Prime Minister Narendra Modi | File photo: ANI
Between my last column and this one, two events have again shone the spotlight on democracy in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement in Washington that democracy is in India’s DNA was followed a few days later by the 48th anniversary of the imposition of a State of Emergency by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which for twenty months suspended our democracy. Both occasions led to much of the commentariat holding forth at length on the nature and prospects of Indian democracy. So it is time to ask: Is democracy under threat in India? Indeed, has India already ceased to be democratic?
This may seem an odd question to raise in the aftermath of multiple successful state elections, most recently in Karnataka, conducted largely freely and fairly, very few of which the BJP has managed to win. Yet, if one were to read the annual reports of Freedom House, the American think-tank, which downgraded India from “free” to only “partly free”, or the prestigious V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute in Sweden, which described India as an “electoral autocracy”-- not to mention the global Democracy Index, issued by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which has for the past three years classified the world’s largest democracy as a “flawed” one and dropped India’s ranking on their Index from 21st to 53rd -- then we have indeed slipped out of the ranks of the world’s true democracies.
Though Foreign Minister Jaishankar has accused the Western organisations of hypocrisy in their rankings and called them “self-appointed custodians of the world who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval”, there is little doubt that the perception of a decline in the quality of Indian democracy is widespread and worldwide. It has not helped that since the Modi government came to office in 2014, we have witnessed a striking dilution of independence at the highest levels of our autonomous institutions, from financial regulators like the Reserve Bank to institutions of accountability like the Central Information Commission; that questions have been raised about even hitherto sacrosanct bodies like the Election Commission and the upper echelons of the Armed Forces; and that Parliament, the judiciary and even the free press are widely perceived as insufficiently free of the government’s influence.
Part of the reason behind this systemic crumbling stems from the Moditva doctrine and its inherently autocratic concentration of power. Moditva articulates a cultural nationalism anchored in the RSS political doctrine of Hindutva, but building upon it the idea of a strong leader, powerful and decisive, who embodies the nation. Autonomous public institutions threaten the Moditva doctrine because, by design, they are independent. This is why their authority must be undermined, and the “nationalist” argument advanced that opposition and dissent are by definition anti-national. The fear is that ethno-nationalism is taking India towards a peculiar hybrid, a ‘dictatocracy’ which preserves the forms of democracy while brooking no dissent against its dictates.
In addition, these agencies observed the diminishing of freedom of expression, the media, and civil society under the Modi government, and lamented the "democratic backsliding" by the government and "crackdowns" on civil liberties. In particular, BJP policies and the statements of its leaders are widely seen abroad as having fomented anti-Muslim feeling and religious strife and damaged the social and political fabric of the country. This is why the Prime Minister received the question he did at the brief White House press conference which led him to his asseveration about Indians’ faith in their democracy.
But how strong, really, is this faith? If the de-institutionalization of Indian governance proceeds like this, the greatest danger facing India will be that of the public losing faith in the system altogether—with incalculable consequences for the country’s democracy. This is already taking place in many other parts of the world. In a widely discussed paper, Harvard scholars Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa argue that the health of liberal democracies across the world is degenerating (the scientific term being ‘democratic deconsolidation’). Drawing on global data, they show that there has been a considerable dilution of support for democracy and a growing impatience with the democratic process, especially among the so-called ‘millennial’ generations (those born after the 1980s), and that we can no longer assume that the future of democracy is secure, even in countries upholding democratic institutions for a period of time, with strong civil society traditions and a degree of wealth.
Indeed, support for non-democratic or authoritarian models of governance is rising in many democracies. And here’s the news: far from showing their DNA-generated faith in democracy, Indians are among the worst of those publicly willing to dispense with it. In the Mounk–Foa data, more than 70% of Indian respondents felt that “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections is a ‘good’ way to run this country”, higher than even Pakistan, with 62% (and behind only Russia and Romania in expressing the same sentiment). In a CSDS–Azim Premji University survey, over 50% of respondents in four large Indian states expressed a preference for an authoritarian alternative to our existing democracy. Perhaps this is what emboldens our current government to believe they can get away with it.
While for many apologists of India’s government, the mere conduct of reasonably free and fair elections is defence enough, democracy can only flourish if the system maintains checks and balances, promotes consensus, preserves a pluralist ethos and ensures institutional autonomy. Otherwise, we become another “illiberal democracy” – if we haven’t already.
This certainly does not bode well for the future. Elections can be democratic, but true democracy is about what happens between elections. The immortal JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) argued that democracy should not be reduced to a crowd of sheep electing their shepherd every five years. Yet it increasingly seems that that is exactly what has happened.
The confidence that the people of India have in our system rests in the belief that it will work fairly, robustly and in their collective interests. If their faith in the system erodes, it will weaken the very foundations of the democracy that we take for granted today. Political parties and the ruling powers of the day will come and go, but free institutions are the enduring scaffolding of any democracy. Their independence, integrity and professionalism are meant to inure them from the political pressures of the day. We must preserve and strengthen the free institutions that are the pillars of our democracy. The only alternative is to watch our democracy being destroyed.