Populism isn’t in the · spirit of democracy

Karan Thapar

Politicians like to please which is why populism comes easily to them. The opposite is also true. Policies or decisions that are painful are viewed as signs of rectitude and good governance. In India we’re accustomed to governments taking the easy way out rather than the tough decisions necessary.

However, a recent decision by the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi shatters the belief that governments act responsibly with a high vision in mind. According to the Press Trust of India, the Delhi government has decided that residents of different localities will be given the power to decide whether neighbourhood liquor shops can continue or be shut down.

A beguilingly simple process has been devised. If you believe a liquor shop is a “nuisance” – whatever that might mean – all you need to do is approach your MLA or district administration, who will then call a meeting of the Residents Welfare Association which will, in turn, by majority vote and decide its future. Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia has said this process can be initiated by 10 per cent of residents.

Well, I have little doubt many, if not most, liquor shops will be closed. The argument will be they are responsible for creating drunkards and spreading alcoholism. But that’s specious, if not foolish. The existence of alcohol or its sale is not the problem. It’s the inability of some human beings to drink in moderation that is the cause. Closing down nearby liquor shops will not prevent a drunkard or alcoholic procuring from one that’s further away.

However, this is an appalling decision for more fundamental reasons. It allows the power of a brute majority to decide that what they don’t like cannot be permitted. Unfortunately, whether hypocritically or honestly, the majority of Indians always claim not to drink and to be in favour of making alcohol difficult, if not impossible, to buy. Yet those who drink have a right to be able to buy alcohol easily and without trekking long distances. This, for many, is the hallmark of a cosmopolitan society.

Now, after this precedent will the Delhi government give the power to vegetarians to ban the sale of meat or restaurants that serve it in local communities? Logically that could follow. And what about the power to prevent Muslims from buying or renting properties in your neighbourhood? Or Dalits? Might that be next? After all, many, perhaps even a majority of Hindus, would prefer not to live beside either.

Bombay already has housing communities where Muslims find it impossible to rent or buy although it’s never admitted that’s because of their faith. It has others where, more openly and even, occasionally, boastfully, non vegetarians are not permitted. Do we really want to import such ghastly behaviour? Bombay, admittedly, is embarrassed but unable to rectify the situation. Now Kejriwal and his government seem to be opening the door, willingly and with their eyes open, to something similar in Delhi.

I wonder if Kejriwal realises that an enlightened government is one that doesn’t pursue populism but acts in a higher interest. This is why governments abolish the death penalty even though there’s a popular clamour to retain it or decriminalise homosexuality despite the fact most voters carry deep-rooted prejudices they rarely hide. If he drank he might accept there’s a bigger principle in permitting liquor shops to function than in allowing the narrow-minded to shut them down.

(HT Media)