The crumbling guardrails of India’s democracy

Democracy in India is under siege, and it’s vital we do not ignore the warning signs.

ByChandan Karmhe
The crumbling guardrails of India’s democracy
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In the post-Cold War era, most democratic breakdowns are attributable not to military establishments, but elected governments. It is the people’s representatives—tasked with upholding democratic values—who have resorted to subversion tactics at the first available opportunity. The past democratic crises in Venezuela, Hungary, Sri Lanka, Turkey and other hitherto democratic states point to a trend not limited by boundaries.

Times have changed. Newfangled dictators no longer need to dissolve democracies in their paths to power. Instead of violent seizures, democracies today are slowly paralysed—and eventually obliterated—by the gradual erosion of their substructure. Irregular and seemingly unrelated attacks are precisely employed towards establishing a monochromatic hegemony.

But these attacks seem unrelated only in isolation. They only create the appearance of randomness: closer scrutiny shows how systematic, periodic and planned these attacks are.

In India, many live under the mistaken presumption that all we need are laws to keep our democracies intact. In my opinion, nothing is further from the truth. These laws can be manipulated and hollowed out to render redundant the very institutions they were created to protect. Case in point: the Emergency of 1975.

Today, the architecture of democracy is under siege again, and it is vital we do not dismiss the warning signs. The Cabinet system appears undermined. The space to differ has been encroached. Independence in journalism seems to have become a lost virtue. The autonomy of essential institutions is under question. Communal fires have been stoked.

A concerted attempt is being made to establish a one-party monopoly. Opposition parties are being painted as enemies of the nation. Slogans—such as that of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”—are just one of the many techniques being employed to delegitimise political opponents. It’s reminiscent of what happened in Europe in the 1930s, and South America in the 1960s.

The guardrails of democracy face the danger of crumbling under constant attack. Difference is increasingly equated with hostility. Many, including MPs from the ruling party, are hesitant in expressing an opinion not in conformity with that of the high-command. Outside of the system, anyone with a worldview not as homogenous as the ideal striven for by the ruling party is labelled as an “anti-national”. Tasked with the responsibility of identifying and weeding out the not-so-national amongst us, are spokespersons of the ruling party—masquerading as news anchors and trained bigots veiled as trolls.

How did Indian democracy survive thus far? Pakistan—with largely the same background—has been for the larger part under implicit or explicit military rule, or a threat thereof. Indian democracy survived because its vital organs were left untampered:

The press remained vigorous and free, unlike the press of today—either singing paens for the government, or silent on any criticisms.

The judiciary had no problems as far as maintaining its institutional autonomy was concerned. Never before in the history of this country were four of the senior-most judges of the Supreme Court forced to hold a press conference to appeal to the people to save the apex court and, alongside that, democracy.

Minorities (religious and sexual), the “lower castes”, and women were encouraged to feel free and exert their democratic rights within a space where they could also feel secure. Today, hostility has become the norm, and freedom, the exception.

Our forefathers steered clear of the construct of a one-community, one-language, one-party state and insisted on a “liberal” democracy. Now, forced homogeneity sought to be achieved by a one-community, one-language and one-party state appear to be the most important priority.   

The Bharatiya Janata Party is rendering India’s democratic system, built on centuries of sacrifice of our founding forefathers, subservient to its own ambitions and ideologies.  Narendra Modi—who called himself a “pradhan sewak”—needs to learn from Jawaharlal Nehru, the “pratham sewak” of this country. When his colleagues in the Congress disagreed with him, Nehru did not refuse to acknowledge their dissent, or punish it with expulsion. Instead, he allowed intra-party forums to resolve such disputes. When his land reform programme was turned down by the courts, Nehru didn’t attack the judiciary. He resorted to the constitutionally provided mode of redressal. Instead of appointing state chief ministers, Nehru advocated their election by state party units.

The writing is on the wall. The hard work of generations of leaders who established India’s democracy is on the verge of being undone. The idea of India is under attack. The time to wake up is now.

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