To Prevent Democracy's Erosion, India Must First Redefine Its Meaning

Democracy is not defined by the timely conduct of elections alone. This is merely a pre-condition for democracy.

Indian politics and its vocabulary have changed significantly over the last decade or so. Rather, it has got re-defined. More so, in the last seven years (2014–2021) under the prime ministership of Narendra Modi. One development, among other things, distinctly stands out in this regard. It is the systematic, blatant and unprecedented erosion of democracy as captured empirically by reputed global institutes Freedom House and V-Dem which have described Indian democracy as “partially free” and an “electoral autocracy”, respectively.

The enactment of the religious-centric Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) despite secularism being part of the basic structure of the constitution, frequent invocation of sedition law (Section 124A of IPC) against political dissent when freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right, the face-off between Centre and West Bengal government over the transfer of an IAS officer when federalism has been read into the constitution are some examples which expose the deep fault lines of democracy in India. More so, the failure of the institutions to provide safeguards against the misuse of laws and procedures, and to check the rising populism.

Also read: India Is No Longer a Democracy but an ‘Electoral Autocracy’: Swedish Institute

The above developments raise some serious questions about democracy in India. Is democracy in India so fragile that when faced with populism and authoritarianism it would crumble? Or has it been so since the beginning, and it has only now come to the fore in the face of an existential threat?

Changing the rule of the game 

To begin with, at a popular level, the rule of the game for democracy has been simply inverted by way of propaganda and narrative, and the legal sleight of hand. It is argued by the supporters of the Modi regime that because India has timely elections (electoral democracy), therefore, it is automatically a democracy, and it consequently means support of the majority. This understanding of democracy, however, is far from the truth, if not sinister.

Moreover, the concerted secrecy around electoral bonds and the callous judicial response to it have further served a blow to democracy, thereby making it just symbolic sans any substance.

‘Democracy’ and ‘electoral democracy’ are not fungible, let alone the same thing. Rather, as Ornit Shani puts it in her book How India Became Democracy: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise, ‘electoral democracy’ is a “pre-condition for democracy”. But despite two general elections in 2014 and 2019, based on ‘universal adult franchise’, which propped up Narendra Modi as prime minister, democracy is in a bad health in India.

The ‘interlude’ called Emergency

The apologist of the Modi regime often invokes Indira Gandhi’s declared Emergency of 1975–77, when faced with the ongoing erosion of democracy in India. True, what she did stands as an ignominious example and was an aberration in the trajectory of democracy in India.

However, what is happening now, in comparison to 1975–77, is extremely concerning. In 1975–77, democracy was made a laughing stock by way of a declared Emergency. And after 21 months, it was lifted and was followed by a general election. This, however, is not the case now. The erosion of democracy is happening systematically sans any declared Emergency for the last seven years, without knowing when it would halt.

Explaining the two democratic crises, Suhas Palsikar, political scientist, writes “the past practice of sub-democratic politics [Emergency] makes it difficult for citizens to distinguish between a difference in degree (the past) and a difference in kind (the present). The motif of the state confuses the citizens and it becomes difficult for them to differentiate between the small temptations of the power holders to cut corners and a grand design to reshape the polity.”

Former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi. Photo: PTI

Democracy sans liberalism 

Democracy, in its most basic sense, can be described as a form of government enjoying the support of a majority. But it needs to be kept in mind that in the absence of any checks or safeguards, this democracy, as J.S. Mill notes in On Liberty can turn out to be “tyranny of majority”. Therefore, rule of law, freedom of speech and expression, individual dignity, minority rights, etc, provide the required safeguards against democracy becoming majoritarianism. In fact, they form the cornerstone of democracy.

So, democracy sans liberalism always stands vulnerable. Therefore liberal democracy is what can save democracy from becoming a Frankstenian monster. Also without the necessary liberal safeguards, as the ongoing crisis of democracy shows, democracy can be hollowed without even suspending it, like the emergency of 1975-77.

