A stress test for Indian democracy, a turning point for India?

India has some deep soul-searching to do as we explore the question: Are we truly a democratic nation? Or is democracy the story we sell to ourselves and the world when the nation and its people know that we are not what we think or claim to be?

Jagdish Rattanani Mar 28, 2023
Representational Photo

The swift disqualification of opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi from Parliament following a “bizarre” (to quote the lawyer Kapil Sibal) two-year sentence by a court in Surat, Gujarat in a defamation case marks a turning point of sorts in the accelerated fall of India’s democratic standards in recent years. There has been talk of a stress test for our banks in light of the recent Silicon Valley Bank collapse in the US. If there were an equivalent stress test for Indian democracy, then the nation and its institutions would show up rather poorly in the school of democratic values, given a string of events that have raised the political temperature, stymied debate and brought opposition parties up in arms.

The merits of Gandhi’s conviction, the sentence, the circumstances and an intermediate stay on proceedings at the behest of the complainant, will of course be scrutinised in the days to come. The Congress party will move to stay the conviction itself. But these immediate next moves are insignificant in the face of the big story that India has announced to the world – that the most significant member of the oldest opposition party in India is out of Parliament soon after he raised some very uncomfortable questions on cronyism, the Adani group and the connections of that group to the ruling elite of the day. As the story plays out, the focus will remain on Rahul Gandhi’s attempted silencing, the Adani imbroglio, the demands for a Joint Parliament Committee inquiry in the wake of Hindenburg allegations and the question that Gandhi has focussed on: Whose money was being pumped into Adani stocks? Gandhi out of Parliament only leaves him that much more equipped to take these questions to the people and build the political narrative. 

Politically, many observers, including at least some BJP sympathisers, would worry that the attack on Gandhi and the attempt to silence him in Parliament can make him a hero. It would, quite unhelpfully for the BJP, confirm fears that the Adani connection is truly sinister, and runs deep and to the very top of the ruling establishment.

But that, too, is a side story; it may well grow over time to take its toll on the BJP, or likely not. For the moment, and to the extent that the BJP is seen as the perpetrator and the party to benefit from the disqualification, the nation and the world will note that today’s party does not care about the price of its actions. Taken together with the litany of cases against opposition leaders, the toppling of a government in the western state of Maharashtra, the pressure put on the AAP government in Delhi, and a host of other strains being imposed on the polity, the impression is sought to be created that anyone who stands up will be crushed. 

There appears to be a sense of anger, bitterness, even revenge and nonstop bullying that drives the politics of the day. This may well be the mental make-up of a very few people at the top echelons of power but today it stands presented as a nation in the grip of these negativisms, its institutions beaten out of shape, its rich history plundered from the inside. India has caved in.

Democracy being hollowed out?

What does that say about the a) storied democratic traditions of India and b) the much-glorified nature of democracy itself.

To consider the second first, there can be instant death or slow death. A sudden coup, a military adventurist taking over the Palace, a nation going bankrupt with no forex left or militia fighting each other on the streets and in the jungles is the way nascent democracies fall and overambitious dictators rise. We thought this was what happened elsewhere, not in India. That is of course true because Indian democracy by standard measures is robust even today – we have elections every five years, peaceful transfers of power at the Centre and in the States, the military is professional, Parliament meets, bills are passed and some debate takes place. In fact, much of the Gandhi-related actions are being linked to the upcoming 2024 elections. So, there is everything in place for the institutions of democracy to work and yet there is the distinct feeling that everything is emptied out, hollowed, working for a given establishment rather than a tall nation.

The 2018 book ‘How Democracies Die’ (by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt) notes of a time when “politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press …  try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices ... states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism …” The authors are talking of the world’s most powerful democracy but they might as well be talking of the largest. Writing in The Guardian, the authors said: “Many government efforts to subvert democracy are ‘legal’, in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. They may even be portrayed as efforts to improve democracy – making the judiciary more efficient, combating corruption or cleaning up the electoral process. Newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticize the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People do not immediately realise what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy.”

Do we believe we are living in a democracy? This brings up the first point, the so-called storied democratic traditions of India. Many among the Indian intelligentsia had over the years internalised the message that the 19 months of Emergency rule of former prime minister Indira Gandhi was the exception, and that democracy is the rule. This is how India messages the world. Now the interpretation sounds rather simplistic. India has some deep soul-searching to do as we explore the question: Are we truly a democratic nation? Or is democracy the story we sell to ourselves and the world when the nation and its people know that we are not what we think or claim to be?

India’s democratic traditions go back deep into history but as Prof. Madhavan Palat, the editor of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, said while delivering the 2023 Nehru Memorial Lecture hosted by the King’s India Institute at King’s College, London (03 Mar 2023), “There is a long thesis that Indians were taught by their colonial masters how to be democratic.” He pointed out that there is even an inscription by Edwin Lutyens on the portals of one of the government buildings that said people have to learn to be free before they can get freedom. Lutyens was of course wrong, as Palat notes in his lecture. But our present-day leaders seem to tell us that he was right!

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press/editor@thebillionpress.org)

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