority for economic, vote bank or other reasons) has been an issue in many countries—in Sri Lanka (Tamils), US (African-Americans), Thailand (First Generation Chinese), Indonesia (Chinese businessmen) and debatably India (Muslims and backward classes).

The die is cast for a conflict between majoritarianism and minoritarianism in India in the upcoming elections. On the right, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has declared himself a Hindu nationalist and has surrounded himself with non-pluralists like Amit Shah and Varun Gandhi. On the left, the so-called secular parties have lurched even further towards pandering to the minority.

It appears that India is indeed stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the choice is to vote for a majoritarian team that potentially defiles the very idea of a plural, tolerant India. On the other hand, a vote for a (soft) minoritarian team will disproportionately appease the minority. Until now, a balance of powers between the executive, judiciary and the legislature has kept India only in slight imbalance—as a populist, left-leaning, soft on security, modestly minority appeasing country. Even though we will likely end up with a coalition government of some sort, that relative balance is at threat.

If the US shutdown is any indicator, extreme behaviour—of either the majoritarian or minoritarian type—has real consequences. Beyond the inconvenience and the delay of the first few days, the US is potentially heading towards default on its bonds. The deadline for the US Congress to extend borrowing limits is less than two weeks away. Unlike the shutdown, a default is unprecedented. It is also potentially catastrophic not only to the US, but to the world, because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency. So the brinkmanship practised by just forty people endowed with simplistic certitude could well bring the world to its knees.

So what of India?

A heterogeneous, polyglot, religiously multifarious and deeply federal democratic polity like India must be governed from the middle. Extreme rhetoric and action that favour the majority or the minority will only serve to set India aflame. The founding fathers of India recognized this and in their word and deed enforced it at every turn. For a poor country to get a written constitution balanced between equality of opportunity on the one hand and protection of minorities on the other hand was unheard of then and is still a rarity.

It is unclear why either side in this debate is choosing to take the high wire to get elected. Both sides have misjudged election arithmetic and the vote bank to represent merely sectarian passions. The median Indian is less than 25 years old and is looking forward, not behind. The right strategy, for myriad reasons, should be to look ahead. Modi can and should focus on the economy, investment and jobs rather than on Hindutva. The Congress, in turn, can and should focus on nationwide social justice—food security and the rural employment guarantee, for instance—rather than narrow communal programmes. The constituents of burqa-clad secularists and “khakhi-shorts adorned communalists will gladly jettison those accouterments for a job and an opportunity to live a rich (not only in the pecuniary sense) life in a growing, low inflation economy.

PS: “Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it," Leo Tolstoy, A Confession.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com

To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand-

Close