Though India, post-independence, adopted the democratic form of government, was it really democratic with the adequate liberalism required to sustain it? The Indian national movement followed by constituent assembly debates, which culminated into the constitution, doesn’t present a very strong case for liberal democracy.

The Indian national movement since its inception had a very specific objective – getting freedom from the colonial power. Given that the national movement was a mass movement, democracy and secularism became indispensable. Though in the course of the national movement, demands for fundamental rights in the Nehru Report (1928) and civil liberties in the Karachi Resolution (1931) were made, they were never the dominant current. A separate and standalone civil rights movement was never seen in India either before or after independence.

This, however, is in sharp contrast to what we observe in the US, where there is a rich history of civil rights movements. Even as late as the 1960s, a civil rights movement was led by African-Americans for their civil and political rights. And this is perhaps one of the reasons what makes the US, among other things, a strong and successful democracy.

Martin Luther King and other civil rights movement leaders in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, August 28, 1963. Photo: Rowland Scherman, US National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Even the constituent assembly did not expend much time and words on engaging with liberalism. The word “liberal” is just used once in the entire constitution. The constitution proclaims itself to be liberal, but it didn’t describe it to be so categorically. On this Sudhir Krishnaswamy, constitutional scholar, writes, “[T]hat the framers of the Constitution actively avoided describing their efforts to be directed towards a liberal Constitution.”

Post-independence, though it was expected that the Supreme Court would read liberalism into the constitution through its interpretation and further enhance it, however, it has failed in the face of a strong state despite the apex court making such efforts. The history of the First Amendment (1951), whereby two progressive judgments upholding free speech were diluted by way of an amendment is the best example to understand the response of a static state and a helpless judiciary towards civil liberties. Often the bogey of “public order” and “national security” has been invoked to curtail civil liberties.

Also read: Watch Out Democratic India, Unhappier Days Are Just Around the Corner

Populism has always been a defining feature of Indian politics, although its degree can be debated. Populism, as a political concept, represents the “will of the people”, and the populist banks on the disenchantment of the majority while paying scant regard to democratic norms. That populism is antithetical to liberal democracy is axiomatic. In this regard, professor Anna Cento Bull, University of Bath, observes that populist leaders “dislike the “complicated democratic systems” and “makes the decision in a way that just isn’t possible in traditional democracies”.

In India, the politics of 1970 and hence marks the period of populism. The project of liberalism – expected to be safeguarded by the Indian state – fell on the back burner. While post-1990, with the introduction of a neoliberal economic order, the citizens, who were thought and excepted to be the sentinel of democracy have become consumerist and privatised.

Redefining democracy 

If one examines the trajectory of democracy in India, it shows a distressing state of affairs. It is the same democratic project about which Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Burden of Democracy glowingly wrote that “it was a leap of faith for which there was no precedent in human history”. And today, it is the same democracy which is sadly gasping for breath. On a proper prognosis of democracy in India, bringing it on the ventilator would show that it was not predicated on liberalism. Institutions, which were mandated with the dual task of defending and deepening democracy have failed miserably.

Still, it is not too late to contain the crisis of democracy in India. Ousting of authoritarians like Donald Trump from office reinforces hope. However, for this to happen in India, democracy needs to be re-defined in line with the best practices of liberalism in its true sense. Up until now, the top-down approach of deepening democracy has to give way to top-up ‘social revolution’. Investment in democracy by the social groups needs to be made and democracy must be guarded jealously.

Ambedkar’s talisman of constitutional morality, wherein he exhorts commitment to “permanent reverence to the form of the constitution”, can be a lodestar in rescuing democracy from the clutches of authoritarianism, followed by moulding it in a liberal cast. And, indeed, the process of “instilling democracy” on Indian soil should never stop until it reaches the crevices of society and becomes a ‘way of life’.

Md Zeeshan Ahmad is a law graduate from Aligarh Muslim University.