(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Opinion | Brexit and Kashmir: the system in the chaos

Abrogating Article 370 is an act of intended assimilation while Brexit is an act of separation

Back in the early noughties, in the heyday of Britain’s pink dawn, journalist Simon Hoggart described New Labour as “a daisy chain of hatred". He plucked out the flowers: David Blunkett, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw were all there, in a garland of name and shame, reminiscent of the deep divisions seen in British politics today.

P.G. Wodehouse’s poetically inclined Madeline Bassett on the other hand thought stars were “God’s daisy chains".

During a brief visit back to London last week, it seemed as if the only chains on offer were of the nuclear fission kind, where a single reaction produces an uncontrolled series of reactions leading up to one almighty explosion. The June 2016 referendum for Brexit was the first reaction and… you get the drift. In the season of Chernobyl, the hit TV series, this seemed entirely appropriate.

At a local north London supermarket chain, a pleasant young man at the till took a quick look at my copy of The New European newspaper, apparently the remainer’s preferred weekly. “That’s pretty accurate isn’t it," he remarked, as he scanned the cover with its made-up portrait of prime minister Boris Johnson dressed up as a slightly doolally medal-bedecked army dictator giving the three-finger salute associated with neo-Nazis. “Brexit’s tinpot despot" is how the paper titled the portrait. (The New European has an offer on for caps, water bottles and mugs with anti-Brexit slogans, plus ‘never gonna give up’ coasters and ‘I love EU’ beach towels to “show them you are a remainer this summer".)

Humour in the midst of a political scenario swinging wildly between the apocalyptic and the ludicrously shambolic is not a bit misplaced. How else would anyone—least of the stoic English remainer—cope with the turn of political events in London this week. The slightly bizarre bottom line is this: a government that has lost its majority in Parliament has threatened to call general elections if Parliament does not go along with its plans to enforce a No-deal Brexit in the worst case scenario.

In Britain, a mix of convention and reasonableness is supposed to govern politics in the absence of a written constitution. It is the “will of the people" that is supreme, flowing through their 650 elected representatives.

But recent events have shown that politicians will not hesitate to stamp on those conventions—or ‘tear up’ the unwritten constitution if you like. The general absence of rules means the government has been able to prorogue Parliament for five weeks with impunity in a moment of crisis to prevent a debate on Johnson’s No-deal Brexit.

The move is legal, but in a sign of the disquiet that has followed, Speaker John Bercow, a member of Johnson’s Tory party, described it as “Constitutional outrage", and Robert Kerslake, former head of the British civil service, has issued an unprecedented appeal to bureaucrats to put “stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day".

“It is a coup," said former Labour minister Margaret Becket, “but it’s just the latest step in the incremental trashing of our unwritten Constitution, as longstanding conventions are disregarded and discarded. Dangerous precedents are being set."

Meg Russell, director of the Constitution unit at the University College London, wrote in The Guardian, “Does this amount to a constitutional coup? In short, it’s hard to define what’s ‘unconstitutional’ in a system with an unwritten constitution.

“Proponents would argue that Johnson has not broken the letter of the law. But our Constitution relies on conventions and precedents, not just law, and those very clearly have been broken. A ‘political’ Constitution such as ours is a fragile thing, which depends on key players respecting norms and traditions. If they fail to do so they undermine it gravely."

Yet, for all the outrage at Johnson’s move, it is not as if such politics are limited to countries with unwritten Constitutions. The Indian government’s abrogation of provisions of Article 370 of the written Constitution, ending Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, is a case in point. The debate, the protests, the outrage and the vote in the Lok Sabha all followed the deed itself. It was a fait accompli presented to Parliament by a government that had come in for a second term with a landslide majority. It is worth noting that the Indian Constitution also gives the government the option of enforcing unpopular or potentially unpopular laws through the route of ordinances.

“Enacting laws without discussion impacts the law-making role of the Parliament. It breaches the trust reposed in it by people. This is neither good for democracy nor for policies relating to those laws," former president Pranab Mukherjee told the nation on the eve of the 66th Republic Day, by when the first Narendra Modi-led government had already passed 11 ordinances in the face of a disruptive Opposition.

There are greater similarities between the political systems spawned by Britain’s unwritten and India’s written Constitutions than are immediately apparent. Yet, the differences between Brexit and India’s Jammu and Kashmir problem are vast. Brexit pits a vibrant, economically strong nation against the European Union in an imaginary war. India’s war, or state of near-war, with its meddlesome neighbour is a very real one.

The abrogation of Article 370 and the reorganization of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir are acts of intended assimilation.

Brexit is an act of separation. Ironically, the aim of both political moves is the same: wresting greater control—human and territorial integration in India’s case, political sovereignty in Britain’s. But the latter’s case, in spite of the referendum backing Brexit, is perceived by many to be unproven. That, at the end of the day, may pose a bigger challenge to the British government than any loss of face. Call it the daisy chain of fear.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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