26 Jun 2022  |   05:50am IST

Last Gasp for Indian Democracy

Vivek Menezes

The Economist put it succinctly earlier this year, in its report entitled “The organs of India’s democracy are decaying” with an even more ominous subtitle, “It takes more than elections for a country to be democratic.” The 170-year-old London-based standard-bearer of the global capitalist establishment noted that “while the face of Indian democracy, in the form of elections, looks healthy, the rest of the body is not. From courts and police to politicians and parties to campaign finance and the mechanics of legislation, the bones, sinews and organs of Indian democracy look alarmingly unwell.”

There was considerable detail underling The Economist findings, all of which are writ large in the ramshackle, egregiously poor governance in Goa. There has been steady deterioration in the number of days of legislative functioning (down by 40%), and plummeting attendance records (which have dropped below 50% for committee meetings), accompanied by an astonishingly complete lack of transparency, debate and public oversight. The editors noted that “of the 15 bills rushed into law during the monsoon session last year, not one had been deliberated in committee, and many were passed by perfunctory voice votes.”

None of this is new. Back in 2021, the excellent Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden warned that India was no longer an “electoral democracy” and was better understood as an “electoral autocracy.” The researchers found that “anti-pluralist parties are driving the autocratisation in at least six of the top autocratisers – Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland, Serbia, and Turkey. Anti-pluralist parties and their leaders lack commitment to the democratic process, disrespect fundamental minority rights, encourage demonisation of political opponents, and accept political violence. These ruling parties tend to be nationalist-reactionary and have used government power to push forward autocratic agendas.”

At roughly the same time, there was another shock when US-based non-profit Freedom House (one of its first chairpersons was Eleanor Roosevelt) -  which had been founded in 1941 “on the core conviction that freedom flourishes in democratic nations where governments are accountable to their people” - downgraded India for the first time ever, describing how the country’s “status declined from Free to Partly Free due to a multi-year pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population.”

Writing in response to these developments in Foreign Affairs, Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that “alongside its predilection for majoritarian politics, the government has also centralised power to an extent not seen in India since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s tenure, more than three decades earlier. This centralisation has multiple dimensions. Within the central government, power is increasingly concentrated in the prime minister’s office at the expense of cabinet ministries. The executive has also come to dominate Parliament, while the judiciary has carefully skirted politically inconvenient cases. Outside of New Delhi, the central government has involved itself with greater alacrity in domains constitutionally under the jurisdiction of India’s states. Institutions meant to guarantee accountability have not lived up to their responsibility to check the government.” 

Vaishnav explained how “many of the frailties plaguing India’s democratic institutions are not new. Independent India inherited illiberal laws from the British colonial-era penal code, and the once dominant Indian National Congress (also known as the Congress party) deployed them with aplomb. In fact, there are few tactics the present government has deployed that its predecessors did not pioneer. What has changed, however, is the political balance of power and the ideological moorings of the ruling party. The prevalence of coalition rule in Indian politics from the late 1980s to 2014 kept some of government’s worst excesses in check, but the re-emergence of a dominant political party has tested the country’s democratic guardrails.”

That analysis was written over a year ago in March 2021, but remains an acute diagnosis of what is happening in India with very few checks and balances remaining. What is more, things have gone from bad to very much worse since, as we see in the extraordinary part-tragedy part-farce playing out across Goa’s border in Maharashtra, where one of the few reasonably competent state administrations in the country has been brought to the precipice via the literal kidnapping and sequestration of members of the legislature, who were whisked away to Gujarat, and – at the time of writing – still under lock and key 2700 kilometres distant from home in Guwahati. 

What happened to playing by the rules? Does the constitution matter? How about the will of the people, let alone public interest (and that too during a pandemic)? Is it possible to justify the subversion of multiple state and central government agencies to abet an open hijacking of democracy, even worse with the entire tamasha centered on Assam, which is suffering an epochal humanitarian and environmental catastrophe from flooding at the very same time? Can any government that owes its existence to these kinds of grotesque shenanigans be said to have any kind of mandate? 

Here, it’s impossible not to recall BR Ambedkar’s prescient 1949 speech to the Constituent Assembly framing the first Constitution, when he mused that “It is quite possible for this new born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there is a landslide, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater.” 

In our times of manufactured landslides, where the actual votes no longer matter at all compared to the incentives and inducements that compel legislators to switch allegiances, the threat is so much greater than ever before. 

With an uncanny wisdom foretelling our own times, Babasaheb cautioned that “in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

(Vivek Menezes is a writer & photographer, and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.)


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