By Dr Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*
On 25 September 2021, addressing the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a defence of the state of democracy in India referring to his own journey as a politician as an example in his speech. Terming India as the “mother of all democracies”, he said, “It is Indian democracy’s strength that a small child who once helped his father at a tea stall is today representing India as its prime minister”.
According to Justice Chandrachud, totalitarian governments constantly rely on falsehoods inorder to establish dominance. This is clearly evident from PM’s speech. By describing himself as son of a tea seller, he is marketing his poor background to derive sympathy and electoral dividend. It is not a question from what background; one has become prime minister but how honestly one has achieved this position.
The incident of Godhra massacre, communal polarisation, playing divisive politics by evoking religious sentiments, emotional issues, creating war hysteria, wooing majoritarian Hindus while ignoring minorities, do not glorify the elevation of Narendra Modi to post of Prime Minister. Indeed, India’s electoral process is so soiled and Indian voters are so emotional that while intellectuals, creative people, social activists, honest people scuffle to become a ward member, one can rule longer period ruthlessly without solving basic problems like health, education poverty, hunger, unemployment and inequality.
However, India was not the mother of democracy. The ancient Greeks were behind the first democratic institutions in the world. The pungent truth is that spirit and value of democracy is ebbing under his regime, which Prime Minister did not tell. India is fast developing a reputation as the world’s largest failing democracy for which PM Modi’s image is being tarnished in the international arena. Hence, he has utilised UNGA platform to resuscitate and revive his battered image.
His way of governance has a similitude with “new despotism” defined by political scientist John Keane in his latest book “The New Despotism”. According to him, unlike dictators like Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and others, present-day rulers are not always heavy-handed and crude. Instead, they are “masters of deception and seduction” who use an amalgam of artifices to secure the volitional obedience of their subjects and employ democratic rhetoric, staged elections, social media, and economic growth to cultivate public loyalty.
The grim reality is that India’s democracy is taking a beating in ranking these days. India has been dubbed as a “flawed democracy” and slipped two places to 53rd position in the 2020 Democracy Index’s global ranking, of the Economist Intelligence Unit. This Index is based on measuring the electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. India has slipped from 27th (in 2014 when Narendra Modi came to power) to 53rd as a result of democratic backsliding”, “crackdowns” on civil liberties under the current regime.
US-based non-profit “Freedom House “has also downgraded India from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy” and said civil liberties have been in decline since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.” In its report titled “Autocratization Turns Viral”, the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute demoted India from being a democracy to an “electoral autocracy.
The state must allow unfettered free expression, free media, impartial execution of election law, and safeguard the right of political competitors, opponents to give views and obtain the resources they need. One’s genuine views should not be ignored simply he/she has no majority. But the media, which is the vaccine against misinformation, is subverted and pounded either by veiled threat or allurement of advertisement. It is no more representing the voice of the voiceless and has become an instrument of advertisement of government.
India has been placed abysmally at 142nd position among 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index 2021. India’s rank was 133 in 2016 which has steadily climbed down to 142 in 2020. The RSF report says India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly. They are exposed to every kind of attack, including police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.
According to Justice Chandrachud, the citizen’s right to speak truth to power is integral to the functioning of a democracy. But India was ranked 111th out of 162 countries in the Human Freedom Index 2020 report released by the Cato Institute, plummeting 17 spots from its position in the last index. The index is calculated using 76 “distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom” in areas such as rule of law, security and safety, religion, legal system and property rights, and access to sound money.
The “Economic Freedom Index”2021 of the Heritage Foundation, a US Conservative think-tank, ranks countries in 12 indicators from property rights to financial freedom under four categories: rule of law, size of government, regulatory efficiency, and open markets. India came in around the middle of the pack among Asia-Pacific countries ranking 26th out of 40 countries. But globally, the Foundation rates India’s economy as the 121st freest out of 184 countries.
But now the question is: when PM Modi talks about his background of tea selling, how much he has helped the poor and vulnerable to enter into parliament, the temple of democracy. The grim reality is that a candidate facing criminal cases has double the chance of winning the election than a clean candidate. Around 43 per cent of newly-elected Lok Sabha MPs in 2019 have a criminal record, a 26 per cent increase as compared to 2014, according to the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR). The BJP has 116 MPs or 39 per cent of its winning candidates with criminal cases. According to India Today’s Data Intelligence Unit (DIU), our MPs are 1400 times richer than average Indians and according to ADR, 345.8 times that of an annual income of a tax-filing individual.
The average MP’s assets rose from Rs 14.7 crore in the previous Lok Sabha (2014) to Rs 20.93 crore in the latest one (2019). In March 2018, the average of assets per Rajya Sabha MP was Rs 55.62 crore. Out of the 229 sitting Rajya Sabha MPs analysed, 201 (88 per cent) are crorepatis. In June 2020, the average assets declared by the new Rajya Sabha MPs was Rs 74.04 crore.
The 2019 Lok Sabha election had witnessed not poor but a large number of businessmen stepping into politics. The need for colossal funds for financing electoral expenditures has spurred parties to recruit self-funding candidates, drawn from the business section. The business behemoths consider it as an investment to build ties with the government and party leadership which helps them further business interests, grow their network, affect policy, and allocation of resources in ways that advantage them or their business partners. Being in politics also gives them an edge vis-a-vis their competitors. Those smacks of crony capitalism.
In reality, democracy is much more than pressing a button or marking a box on a ballot paper. It goes beyond the mathematical certitude of election results and majority rule. Democracy must ensure freedom from poverty, hunger, starvation, squalor, obscurantism, fundamentalism, humiliation, violence and promote scientific temper. It must ensure greater respect for women, tenderness with children, and provide equal access to opportunities, privileges guaranteed by constitution. It must safeguard decent medical care, educational facilities and sympathy for those who have fallen behind.
The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.