Some reflections on the state of democracy in India

FILE PHOTO: Farmers take part in a protest against the newly passed farm laws at Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border on the outskirts of Delhi
FILE PHOTO: Farmers take part in a protest against the newly passed farm laws on the outskirts of Delhi, India, December 17, 2020. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/File Photo

By Pratik Phadkule

Growing up in a small town in India, I had some impressions of ‘democracy’ in my childhood. In my school textbook, I came across the most famous definition of democracy that “democracy is the government for the people, of the people and by the people.” I can say that while studying in the education system where we had to learn definitions by heart to reproduce them in the term-end examinations, this definition was the easiest to remember. It had a strong impression on my mind because of its emphasis on ‘people’ and there mostly, I learnt about centrality and importance of ‘people’ in a democracy.

I started reflecting on and reminiscing of these memories because now I am gravely affected by the fact that I live in the same country which I call a democracy but the centrality of ‘people’ in this democracy seems to be have vanished. I am literally unable to see ‘people’ and hear their voices in this country as people are no longer a homogenous entity. The present regime looks at people by their religious identities and so the voices of those in minority are being muzzled by them. People are the soul of any democracy and if their voice is suppressed, that democracy does not remain a ‘democracy.’

Here I am tempted to ask myself why I should be worried so much about the state of democracy in my country. In answering this question, I would like to reflect on the current state of affairs in the country.

While studying in Central European University, Budapest, in 2013, I took a course with Professor Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy promotion. While in the class with other fellow students from different countries, I always felt special. It is because India and its democratic tradition gave me pride and hope. I used to feel that we may not be the best country, but we are a promising country. We are one of the successful and the stable democracies. We as a nation have not abandoned the principles we had adopted at the time of accepting the constitution, the principles of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.

But developments in India over the last several months have been painful and they hurt the image of India as a responsible democratic nation. The very recent example is the use of water cannons, tear gas and brute force to suppress the protesting farmers against the Farm Reform laws that the Indian Government has introduced. Not listening to the farmers but trying to suppress them by use of brute force is not a democratic practice.

The other recent example is passing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019. The CAA essentially tries to define the citizenship on the basis of religion, which was just unheard of so far in India, as secularism is one of the principles enshrined in the constitution. When the law was passed, people rightly protested in which nearly 69 people were killed. But the government still went ahead with the proposed law. Clearly, the democratic government in the country is suppressing the voice of the people.

In August 2019, the same government, revoked Article 370 which gave the state of Jammu and Kashmir a special status. Not only the government revoked the article, but it did so in a totally undemocratic manner. It locked down the entire state, with its telephone, mobile and internet services suspended. There can be debates about the constitutionality of this decision but putting people under a lockdown and taking away their fundamental rights was indeed unconstitutional.

The present regime is using the justice institutions and law enforcement agencies for its benefit and convenience. Recently, the police did not take any action for long against the leaders of the incumbent party for making inflammatory speeches that led to violence in Delhi. Even the judge of the Supreme Court who gave unfavorable opinion on the inaction of the police has been swiftly transferred from the Delhi court. Police inaction led to complete breakdown of rule of law in the national capital when President Trump visited in India.

In the Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), India was ranks 51st , in the ‘flawed democracy’ category. The report notes that “the primary cause of the democratic regression was an erosion of civil liberties in the country.” Though EIU’s democracy index ranks India as a flawed democracy, it can now be said that it is regressing toward becoming a hybrid regime.

Professors Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way talk about a particular type of ‘hybrid’ regime that is a ‘competitive authoritarianism.’ They explain that in a competitive authoritarianism, “although elections are regularly held and are generally free of massive fraud, incumbents routinely abuse state resources, deny the opposition adequate media coverage, harass opposition candidates and their supporters, and in some cases manipulate electoral results. Journalists, opposition politicians, and other government critics may be spied on, threatened, harassed, or arrested. Members of the opposition may be jailed, exiled, or—less frequently—even assaulted or murdered.”

In the last four years, we have seen all this happening in India. In the general elections in 2019, various clips had appeared in the media showing that the voting machines are tampered with. There are many instances where the Election Commission of India (ECI), the body that conducts elections in India, had appeared to be helpless to act against the violators of the model code of conduct. The violators most of the times were from the powerful incumbent party. It is also clear that the opposition parties do not get adequate coverage in mainstream media as the incumbent party has influence over almost all mainstream television media channels. There are instances when the critics of the government are spied on and threatened by the present regime. There are also instances where the members of the opposition parties are kept under house arrest in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

These instances show very clearly that this regime certainly cannot be called democratic nor can it be called a flawed democracy. The question that I would like to ask following Professors Levitsky and Way: has the present regime turned into a competitive authoritarian? The answer to me is very clear; it certainly has become a competitive authoritarian regime.

With all recent happenings, India’s image at the international stage has been getting damaged. In the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights talked about the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and alleged police inaction to prevent the violence in Delhi. She also talked about the situation in Kashmir, the excessive use of force and human rights violations by the security forces.

The European Parliament in its recent plenary session tabled five resolutions on the recent events in India. This is especially important for India’s strategic partnership with Europe and other world powers. If the countries in the world are convinced that the situation related to rule of law and overall functioning of the Indian state is not in order, there would be no positive outcome in terms of trade and investment. This is worrisome when the Indian economy is already in a precarious condition. Therefore, it is important that the Indian government must take steps to correct the situation and regain its status as a responsible democratic nation for all practical and moral reasons.

Bio:
Pratik Phadkule studied Public Policy and Social Work. He is interested in the study of governance and access to justice. Email: pppratik@gmail.com

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Travel Writing: A mode of constructing knowledge”, edited by Raeesa Usmani, Surat, India.

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