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Monday, April 12, 2021

Two homegrown questions for Indian democrats

How does one handle domestic criticism of the corrosion of democracy in India? How do we understand democracy?

Written by Suhas Palshikar |
Updated: March 17, 2021 8:52:18 am
A woman selling the Indian Flag in Chandigarh. (Express photo by Kamleshwar Singh)

Just as we were leaving behind the controversy over “too much democracy”, we have landed into another one, about too little democracy. The spirited response by the External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, to the latest international negative assessments of India’s democracy deserves applause for witty repartee. But is democracy a matter of mere repartee? And is the minister’s response repartee or a serious intellectual proposition?

It seems that the minister’s response represents a considered position of the current regime: The blunt assertion is that outsiders have no business assessing our democracy. The baseline of the repartee is that voters elect a majority and that is all democracy is about.

Indeed, the methodology and ranking mechanisms adopted by organisations like Freedom House and projects like V-Dem can be critiqued. But it is rather petty to challenge them when, and because, your country is downgraded. Within their limitations, such assessments fulfil two purposes. They allow cross-national comparisons. One may have reservations about their criteria but being common for all countries, they give a reasonable idea where a country stands vis-à-vis others. They also tell us how a given country has been performing over time. Therefore, rejecting them as hypocrisy is not merely churlish, it characterises the avoidance syndrome. One wonders when our national bird changed from peacock to ostrich.

But we, too, can leave the international wisdom aside and ask two homegrown questions. First, how does one handle domestic criticism of the way the current regime has corroded democracy in India?

Not all criticisms take inspiration from Freedom House or the likes of it. This writer would not require evidence from V-Dem to argue that things are going wrong as far as democratic politics is concerned in this country. Arrests and gagging of media persons, indiscriminate filing of sedition cases, unleashing of investigative agencies against critics of the government and numerous suspensions of internet in “disturbed areas” have all been widely reported. The regime has facilitated space for vigilantes to engage not just in trolling and name-calling, but also wanton filing of cases by way of harassment, and lynching. The judiciary has chosen to avoid cases involving challenges to major laws and inexplicably postponed hearing habeas corpus cases. Finally, the majoritarian turn both in policy and public opinion has posed an intellectual challenge of evolving an atmanirbhar definition of democracy.

Activists who get arrested for their tweets, political workers who are denied bail, comedians who face trials, minorities that get sidelined and maligned, journalists who have to face FIRs, are not going to need V-Dem or Freedom House reports to give their experience a name. There is only one lesson for all of them: It is a mistake to imagine that India is a democracy, there is a stiff cost attached to that imagination and therefore the unmistakable conclusion is that all are not free nor politically equal. Even if the wisdom of the minister were to force a change in the international assessment, it will not change the ground reality.

But in the coming years, a second question is going to occupy the public space prominently: How do we understand democracy? Regimes that undo legacies, de-recognise existing wisdom, unsettle established practices and generally claim the task of paradigm change, often resort to the first tactic of intellectual skullduggery: Taking recourse to nativism, they seek to change meanings of ideas and popularise those meanings in the name of exceptionalism or nationalism. The recent negative reports about India’s democracy have given a convenient handle to pseudo-intellectuals of the regime to commence this offensive of redefinition.

A time will come when it will be argued that democracy is a western notion unnecessary for true and spiritual emancipation — moksha. It will be claimed that there is an indigenous meaning to democracy. Liberalism and individual rights are a western fashion, institutional autonomy is a fetish, freedom of expression is a superfluous luxury (and of course, no freedom is absolute). The emphasis on Deendayal Upadhyaya and the unapologetic revival of MS Golwalkar are symptomatic of this first step to arguing that there is an Indian-Hindu version of democracy. A careful reading of more recent speeches by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat testify to that claim. The claim is often simplistic — that democracy was invented, practised and theorised in Hindu tradition and scriptures much before and independently of western intellectual developments. But beyond that, there is a denial of two key resources on which India’s democratic politics is based — namely, the national movement and the Constitution.

This is where the task of true democrats is cut out for them. They need to undertake three routes. The most elementary responsibility is not to express glee at the international downgrading of India’s democracy, and throw the results into the regime’s face. This is a moment to be sober and to keep asking how we arrived here. Second is the theoretical challenge. Going beyond the binaries of western and non-western, a robust model of democracy will need to be redeemed. As globalisation and the spatial movement of people becomes the norm, the question of what constitutes a majority and how different identities relate to each other will become central to democracies. Without being ultra-nationalist, like spokespersons of the current regime, we need to frankly insist on learning from the dreams and experiments of India’s freedom movement and Constitution.

Third, the simplistic binary between electoral and non-electoral needs to be set aside. Regimes which initially hide behind the democratic fig-leaf often overemphasise the virtue of electoral victories and the will of the people. However, moments of democracy’s crisis alert us that the division between the liberal and the democratic is shallow and unhelpful. The will of the people cannot express itself unless people as groups, religions, and also as individual dissenters are free to express themselves. The moment individual citizens or minorities and marginalised sections are silenced into self-censorship born out of the lure of social approbation or risk of repression, democracy based on the claims of so many votes begins to resemble its opposite.

Whether or not to call that opposite of democracy by the name of autocracy, authoritarianism, or partial freedom, is less important because non-democracy, by any name, will smell as odious — it will crush the “people” in whose name it has enthroned itself.

This column first appeared in the print edition on March 17, 2021 under the title ‘Democracy, theirs and ours’. The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics

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