In a democracy the right to rule is distinct from the power to rule. The latter is defined by success in an electoral process. This is clearly defined, and therefore easy to comprehend and pin down. The right to rule is more difficult to establish and articulate. In spite of this difficulty, its presence is undeniable. The right to rule is derived from a number of factors — the charisma and moral standing of a leader, and the perceptions about a ruling party and those who lead it.
The distinction between the right to rule and the power to rule can also be stated as the legitimate claim to rule, and the right to rule as the ruler’s legitimacy. The point is an important one though in the aftermath of an overwhelming electoral success, political leaders often conflate their power to rule with the right to rule.
In India, there have been political leaders whose moral right to rule the country converged with the popular success they enjoyed in successive elections. The name of Jawaharlal Nehru comes immediately to mind. In the early years of the republic, under his leadership the Congress won three successive general elections; he was seen as the undisputed leader of the party and his personal standing and charisma ensured that he enjoyed the respect of a large majority of the people as the prime minister of India. His legitimacy as the prime minister was derived from that public respect.
If the post-1947 career of India’s first prime minister illustrates the convergence of the power to rule and the right to rule, then the story of his grandson’s premiership demonstrates how sharply the two can diverge and in how short a time. Rajiv Gandhi came to the top job in India with a huge electoral majority in the aftermath of the brutal assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi. No one could dispute Rajiv Gandhi’s power to rule India; he also enjoyed the right to rule because he was perceived initially to be different from other Indian politicians and to be honest. This perception was short-lived. He became prime minister in late 1984 but within three years, his name and his reputation had been blackened by the smoke from the Bofors gun. Very few in India were willing to grant to Rajiv Gandhi the right to rule India. He was legitimately still the prime minister of India but he had lost his legitimacy. The loss of the power to rule came quickly in the wake of the loss of the right to rule.
In more recent times, the fate of Manmohan Singh as prime minister highlights the same point. He came to the prime ministership through good fortune but with a tremendous amount of goodwill. There were no question marks, in his first phase as prime minister, over his moral right to rule. It was this that led to his second innings in which gradually the goodwill he commanded and his moral stature were both eroded. He was seen, at best, as a passive observer of venality among his colleagues and, at worst, as someone implicated in corruption. The price he paid was the loss of power. The loss of the legal right to rule and the erosion of legitimacy were almost simultaneous.
At the helm of affairs in West Bengal today is a woman who earned for herself the right to rule the state. For more than a decade, she was the only voice of opposition against Left rule and its many misdeeds. She projected herself as the agent of change. The promise to change things for the better, after 34 years, captured the aspirations and imagination of the people of the state who voted her to power with a thumping majority, reducing the Left to less than a rump. Mamata Banerjee thus brought to herself the right to rule as well as the power to rule.
The promise of change has proven to be a chimera. The only change that has happened is a change in the colour of the political dispensation. West Bengal remains starved of investment in manufacturing; unemployment continues to be high. If the people of West Bengal expected that under Mamata Banerjee they would be free from cadre rule they were mistaken: only the flag carried by the cadre has changed. Yesterday’s upholders of the red flag are today’s upholders of the Trinamul banner. The practice of oppression and bullying continues. There has been a noticeable and an alarming increase in violence and in the use of the language of violence. There was very briefly the expectation that the sphere of education, which the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had kept firmly under its control, would be freed from political interference and diktats. That interlude is over, and appointments and the running of colleges and universities are being controlled by politicians belonging to the TMC.
The CPI(M) had eradicated the distinction between the party and the government. Under the CPI(M)’s domination, the police and the bureaucracy worked at the behest of the party even when such orders violated the rule of law and worked against the welfare of citizens and society. The present political dispensation has carried forward this tradition. Leaders and cadre of the ruling party can get away by saying and doing anything without the police doing anything against such offenders. A Trinamul Congress member of parliament in a public meeting in the presence of television cameras asked his followers to murder and rape those who opposed the party. Another local leader has claimed to have murdered his opponents. But the police refused to do anything against these people till the court forced them. Yet, they are still roaming free.
The absence of change, after the promise of change, is evident to all but the most obtuse observer. Under the CPI(M), the party ran the government. Under the Trinamul, one individual stands forth as the substitute for the government and the party. Mamata Banerjee could well say without any hyperbole, “I am the State.” The harking back to a despotism would be rather apposite. Her actions suggest that she believes her power to rule is without limits.
This power has thus led to a regime that has no respect for the rule of law, the freedom of speech and expression, and the fundamental rights of individuals. The regime knows one logic — the logic of absolute power, often reckless and irresponsible.
The exercise of the power to rule is clearly in conflict here with the right to rule. Democracy even when it bestows absolute majority on a party or an individual brings with such a majority a sense of restraint and responsibility. The right to rule is embedded in such a sense that puts on the holder of the power to rule recognition of the limits and constraints of power in a democracy. That recognition endows legitimacy on a leader, which is more important than mere legality.
The disregard of legitimacy is a leader’s nemesis. And in West Bengal, nemesis may have arrived in the guise of Mammon. A ponzi scheme threatens to erase the remnants of Mamata Banerjee’s claims to legitimacy, her right to rule. Her power to rule might linger long after she has ceased to be the beacon of change in West Bengal. She might find herself to be the victim of a change.