Indian Democracy: Flourishing or Shriveling

By Dr. Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*

Republic Day is celebrated every year in India on January 26 to commemorate the date on which the
Constitution of India came into effect, and the country became a republic. While India became
independent after liberation from colonial shackle due to the Indian Independence movement
involving sacrifices of many freedom fighters, it didn’t have a constitution of its own. Indian laws
were based on a modified version of the British established, Government of India Act 1935.

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 just celebrated its 72nd
Republic Day this year (2021) in the aftermath of the corona pandemic that has devasted the
economy, decimated the lives and livelihoods of crores of people. Republic day is an opportune
moment to ponder over the state of democracy in India. Seventy-one years is a long enough time to
assess whether our democracy is flourishing or shriveling.

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 jeopardized especially liberty. Democracy
does not mean just an election or power to cast vote but to contest in an election without any
hindrance, having equal access to all opportunities, enjoying utmost freedom of expression, capacity
to criticize government, and others unencumbered. But those are far from reality today. Without
money and muscle power, nobody can dream of contesting the election.

The President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen, once said, “Democracy is not just an election, it is our daily
life”. The various editions of the Democracy Index- propounded by “The Economist Intelligence
Unit”, — the research and analysis division of the Economist Group, which is the sister company to
The Economist newspaper- spell despair for India. India remains a flawed democracy despite being
an electoral miracle. Flawed democracies are countries that have free and fair elections and basic
civil liberties but where there are substantial weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including
governance, political culture, and participation. India now figures among the 11 countries which saw
regressions in 2019.

According to The Economist Intelligence Unit, India slipped 10 places to 51st position in the 2019
Democracy Index’s global ranking based on 167 countries— in a year that saw the world’s biggest
elections in the country. India had slipped from the 27th rank in 2014 to 41st in its Democracy Index
2018 portending that our democracy is shriveling and withering. The primary cause of the
democratic regression was corrosion of civil liberties in the country.

Similarly, the “Varieties of Democracy Report” (V-Dem) for 2019 published by the University of
Gothenburg (Sweden) has corroborated the decline in democracy in India. Varieties of Democracy
(V-Dem) is a new approach to conceptualizing and measuring democracy, which provides a
multidimensional and disaggregated dataset 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 among high-level principles of democracy: electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative,
and egalitarian, and collects data to measure these principles.

According to the report, India has continued on a path of steep decline, to the extent, it has almost
lost its status as a democracy. Autocratization is affecting India, along with Brazil, the United States
of America, and Turkey, which are major economies with sizeable populations, exercising substantial
global military, economic, and political influence. India is on the verge of losing its status as a democracy due to the severely shrinking of space for the media, civil society, and the opposition
under Prime Minister Modi’s government.

Out of 179 countries, India occupies an abysmal position in overall indexes with 90 positions in
Liberal Democracy Index (LDI), 89th position in Liberal Component Index (LCI) and 93rd position in
the Electoral Democracy Index (EDI), and 122nd position in the egalitarian principle of democracy,
105th in the participatory principle of democracy and 145th in Deliberative Component Index (DCI).

The success of a democracy is measured by how its other pillars are functioning independently and
judiciously, how people are able to freedom of expression. Delivering the Virendra Bhatia Memorial
Lecture on Pillars of Democracy in New Delhi on 8 December 2019, Vice President Shri M. Venkaiah
Naidu emphasized the role of the four pillars of democracy- the Legislature, Executive, Judiciary and
the Media, and said that each pillar must act within its domain, complement each other but not lose
sight of the larger picture. Any shaky pillar weakens the democratic structure”. But now each pillar
has lost independence to some extent. Even the regulatory body is not functioning independently.

On, January 21, 2021, while hearing a petition filed by former revenue minister of Maharashtra,
Eknath Khadse, who requested the court to quash an ED complaint registered against him in a land
grabbing case in Pune last year, the Bombay high court observed that if agencies like the
Enforcement Directorate (ED), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Reserve Bank of India (RBI),
and the judiciary, do not act independently, there is a threat to democracy in the country.

Indeed, the all most regulatory bodies even in the judiciary have seen the appointment of people at
the helm of affairs who can justify the decision of the government of can give a verdict in favor of
the ruling dispensation. This has led to a death justice delivery system. Anybody showing any
difference or having a different opinion is shown the door.

The success, survival, and reinforcement of democracy depend upon the freedom and transparency
of media. Dissent, criticism, and difference of opinion are important ingredients of an effective
democracy. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, part of a three-judge bench headed by erstwhile Chief Justice
Dipak Misra rightly said “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, then the
pressure cooker may burst,”. However, government and its trolls continue to create revulsion,
abhorrence against people expressing dissent. India is now witnessing a systematic subversion of
democracy, self-censorship of the press. Hatred towards journalists, critics are created who are
found critical of the government.

