Democracy, or rule by the people, has always been a complex concept. There have been freedom struggles, revolutions, and even wars to protect it. But nothing is permanent. Humankind has often taken democracy for granted and overestimated its permanence. As J.S Mill put it, “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors”. It wouldn’t be the first time an ostensibly powerful institution ended after years of dominance. When thinking about the end of a monarchy, guillotines and cake are few images that come to mind.
Critiques of democracy note that voter ignorance and slow decision making often cause problems in a democracy. Furthermore, A democratically elected government earns its legitimacy because a majority of people, not all people, vote for it. Thus, it reflects the will of the majority and not everybody. This creates the possibility of the “tyranny of the majority”. Plato went so far as to assert that democracy is the science of manipulating people and it leads to the rule of tyrants.
India’s “democratic experiment”, which began after we gained independence, has been anything but a smooth journey. Nevertheless, despite attacks on our democracy, such as the National Emergency of 1975, democracy has always protected our people. But now, democracy itself is in danger.
We often make the mistake of ennobling free and fair elections as the only necessary criteria for a successful democracy. This is far from the truth. This article is not an attempt to undermine the fact that the current government was democratically elected, instead, it intends to showcase the harm a government elected by 38% of the population and a rising resentment of democracy amongst the people can cause. As we shall see, India’s democratic nature has been conspicuously declining for a while.
Freedom House, an American Think Tank, gave India a score of 67/100 in its 2021 report and characterized India as a “partly free” country. A score of 34/40 in the political rights section confirms the purity 0f our elections. However, a score of 33/60 in the civil liberties section emblazons the potency of this government’s attack on democracy. According to the report, events such as the violence during the CAA protests, the misuse of sedition laws, the significant hardships that migrant workers had to endure during the lockdown, the baseless scapegoating of Muslims as super-spreaders of Covid-19, and the Babri Masjid Verdict contributed to this score. India was considered a “free” country as recently as 2020, with a score of 71/100. The 2021 score is also lower than those of 2019 (75/100) and 2018 (77/100), showing that the strength of our democracy is depleting. The last time the Freedom House considered India as partly free was in 1997, possibly because of the instability in Parliament at that time.
Another report by the V-Dem Institute in Sweden described India as an “electoral autocracy”. According to the report, India belonged to the “EA+” category, signifying that it could also belong to the “closed autocracy” category. The reasons for this score include the curtailment of freedom of media, academia, and civil society; an increase in censorship; the misuse of sedition, defamation, and counter-terrorism laws, especially the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) to harass, intimidate, and imprison critics and opponents; the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA); and the use the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) to restrict the entry, exit and functioning of Civil Society Organisations (CSO) and constrain the use of foreign contributions to NGOs within India. The V-Dem Institute reports have described India as an “electoral democracy” in the 2020, 2019, and 2018 reports.
Sadly, the government’s response to these reports has been vituperative. They decided to deny the validity of these reports instead of countering their assertions. This approach to criticism and dissidence is not limited to foreign entities. Indian dissenters, whether they are farmers, students, members of opposition parties, or even ordinary citizens, are punitively called “anti-nationals” and even terrorists for criticizing the government. In an increasingly globalized world, it is accepted that opinions may be formed on issues beyond one’s national borders. The government’s disrespect and disregard for reputable news agencies, such as The New York Times and The Australian, is appalling. The government prefers listening to fraudulent news agencies, such as The Daily Guardian and The Australia Today, that were made by staunch sycophants. The government must remember that “You measure a democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.” (Abbie Hoffman)
The symbol of our democracy, the parliament, has also witnessed numerous attempts to undermine our democracy. The Question Hour, which is a tool used to hold the ruling party accountable, was removed for the Monsoon session of Parliament. Considering that this was the first session of parliament since the pandemic began, the removal of this accountability mechanism is untenable. The ruling party used this session to push through the contentious farm bills. If these bills were truly what the entire nation needed, the government should have adhered to the democratic process and allowed a division vote when members of the opposition repeatedly requested for one. A voice vote may be quicker, but it undermines the voice of the opposition, which is a pillar of democracy.
These farm bills join a larger list of controversial bills, including the bill that abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, and amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, that did not pass motions to be sent to select committees for further parliamentary scrutiny. These committees provide a forum for feedback from various stakeholders and act as a consensus-building platform across political parties. In the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19), 25% of the Bills were referred to these committees, which was much lower than the 71% and 60% during the UPA II and UPA I regimes respectively. Since 2020 began, out of the 44 bills introduced in parliament, no bill has been referred to the select committee. Unlike the GST Council, these standing committees weren’t allowed to meet virtually during the pandemic, despite numerous requests from opposition parties.
From the exploitation of anti-defection laws; the misuse of ordinances; the creation of the opaque PM-CARES Fund; the oligarchical capture of democratic institutions such as the Central Information Commission, Reserve Bank of India, and even the Election Commission and finally to the recent Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 that could undermine free expression and privacy for internet users in India, the recent attacks to our democracy have been terrifying. Criticism, accountability, and independent institutions have all been seriously diminished. The Covid-19 pandemic appears to have derailed all democratic processes, except elections.
At this time we must ask ourselves, do we still value our democracy? And most importantly, are we willing to fight for it together? I fear that the answer to both these questions is no and it has been for a long time.
In 2017, two well-reputed political science scholars, Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk published a paper titled “The Signs of Deconsolidation” that showed that over 70% of Indian respondents wished for a “strong leader who does not have to bother with elections”. This is a higher percentage than that of the USA (30%), Nigeria (45%), Turkey (58%), and even Pakistan (62%). This indicates that Indians are more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives to democracy.
This preference for the undemocratisation of India is further highlighted by recent studies conducted by the Pew Research Centre. Their 2017 report on democracy showed that 55% of Indian respondents felt that “a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts” would be a “totally good” way of governing this country. Conversely, only 17% of respondents felt that this would be “very bad” and 28% of them felt that this would be “totally bad”. Moreover, their 2020 report showed that 70% of Indian respondents were satisfied with the way that democracy worked in India. This is a significant rise compared to the 54% of respondents that were satisfied with it as per the 2019 report. The 2020 report also showed that 26% were dissatisfied with it, which is lower than the 33% in 2019.
Undoubtedly, concluding that democracy has no place in our future would be incongruously prescient, but a growing intolerance for democracy is indubitable. People prefer quick decision making over the slow democratic process that requires consensus and deliberation. People would rather see tangible changes made by decree than wait for the democratic process. While the subversion of the democratic process may seem harmless to the current ruling party and those who espouse their ideology, permanent harm to our democracy ought to be denounced. The ubiquity of democracy should not depend on any political party’s ideology. The end of democracy would bring about the epoch of a procrustean India and end the plurality, secularism, and diversity that we have considered primordial for decades. At the rate our democracy is eroding, impassivity could mean that we’re the last generation of Indians to live in a true liberal democracy.
The next opportunity for voters to actively resist this attack on our democracy may seem too far away. However, the 2024 general elections are preceded by elections in 16 states. My hope is that the control, division, and hatred promulgated by our current leaders, will ultimately consume them. Any reduction in their mandate will benefit our democracy. And if there is one thing that authoritarians cannot handle, it is the feeling of losing control.
Democracy is not a plant that grows everywhere but hopefully, it can re-grow in our great nation.