As the debate over the falling standards of Indian democracy, highlighted in the recent reports by two Western think tanks, continues, AJIT SINGH writes about the reasons behind this precipitous decline.
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In a post-COVID world, strong populist leaders have emerged as victors, using this pandemic to further concentrate power and strengthen a personalised bureaucratic machinery. Democracies like India are not an exception to this phenomenon; although our election process may be intact and transparent (a notion put under a cloud by recent events in Assam and West Bengal), it is only one of several criteria used to determine whether a country is a functioning and liberal democracy.
Recently, it has been widely reported that India’s status has been downgraded from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ in the latest Freedom House Report. Instead of introspecting on what went wrong that led to this, the Union Government of India has strongly rebuked the report, labelling it as “misleading, incorrect and misplaced”.
However, why must we compare ourselves with a country that has scored just 9 points and was placed in the ‘not free’ category in the same report, and is infamous for its disregard for its citizens’ civil liberties?
Here are some of the primary reasons responsible for the decay of Indian democracy:
Although there is a system of checks and balances available in our Constitution, a clear demarcation is somewhat missing. Taking advantage of the same, the present Union Government has misused its power to control independent institutions like the judiciary, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Reserve Bank of India, the Central Information Commission, to name a few.
Some lessons can be drawn from the USA, where US President Donald Trump left no stone unturned to sway independent institutions like the Senate, the Federal Courts and the Federal Reserve, but to his dismay, he never got the desired success. Constitutional bodies in India are similarly expected to stand firm and defend democracy from demagogues; sadly, that has not been the case thus far.
Use of Regressive laws to Suppress dissent
People who have critical views regarding the government’s policies and its way of functioning are routinely silenced through the use of draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the Public Safety Act, the National Security Act and section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (better known as the ‘sedition law’).
While granting bail to climate activist Disha Ravi earlier this year, a Delhi court had remarked that the “offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments”.
Effectively gagging the media through the overuse of defamation and sedition laws is one of the main reasons why India has been termed an ‘electoral autocracy’ in a report published by the V-DEM Institute.
Intolerance for Academic and Artistic Freedom
Last month, Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a frequent and vocal critic of the Union Government, resigned from Ashoka University, purportedly due to indirect political pressure. Just two days after his resignation, Arvind Subramanian, a former Chief Economic Advisor to the Union Government and the Professor of Economics at Ashoka, relinquished his position as well. In his letter to Vice-Chancellor, he said that the varsity can no longer provide space for academic expression and freedom.
The last few months have also been witness to film directors being hounded by Hindutva and ultra-nationalist outfits to censor their content. Such incidents of deliberate assault on the imagination and creative freedom of artists are alarming. It also affirms our suspicion of a slowly creeping Orwellian dystopia.
‘Godi’ media masquerading as news media
The press is considered the fourth pillar of democracy. Its most important function is to keep a watchful eye on the three other pillars, which are, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Sadly, the Indian news media has severely disappointed on this front. Most of its constituents openly fuel online hate, parrot the ruling party, and raise irrelevant issues on national television that has no relevance to public life.
The onus lies with the citizens to demand better quality journalism.
It is high time to boycott en masse sensationalist news coverage that demands neither objectivity nor rationality in order to hit these media companies’ bottom line and signal to them that their hate-mongering will no longer be profitable.
Irrational and phony nationalism
In 1908, India’s first Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote, in a letter to a friend, that “[p]atriotism can’t be our final spiritual shelter. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.”
In the present scenario, where a political party seems to be winning elections by creating a wave of phony and self-serving nationalism, and promising a hollow dream of becoming a ‘vishwaguru’ (literally, ‘world leader’), people must wake up. They must contrast what is being fed to them by political parties with the reality of their lives.
However, as long as a section of the population keeps fighting for the vision of the Constitution, there is still a ray of light, and the fate of our nation does not seem completely gloomy.
It is hoped that “we, the people of India” will do justice to our nation.
The legendary American comic Charlie Chaplin’s take on Hitler’s fanaticism in the 1940 political satire ‘The Great Dictator’ is still relevant today. These words from his final speech in the film still ring true:
“The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people, will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish ….”.
It is a tough time right now for a lot of Indians who have been rendered vulnerable by the collapse of the economy and the job market, combined with rising prices. More than anything else, we need a statesman who listens to the concerns of the population, respects diverse opinions, and fulfills the aspirations of the public, irrespective of their gender, caste, or religious affiliation.
(Ajit Singh is a student at St. Aloysius College, Jabalpur. The views expressed are personal.)