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“India’s democracy has deep civilisational roots. We have developed our own unique dharmic democracy,” wrote Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Jayant Sinha in a recent column in the Indian Express. He claimed that the core democratic principles of inalienable rights, rule of law, separation of powers and public accountability are practised in modern India, because they were practised in our past.
“The principle of inalienable human rights flows directly from the most important moral virtue in Indic civilization: Ahimsa or strict non-violence,” Sinha said. Similarly, the democratic principle of rule of law comes from the Indian notion of Raj Dharma, which today is defined by the Constitution, laws and regulations. The separation of powers has its basis in our tradition of kings relying on nobles and priests, and in the judicial system developed by Chanakya. And public accountability has roots in the Indian belief of “Satyameva Jayate”, meaning truth alone triumphs. In today’s India “dharma requires the truth, not propaganda,” Sinha wrote.
We Indians should be proud of our glorious past, no doubt, but our past accomplishments do not guarantee future success. As India’s first president, S. Radhakrishnan, wrote, “The golden age is in the future vision, not in a fabled past.” Even if we grant that Indians have a strong democratic heritage, what matters now is the status of our democracy today. And that’s where Sinha’s thesis fails; India’s democracy today is not true to his four core principles.
Take the concept of inalienable rights. First enshrined in the US Constitution, it implies that certain rights such as life, liberty and property cannot be taken away by any government that calls itself democratic. America’s Constitution makes these rights sacrosanct by enumerating them in a Bill of Rights (Constitutional Amendments 1-10). But in India, parliament can qualify or restrict such fundamental rights by a special majority vote. Personal freedoms were curtailed by preventive detention laws such as the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in 1971 and the National Security Act (NSA) in 1980, and property was abolished as a fundamental right in 1978.
Similarly, the rule of law – Sinha’s Raj Dharma – implies that laws are strictly enforced and every citizen is treated equally. But no one believes that this is true in today’s India. Every day we see examples of brazen misuse of police, tax, and investigative agencies for political purposes. India’s democracy fails to be a rule of law because its Constitution gives the Executive unfettered control over these and other administrative agencies.
In the area of separation of powers, Sinha’s thesis that India’s democratic heritage informs its modern democracy fails completely. In fact, there is no separation of authority in India’s past or present. Monarchs taking advice from rishis and priests can hardly be called sharing of powers.
Today, India’s parliamentary system fuses all executive and legislative powers in the office of the Prime Minister. Judicial power is separate no doubt, but it breaks a fundamental democratic principle that every organ of government should be accountable to the people. Our people’s representatives have no say in the running of the judiciary, and thus have no answerability.
Lastly, the principle of public accountability requires proper checks on government, and Sinha argues those checks are “enforced through legislatures, periodic elections, and a watchdog media.” But as we all know, parliament and our state legislatures are controlled by the Executive, as is evident from the lack of real debate before passing any laws the Executive wants. Elections are also not a meaningful check, because they are too far apart (five years) and they only remove a government rather than hold it to account. And as for the media, the watchdogs quickly become lapdogs when they face a determined Executive.
India’s modern democracy is not imbued with its “dharmic” democratic past, as Sinha contends. His belief that “ahimsa and dharma inspire India to be a beacon of pluralism and democracy” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. India was labelled a “flawed democracy” and slipped two places to 53rd in the 2020 Democracy Index, and just this year it was downgraded to “partly free” in the Freedom House’s annual study of political rights and civil liberties worldwide.
If Indian politicians and thinkers truly want to adopt something from our glorious past, they should adopt the mindset of our rishis. They were “drishtas,” seers of the future, not copiers of the past.