By Dr Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*
The Constitution was adopted by the Indian Constituent Assembly on 26 November 1949 and came into effect on 26 January 1950 with a democratic government system, affecting the country’s smooth transition towards becoming an independent republic. India celebrates its 73rd
Republic Day this year (2022), when the threat of corona pandemic looms still large that has pushed 4.6 crore people in to poverty while 84% family have faced decline of income. Republic day is an opportune moment to contemplate over the state of democracy in India. Seventy-two years is a long enough time to evaluate whether our democracy is thriving or sliding.
DEMOCRACY DOES NOT MEAN JUST AN ELECTION
India is hailed as the world’s largest democracy, since independence from British colonial rule in 1947. The right to suffrage or vote – one of the important ingredients of democracy- remains intact till today while other aspects of an efficacious democracy are endangered especially liberty. Through regular use of the ballot, millions of Indians have kept faith in democracy, while many of its neighbouring nations have faltered over the post-independence period moving between military and autocratic rule.
However, democracy does not mean just an election or power to cast vote but to contest in an election without an interference, having equal access to all opportunities, enjoying utmost freedom of expression, capacity to criticize government, and others unfettered. But those are far from reality today. Without money and muscle power, nobody can dream of contesting the election.
GROWING TYRANNY AND DESPOTISM
Democracy in India never faced the challenges it is facing today. In the current political scenario, there are growing concerns among Indians as well as internationally that the country’s elected rulers are vacillating from the principles of democracy that are enshrined in the country’s constitution and the guiding principles of the nation’s founding fathers who advocated a pluralistic, tolerant society in a country of over a billion where a myriad mix of people live in relative peace and harmony, bound by their Indianness than been divided by their individual identities based on ethnicity, religion, caste, class and many other distinctions.
It is something that we cannot miss as it stares at you in the face. We have reason to be worried. Freedoms are being curtailed. Those who take part in protests are being booked under terrorism laws. Hatred is created against dissenters. Laws are being enacted in parliament without allowing debate. Even many bills are passed as money bills circumventing Rajya Sabha. NGOs who take any anti-government stand find their funding stopped or are taken to task.
Activists who spent the best years of their life helping the oppressed get justice and a better life, are incarcerated. Many of them are facing charges of terrorism. False cases are slapped under draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) that ensure that the arrested do not get bail and languish in jail.
But is all what pluralistic secular India stood for beginning to die as the current rulers of the country are consolidating hardliner Hindu rule at the expense of its minorities putting democracy on shaky ground and paving the way for despotism? It is this deeply troubling question about the future of India’s democracy that has come under scrutiny by Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane in their recent publication “To Kill A Democracy – India’s Passage to Despotism” published by the Oxford University Press. To kill a democracy – India’s passage to despotism | Daily FT
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is an Indian journalist based in Hong Kong and has written extensively on Indian politics, society and geopolitics and John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and the WZB (Berlin). Since India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “tryst with destiny” speech on 14 August, 1947 when the country’s tricolour flag was hoisted replacing the Union Jack ending 200 years of British rule, the path was laid for the people of the newly independent nation to choose their leaders and live under democratic rule. Seeking to soothe the fury of his compatriots over India’s partition, Nehru called on them to desist from ill will and blaming others but to ‘build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.’
In contemporary speech, dictatorship is often associated with tyranny or despotism. Terms such as dictator, tyrant, or despot are often used as synonyms or alternated between. Despotism has become our new normal. Digital tyranny, surveillance, intolerance, cancel culture, censorship, lockdowns, government overreach, police brutality, home invasions, martial law are associated with despotism.
“Despotism isn’t old-fashioned tyranny or military dictatorship, or describable as a single-ruler horror show the ancients called autocracy. It mustn’t be confused with 20th-century fascism or totalitarianism. Despotism is rather a new type of strong state led by a demagogue and run by state and corporate oligarchs with the help of pliant journalists and docile judges, a top-down form of government that has the backing of not just the law-enforcement agencies but also the backing of millions of loyal subjects who are willing to lend their support to leaders who offer them tangible benefits and daringly rule in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘the sovereign people’,” the authors write.
Modi’s 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.
Under hegemonic despotism, labour susceptibility to the growing international mobility of capital is the source of capital’s power to extract concessions from workers and assert cultural hegemony over the workplace.
“Looking at the present, a new despotism is creeping slowly across India. Faceless oligarchs sit at command posts of a corporate-government complex that has been slowly evolving over many decades. In efforts to enlarge their own powers and privileges, they are willing to have others suffer the intended or unintended consequences of their institutional or personal greed. For India, these consequences include chronic inflation, recurring recession, open and hidden unemployment, the poisoning of air, water, soil and bodies, and, more importantly, the subversion of our constitution.
INDIA -A FLAWED DEMOCRACY
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.
