Remove Your Blinkers, Mr Kant. We Have Too Little Democracy.

If the country is regressing in every field – economic, social, developmental – it is because of the rapid erosion of democracy in the last few years, not because of too much democracy.

So now we finally know why the Modi government has majorly messed up the farm bills issue: it has advisors like Amitabh Kant who no doubt firmly believe that a few more jackboots on peasants’ throats would have gladly made them swallow the legislation without any demur. For all we know, he could be the one advising our resident sage: “We kant back down now!”

Amitabh Kant is one of the most powerful and influential policymakers in the present dispensation and his words cannot be wished away like those of Giriraj Singh. He has come a long way from his days in Kerala’s tourism department, but posterity will always wonder what happened to him between the brilliant “God’s own country” tagline and the alarming “India has too much democracy” remark.

He may just be his master’s voice sending up a trial balloon or he may be making a down payment to insure a second extension of his service. In either case, he appears to have crossed that gradually fading line between a civil servant and a politician.  The IAS is justly proud of the fact that it is a jack of all trades, but when one of its tribe elevates this to master of all, he is treading on thin ice. But this is unfortunately what happens when you get invited to too many conclaves where fawning comperes treat you like the Delphic oracle, and one soon starts believing that one is Nostradamus, Solomon and Adam Smith combined.

For, if only Kant had taken off his saffron-tinted blinkers, he would have realised that the reverse of what he said is the stark truth: it is not too much, but too little democracy which is the problem with reform and governance today. Democracy is not just periodical elections or a brute majority in parliament, as he seems to think, but the existence of robust constitutional values. Its ingredients include a willingness to consult and engage, federalism, tolerance of dissent, freedom of the press, a tireless quest for equity, social harmony, respect for autonomy of institutions, transparency and a pledge to abide by the rule of law. If only Kant would take the trouble of stepping out of his bio bubble in Niti Aayog he would notice that most of them do not exist in his master’s ‘New India’.

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The present regime consults nobody, not even parliament, or reportedly its own ministers, even as it forcibly imposes one calamitous policy after another on the hapless nation: demonetisation, GST, the nationwide lockdown, electoral funding, reading down of Article 370, revoking J&K’s statehood, the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens, the amendments to the UAPA and the three agriculture laws. As internationally recognised domain experts are ignored with contempt and banished abroad, we are left with the Surjit Bhallas and Gurcharan Dases. The current regime allows no debate in parliament – not even one in five draft bills was referred to parliamentary committees, where earlier 70% of them went through this process of scrutiny. The inevitable results of such steam-rolling are widespread agitations like the anti-CAA and the ongoing farmers’ protests.

Representative image of an anti-CAA protester at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh on January 14. Photo: PTI

Federalism has ceased to exist: states – especially opposition-controlled states – are not consulted on legislation or policy matters; they are browbeaten into surrender by fiscal arm twisting or outright denial of legitimate funds (such as the GST compensation) or re-engineering the TORs of the Finance Commission, or denial of Ways and Means (WMA) limits.

Central investigating agencies are let loose on “uncooperative” states to a point where at least five states have now barred them from operating without permission. State police are intimidated by the excessive deployment of CAPF personnel during “raids” even though law and order is a state subject. State governments are preempted and prevented from investigating cases that may embarrass the central government by bringing in the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) or the National Investigation Agency (NIA), as in the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case or the Bhima Koregaon case. In opposition-ruled states, there is now no difference between a governor and a party apparatchik. Huge resources are deployed in undermining elected state governments and federalism has now become a naked adversary: the last vestige of trust has been exterminated.

The space for free speech has been drastically curtailed: dissent has been rechristened as anti-nationalism and sedition, and dozens of academics, social workers, students, activists and journalists have been incarcerated for being critical of the government. The only free “press” now is on social media and digital platforms, and the government has now initiated steps to bring them under control too by bringing them under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Hate speech laws are being applied selectively, sending a clear signal that remarks against a particular community will attract no punishment. Our own government will meanwhile do nothing to curb the hate speech on TV which only amplifies its own narrative, even as one of its pet channels was fined £20,000 by a UK media watchdog last week, even after it tendered 280 specious apologies! Our own regulator is happy being a lapdog.

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Just about every constitutional institution, nurtured over decades, has bitten the dust – the judiciary and Comptroller and Auditor General not excluded. What the government wants, the government gets, with reemployed bureaucrats falling over themselves to carry out the imperial commands. Parliament, it appears, has become as obsolete as its building and as redundant as the coccyx on the human anatomy: it’s a part of our evolution but has outlived its purpose.

Universities have been bludgeoned into silence. Such is the decay of these institutions that just last week the Central Information Commission ruled that the citizens have no right to know who is donating how much money to a political party! I can only wonder: was this judgment given with a straight face? Was the honourable CIC able to sleep that night? Going by this amazing logic, the next step could be a ruling that the voter does not have a right to know how many votes were cast for a political party in an election. The leitmotif is clear – the less the citizen knows, the stronger Mr Kant’s version of “democracy”.

