Has India Ever Been a Democracy?

Debashish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane's 'To Kill a Democracy' deals with the question how democracies get killed and dismisses the commonplace perspective of the “breakdowns”.

“Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic…”
∼ B.R. Ambedkar

The title of Debashish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane’s book, To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism, implies that India was a democracy which has been killed and transformed into despotism under Narendra Modi. Not quite; it rather argues that the current state of degeneration, though representing a kink in the slow-paced rhetorical liberalism of plutarchy, is not entirely brought about by the Hindutva dispensation. Its seeds were sown right at the time of independence.

The Modi rule since 2014 has certainly accelerated its degeneration towards despotism on account of its anxiety to accomplish its long cherished dream of the Hindu rashtra in a compressed time frame. The uncomfortable truth propounded by the book has been hitting us off and on – that one may not find a single act of misdemeanour by this dispensation, which did not have precedence in the Congress regime in some form. Undoubtedly, Modi’s creed has been declaredly undemocratic. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), his ideological parent, is too well known for its fascist antecedents to expect him to be democratic. He knows, all the dictators and despots in the world in recent times have grabbed power through democratic means (elections) before they killed democracy. He is marching unmistakably in their footsteps.

Debashish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane
To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism
Oxford University Press, 2021

The foundation of the post-colonial Indian state has itself been murky. The most precious of its creations that established its democratic credentials, the Preamble of the Constitution, proclaimed that the newly born post-partition India would be a sovereign democratic republic, which would secure to all its citizens justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. However, the Constituent Assembly that birthed it itself had hardly represented one-fourth of people, the people with property and education, even in the expanded suffrage. And therefore ‘we the people of India’ was meant to be an abstraction, a political fiction, divorced from the real people, and destined to grow antithetical to them in the course of time.

As if to make it starkly meaningless, the 42nd Amendment added two words to the preamble – secular and socialist – paradoxically, during the Emergency of 1975, which gave the first taste of despotism the Constitution could create. The preamble thus proved to be the first jumla by none other than the founding fathers, the pioneering untruth about Indian democracy. This untruth would only grow and in course totally overwhelm the reality as it entered its Amritkaal, the recent addition to the Modi lexicon that best represents inversion of meanings people meekly suffer. The book under review portrays the state of the demos today in despotic India, when she is projected as the ‘mother of democracy’.

Democracy, the authors argue, “is much more than high-level dynamics centered on political parties, elections, legislatures, governments, [and] prime ministers”. A country where you can win elections with hordes of cash and control over a private army, media and other institutions is far from a democracy.

Also read: Fine Print: BJP’s Electoral Dominance in Northeast Continues but Unpacking Numbers Reveals Shades

The ruling BJP today is far richer than opposition parties. It is said to be the biggest and richest party in the world which is backed by the formidable hydra-headed civil society organisation that never hid its fascist proclivities. Today, it has complete control on the media and state institutions which are being grossly misused to decimate any opposition to the government, either from opposition parties or civil society intellectuals and human rights defenders, scores of whom are already jailed under draconian laws. It has reduced the parliament to insignificance as laws are often passed without debate. Judges are pressured by trolls (as Legal Rights Observatory, an RSS-affiliated outfit had campaigned and complained to the CJI in July 2021 against the judge S.S. Shinde for being biased in favour of terror-accused Jesuit priest and rights activist Stan Swamy) or not appointed at all if they refuse to be influenced, meaning the once independent judiciary now mostly rules in favour of the government. Universities, too, are losing their independence, because the government puts its men in charge of them. Stricter financing laws are weaponised to punish the opponents, leading to the disappearance of two-thirds of India’s ‘inconvenient’ NGOs over the past seven years. Such anti-constitutional instances during the last eight years are everywhere.

Somewhat echoing Dr Ambedkar, the authors define democracy as a whole way of life lived in dignity, and that is why they pay special attention to the decaying social foundations of Indian democracy. They describe daily struggles of people for survival and explain how lived social injustices and unfreedoms suffered by a vast multitude of people rob Indian elections of their meaning. The intriguing feature of people still participating in elections may be attributable to their obedience to the state dicktats, love for social rituals that elections have become, and allurements by the political parties.

The book is replete with the statistics on a gamut of issues that map up people’s lives with dignity. They are: healthcare, hunger, environmental hazards, lethal traffic, dismal public education, the torpor of the justice system, election coercion, the media’s collusion in amplifying “nationalist” narratives, persistence of casteism, the harassment and imprisonment of journalists and academics accused of “anti-nationalist” activities, sexual and gender-based violence, and recent changes to the Constitution itself, which, under the current Hindu nationalist government, have systematically targeted the sizeable Muslim minority.