FROM A FREE DEMOCRACY TO A PARTIALLY FREE DEMOCRACY
In March 2021, 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.”
It said criminal charges were filed against journalists, students, and others under “colonial-era sedition laws” and the Information Technology (IT) Act in response to “speech perceived as critical of the government, notably including expressions of opposition to the new citizenship legislation and discussion of the official response to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
It also noted the Delhi riots of February 2020 where at least 53 people, “mostly Muslims”, were killed amid violence that followed “weeks of demonstrations against discriminatory changes to the country’s citizenship law”. It said the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the government’s intention for a National Register of Citizens threatened to “disenfranchise Muslim voters by effectively classifying them as illegal immigrants”.
The report also mentioned cow vigilantism and said “attacks against Muslims and others in connection with the alleged slaughter or mistreatment of cows” continued in 2020.It noted that Muslims were blamed for the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in early weeks of the pandemic by members of the ruling party, besides the acquittal of several prominent BJP leaders in the Babri Masjid demolition case in September last year.
The report alleged that freedom of various institutions such as the Election Commission of India and the Supreme Court have been “called into question”. “The panel’s decisions concerning the timing and phasing of national elections, and allegations of selective enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct, which regulates politicians’ campaign behaviour and techniques, suggested bias toward the ruling BJP.”
Talking about the amendment of the Right to Information Act, it said the salaries and tenures of the information commissioners were placed under the control of the central government, “potentially exposing the commissioners to political pressure”. It also noted “concerns that the positions (in the commissions) that have been filled are held by ruling-party loyalists”.
About the functioning of the Supreme Court, the report said several key rulings in recent years “have been favourable to the BJP”, specifically mentioning the 2019 verdict allowing the construction of Ram Mandir on the site where the demolished Babri Masjid stood.
The report said the authorities have used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt of court charges, to “quiet critical voices in the media”. It said reporting has become “less ambitious” under the Modi government, and that “Hindu nationalist campaigns aimed at discouraging forms of expression deemed ‘antinational’ have exacerbated self-censorship”.
Stating that there was added pressure on media outlets to report favourably, the report noted: “In a video conference, with the heads of India’s largest newspapers, Prime Minister Modi called on media to help prevent the spread of ‘pessimism, negativity, and rumour mongering’, which many perceived to be a warning not to criticize officials’ management of the pandemic.”
It also claimed that academic freedom has declined and that academics, professors and students are intimidated. “Academics face pressure not to discuss topics deemed sensitive by the BJP government, particularly India’s relations with Pakistan and conditions in Indian Kashmir.”
AUTOCRATIZATION TURNS VIRAL
The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, an independent research institute based at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, has published data-heavy worldwide democracy reports since 2017. V-Dem is a unique approach to conceptualizing and measuring democracy. It provides a multidimensional and disaggregated data set that reflects the complexity of the concept of democracy as a system of rule that goes beyond the simple presence of elections. The V-Dem project distinguishes between five high-level principles of democracy: electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian, and collects data to measure these principles.
According to the report, titled “Autocratization Turns Viral”, released in March 2021, the “third wave of autocratization” accelerates, now engulfing 25 countries and 34% of the world population (260 crore). Over the last ten years the number of democratizing countries dropped by almost half to 16, hosting a mere 4% of the global population.
Several G20 nations such as Brazil, India, Turkey, and the United States of America are part of this drift. V Dem said autocratisation “typically follows a similar pattern across very different contexts”. It begins with ruling governments attacking the media and civil society, followed by polarisation of the society by “disrespecting opponents and spreading false information” and culminates in elections being undermined.
It had observed that India was on the verge of losing its status as a democracy. This report – based on data from 2020 – has confirmed that suspicion, India is no longer an ‘electoral democracy’, classifying the country as an ‘electoral autocracy’. The report has noted that much of the decline in democratic freedoms occurred after the BJP and Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014. The pandemic’s direct effects on global levels of liberal democracy were limited in 2020. Longer-term consequences may be worse and must be monitored closely.
Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in India’s 2014 elections and most of the decline occurred following BJP’s victory and their promotion of a Hindu-nationalist agenda. India’s level of liberal democracy registered at 0.34 by the end of 2020 after a steep decline since its high at 0.57 in 2013. That represents a 23-percentage point drop on the 0 to 1 LDI [Liberal Democracy Index] scale, making it one of the most dramatic shifts among all countries in the world over the past 10 years,” the report noted.
V Dem said that the sharpest decline was visible in government censorship of the media, repression of civil society organisations and the autonomy of the Election Commission of India. There is a high degree of media bias and a fall in academic and religious freedoms, the report says.
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.
WORLD PRESS FREEDOM INDEX 2021
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.
ECONOMIC FREEDOM INDEX 2021
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.
GROWING CRIMINALISATION OF POLITICS
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.