The media is the watchdog of democracy. The media has the power to inform and enlighten people.
Watchdog doesn’t mean popularising achievements of government but to make a critical analysis of
government policies and exposing the failures, loopholes of government, giving suggestions and
forcing the government to take corrective measures.

In the US, the media is powerful and never fears to expose the misdeeds of the powerful leading to
the downfall of Trump. But, in the last few years of the Modi regime, things have gone from bad to
worse. Media has not only lost credibility, independence but also emasculated and has little liberty
to criticize the ruling dispensations either due to veiled threat or allurement of advertisement.

Most media houses are utilized for catering to the business or political interest of their owners. The
majority of news media seems to be voluntarily suppressing their voices and embracing pro-rich
journalism instead of pro-people journalism. Even media houses or journalists are divided
ideologically ignoring the truth. Social media is flooded with distorted half-truth and fake news,
video.

The decline in media freedom in India is reflected in “The Reporters Without Borders’ annual global
press freedom index which was released on April 21, 2020, has ranked India at 142 among 180 countries which means below 141 countries. Titled 2020 World Press Freedom Index, the report says that the Indian media reeling under a Hindu nationalist government, which has time and again tried to gag journalists. India saw dropping two places in this index. India’s neighbors — Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka — are ranked higher in the list. In 2010, India was ranked 122, which has been steadily
declining. In 2014 it slipped to 140 places.

The very success of democracy depends upon who is elected as legislators and how quality debate
takes place in parliament or assembly. According to a report by an NGO, Association for Democratic
Reforms (ADR), out of the 539 winners analyzed in Lok Sabha 2019, nearly 50 percent or 233 MPs
have declared criminal cases against themselves. This is an increase of 44 percent in the number of
MPs with declared criminal cases since 2009.

The chances of winning for a candidate with declared criminal cases in the Lok Sabha 2019 is 15.5
percent whereas, for a candidate with a clean background, it is 4.7 percent. The average asset of
Loka Sabha MP is Rs 20.93 crore while it is Rs 55.62 crores in the case of Rajyasabha MP. It means
poor people, honest have no access to parliament.

When parliament is dominated by rich people or people with criminal backgrounds, the democracy
cannot be participatory and decisions taken will not pro-people. The recent change in labor laws to
the detriment of working-class and agricultural acts to the disadvantage of farmer’s interest,
aggressive privatization, the corporate tax cut is glaring examples.

The basic expectation of a citizen from any democracy is to have a continuously improving standard
of living. But there is no discernible improvement in standards of livings. Democracy can flourish,
people can actively participate in the democratic process when they do not suffer from hunger,
poverty, homelessness, and mammoth inequality.

But now still problems of hunger, poverty, homelessness plague the nation with unemployment,
inequality escalating at a mammoth rate. Corona pandemic has exacerbated already existing
inequality as reported by Oxfam report titled “The Inequality Virus”. According to a report the
wealth of the country’s billionaires increased by an estimated 35 percent during the lockdown, while
84 percent of households suffered varying degrees of income loss, and 1.7 lakh people lost their jobs
every hour, in April 2020 alone.

The accomplishment of democracy depends upon how much a nation is free from corruption. But
India’s ranking in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI-2019) has
slipped from 78 to 80 among 180 countries compared to the previous year. In democracies like India,
unfair and opaque political financing, undue influence in decision-making, and lobbying by powerful
corporate interest groups have resulted in stagnation or decline in the control of corruption.

Transparency International observed that corruption is more pervasive in countries where big
money can flow freely into electoral campaigns and where governments listen only to the voices of
wealthy or well-connected individuals. A survey conducted by Transparency International (TI) in
2020 has found that India has the highest rate of bribery in the Asian region. Nearly one in five
citizens who accessed public services, such as healthcare and education paid a bribe in the previous
year [while] more than one in five used personal connections.”

The preamble of the constitution resolves to constitute India into a sovereign socialist secular
democratic republic and to secure to all its citizens: justice, social, economic, and political; liberty of
thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote
among them all fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the
nation. But in reality, after 71 years of India becoming a republic, the above objectives are not
realized, rather the nation is drifting away from such noble objectives. India’s secular character has
been turning asunder while human rights are violated.

According to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, India is drifting in autocracy. Of course, democracy has
been taken over by oligarchy, authoritarianism. Authoritarian rule is based on the centralization of
power and curbing of personal freedoms. Oligarchy means a government in which a small group of
people exercises controls especially for corrupt and selfish purposes. This is a form of government
where the real power lies with just a few individuals and families.

Three farm laws were passed by a coterie in the Centre without even identifying that agriculture is a
state subject under the constitution, and without any public debate in parliament or discussions with
farmers’ organizations. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and Narendra Modi’s demonetization are just a
few examples of such single-person decisions. Even president of India was not consulted before
taking the draconian step of demonetization. During the present pandemic era, rules around the
world have become more authoritarian. India is no exception which threatens the survival of our
fledgling democracy. Democracy is not flourishing , rather shriveling .

*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.

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