Also Read: Democracy Is Failing in India and the World Over. But the Answers to Save It Lie Within

Contrary to the government’s propaganda, India is rapidly moving towards the bottom in global rankings related to the state of the people. The country ranked 107 out of 121 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2022 with its child wasting rate, at 19.3%, being the highest in the world. In Asia, Afghanistan with a rank of 109 is the only country behind India. Neighbouring countries – Pakistan (99), Bangladesh (84), Nepal (81) and Sri Lanka (64) – have all fared better than India. In 2021, India had ranked 101 out of 116 countries while in 2020 the country was placed at 94th position of 107 countries, worse than Congo and Iraq.

India produces far more than the 225 million tonnes of food it needs to feed its population a year, but wastes 40% of it, often because there is no capacity for storage or transportation. The Global Slavery Index estimates that eight million Indians are, at this moment, living in “modern slavery”. Inequality has rapidly worsened during the Modi’s rule. The current exposé of Gautam Adani’s riches by Hindenburg Research only illustrates the rot in the system of governance. Before that, Oxfam’s report had revealed that Adani’s wealth had multiplied eight-fold during the pandemic and that he made use of state connections to become the country’s largest operator of ports and its largest thermal coal power producer, wielding market control over power transmission, gas distribution, and now privatised airports — all once considered public goods.

India’s democratic malaise is by now well known: The V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg (Sweden), which tracks data on the health of democracies, in its 2022 report reclassified India as an “electoral autocracy”. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) placed her in the category of “flawed democracy” and its rank deteriorated sharply from 27 in 2014 to 53 in 2020 though it improved a bit to 46 in 2021. In its Freedom in the world 2021 report, Freedom House downgraded India from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’. Civil liberties in the country have been declining since 2014, it said, with rising intimidation of journalists, growing pressure on human rights organisations and increasing attacks on Muslims. Its 2022 report also confirmed India to be “partly free”. The qualitative observations from scholars and analysts on India’s democratic deficit are aplenty.

The book deals with the question how democracies get killed and dismisses the commonplace perspective of the “breakdowns” (violent insurrections) or slow death syndrome through institutional breakdown within national institutions. It does not provide its own perspective. In India, the question how democracy is killed itself appears impertinent because beyond the rhetorical façade of the Constitution and institutions, democracy had never taken roots. High sounding pro-people platitudes notwithstanding, the post-colonial Indian state continued entirely with the colonial state apparatus including a large part of the Constitution, which was designed and perfected for the exploitation of the masses. Even the basics of parliamentary democracy such as the existence of an opposition party is hardly met. For instance, except perhaps for the communist parties, there has not been a true opposition party. Modi’s totalitarian rule squarely exposed this basic deficit of democratic politics in India.

Watch: Modi a Despot. But So Are Many CMs: Author Debashish Roy Chowdhury

The book ends on an optimistic note, as though to balance out its dark description of the carcass of democracy. It places its hope in the fact that despite the apparent invincibility of the BJP’s electoral machine, its vote share has not significantly exceeded one-third of the popular vote. It does mean that about two-third population (voters) are either opposed to or are not with the BJP. In the prevailing first-past-the-post (FPTP) type of elections, it does not matter who has how many votes; what matters is that who polled the maximum votes. This system rewards not the popularity but the strategy: if the strategy is well formulated, there is really no minimum that is required for winning the FPTP election; one could win by engineering split in opposition votes to score over them. The simple explanation for the BJP’s invincibility is that its constituency, though just about one-third of votes, comprises Modi bhakts, whereas the rest are divided into dozens of splinter groups.

The authors do not realise the grandstanding strategy of the BJP that has effectively neutralised its opposition at the Centre. The Congress has not only been largely responsible for Modi’s capture of power but also for his sustenance there. It has proved itself incapable to face up to the challenge posed by Modi. Its leader, despite his recent feat in successfully completing the Bharat Jodo Yatra, and thereby enthusing a section of anti-BJP camp, hasn’t shunned even his desperate pro-Hindu idiom: calling this country ‘Hindustan’ while none in the BJP does.

Secondly, the authors see hope in many a state under non-BJP strongmen, though they also are despotic in their own right. Having consolidated its power at the Centre and having reduced the states to the level of municipalities, utterly dependent on the Centre’s resources, Modi would be in position to win over the states, irrespective of which party is in the saddle there, to accomplish his goal. They should have noticed that there is absolutely no counter to any policy coming from the BJP’s stable from any so-called opposition party. Modi’s juggernaut has been running roughshod over all the opposition parties for the last eight years and they have been mute spectators, some of them surreptitiously doing its bidding while wearing opposition masks.

Nonetheless, the book is a valuable contribution to the understanding of India’s growing democratic deficit from its inception in 1947 and passage into despotism today.

Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and civil rights activist with CPDR, Maharashtra.