This is further strengthened by a complete lack of transparency in the manner in which the government functions, whether it is about the electoral bonds, the pricing or off-set details of the Rafale jets, the PM CARES Fund, Chinese intrusion into Ladakh, the EVM-VVPAT reconciliation, or even Modi’s degree from Delhi University.

Crucial reports and results of surveys are simply buried if they do not suit the government’s narratives or claims. No international organisation of any repute believes our statistics any more and have developed their own markers. The public’s right to know is haughtily dismissed with silence by the executive, with convenient adjournments by the Supreme Court and a quivering pen by institutions like the Election Commission, the CAG and Central Information Commission.

A man walks on a deserted road during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the coronavirus pandemic, in Jalandhar, Saturday, April 11, 2020. Photo: PTI

Which is why Kant’s obiter dicta is so astounding. Especially when the consequences of this lack of democracy are becoming more and more visible every day, in cold facts and figures which can no longer be brushed under a yoga mat, redacted by a Niti Ayog or sanitised by Arnab Goswami.

It’s not just that our economy has shown a negative growth of 23% or that the unemployment rate has never been higher in independent India or that the GST has been a failure or that demonetisation has knocked the bottom out of our small scale sector which accounts for 80% of non-agriculture employment. Other indicators of democracy or social well being have taken an even bigger hit in the last six years:

  • In the Freedom Index, we are now at 111 out of 162 countries, a fall of 17 places since 2014. Incidentally, this is a comprehensive assessment of the state of personal, economic and human freedoms in a country, aggregated by the globally respected CATO Institute.
  • The Human Development Report of UNDP places us at 131st position among 189 countries, again a fall of 2 places in one year.
  • In the Global Hunger Index, the country is ranked at 94 out of 107 (even though the government claims we have 90 million tonnes of foodgrains in stock!)
  • The Internet Freedom Index ranks us at a miserable 52, which is not surprising considering that Kashmir has had the longest continuous internet shutdown in the world since last August. This is the third straight year of decline.
  • In Environmental Protection our country is at an abysmal 168 out of 173 nations, and we can only go further down under the stewardship of Prakash Javadekar.
  • In the Economic Freedom Index, we have plummeted, there can be no other word to describe this, from 79 to 105.
  • The World Press Freedom Index places us at an alarming 142nd rank out of 180 countries, and things are only getting worse, what with as many as 50 scribes being arrested simply for being critical of the various state governments during the pandemic.

The most disturbing report about the state of our country, however, comes from the central government itself – the National Family Health Survey’s fifth report, which covers 2019-20. It found that malnutrition, stunting, wastage and underweight amongst children (between the ages of one and five) has gone up in 15 states and union territories. It is the first time this decline has been seen since 1998 and it negates all the progress made since then.

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The explanation is simple: it has been caused by a consistent decline in incomes, rendering households unable to buy protein foods like meat, eggs, vegetables, pulses, milk. These findings confirm the other economic and health indicators. This is not something that the BJP government at the Centre can blame on its the usual scapegoats like the UPA or Nehru or the COVID-10 pandemic, as all these children were born after 2014. And these figures can only get worse next year, once the impact of the pandemic has been factored in.

Amitabh Kant’s Niti Ayog, as the government’s primary stink-sorry, think- tank has to bear responsibility for the mess we are in. None of the big-ticket programmes launched by this government have shown any success so far – Digital India, Skill India, Make in India, Smart Cities, Insolvency Code, RERA, to mention just a few. Instead, social and economic inequality has only worsened at a compounded rate, thanks to the consistent pro-corporate policies which have become the unabashed norm.

Just 1% of the country’s rich control 45.40% of its wealth, the top 10% control 74.30%. According to the Billionaire’s Insight Report 2020 (brought out by UBS and PWC every year) the net worth of India’s billionaires increased by 35% to US$ 423 billion- at a time when 120 million people have been pushed below the poverty line and tens of millions have lost their jobs. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Social Mobility Report, it is estimated that it will take seven generations for a member of a poor Indian family to achieve the average national income! That’s a very long time to wait for Modi to deliver on his many promises.

Daily wage labourers stand in a queue for free food at a construction site during the 21-day nationwide lockdown, in New Delhi, India, April 10, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

And the CEO of Niti Ayog would have us believe that all these stupendous failures are because we have too much democracy?

Do a retake, Mr Kant, and remove your blinkers. If the country is regressing in every field – economic, social, developmental – it is because of the rapid erosion of democracy in the last few years, not because of too much democracy. Ambedkar famously described democracy in India as a thin top dressing of the Indian soil – much of it has been removed since 2014. We need to restore it and not deny it with incompetent dilettantism and worse.

Also read: How Much of a Democracy Is India, Really?

Contrary to what he may think, genuine democracy begins after the votes are counted and the winner declared, and we have had too little of that of late. Which explains the many protests breaking out – and being suppressed – all over the country, the farmers’ revolt being just the latest. Kant and his government may consider these are a sign of “too much democracy”, but they would be wrong – the protests are indicative of too little, not too much, democracy.

I would have advised Mr Kant to go back to the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, for a refresher course on India’s history and constitution, but I won’t. They have probably already changed the syllabus there, from “people’s democracy” to “corporate democracy”.

Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer. A version of this article appeared on his blog and has been edited by The Wire for style.