It used to be easy to decipher when democracy had ceased to operate in a country, more often than not through a military coup and other such violent seizure of power.
Military coups still occur – as in Myanmar or Sudan or most recently in Niger. But increasingly, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt pointed out by in their 2018 book How Democracies Die, the more common case is that of democratic institutions and buffers being gradually eroded while citizens remain under the spell of a “strong” leader’s heroic antics and seductive promises until one day, democracy ends not with a bang but a whimper.
As such a process has been underway in India for a few years now, it has become the practice among the liberal international media, like The Economist or the Financial Times, to describe India as an ‘illiberal democracy”. The term “illiberal democracy” gained currency from journalists like Fareed Zakaria and political leaders like Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary. In the context of India, however, “illiberal democracy”, is an oxymoron and not quite a harmless term.
In fact, the labeling of elected despotism as “illiberal democracy” gives it an unwarranted democratic certificate. Consider, for instance, the vigilante violence against minorities by thugs associated with the ruling party and the regular use of “bulldozer governance”, as political scientist Suhas Palshikar refers to the demolition spree that Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state governments have embarked upon.
The past few years have also seen the abuse of investigative agencies and draconian laws to hound political opponents and dissenters and much of civil society and the media being cowed down. The judiciary is timid and erratic, while the legislature is mainly used as a rubber stamp for decisions taken unilaterally by the executive. India’s institutions of checks and balances seem largely in suspension.
There is a tradition among some sections of political science to recognise countries as minimally democratic if elections are competitive so that the incumbent has some chance of losing. It is important to examine this tradition in light of today’s politics.
Of course, the elections themselves are not quite competitive in some of these countries. In Narendra Modi’s India, as in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Poland or Orbán’s Hungary, elections are not held on a level playing field. This is especially the case given the quasi-monopoly hold of the ruling party on the media, election authorities and on corporate donations, with dissent and criticism of the government deemed anti-national.
Even ignoring all this, the nature of elections has qualitatively changed in these countries. Populist demagogues as leaders have turned much of the citizenry into fanatical fan clubs, governance into lurid political theatre with elections decided not in terms of the quality or wisdom of the leader’s policies but more as a referendum on their charisma.
In a large, diverse country like India, the charisma of a national leader is sometimes trumped by local issues and cultural pride at the sub-national level – as seen, for example, most prominently in West Bengal and much of South India. This makes state-level elections more competitive than at the national level where the Opposition is fragmented and sometimes rudderless.
Even if elections were competitive, how can the state of the polity and society in between elections be ignored in judging if a country is democratic or not? Democracy is essentially a process of preserving and promoting the human rights of all citizens – including safeguarding of minority rights – and of some basic downward accountability mechanisms, but most of the time these are in considerable jeopardy.
Democracy is also a process of public reasoning and deliberation, which has been largely forsaken in India, in or out of legislative bodies, in the media or on the streets. Most debates have degenerated into mud-slinging and shouting matches. Above all, in a country of extreme social diversities, democracy often provides the only secure and non-violent form for the resolution of social conflicts – this, too, is being largely discarded as ethnic polarisation is found to be a surefire way of consolidating sectarian votes.
Most alarming is the cynical public acquiescence of the “jungle raj” (of encounter killings, lynchings and bulldozings and routine arrests of victims who complain or protest rather than of perpetrators) that has been seen, particularly in North India.
When such essential democratic principles and civic norms are being dismantled, a regime cannot be called democratic – even if an overwhelming majority of the electorate was to vote for such a regime.
James Madison, a founding father of the American constitution, distinguished between democracy and what he called “the tyranny of the majority”. (In 1788 in his Federalist Paper no. 51, Madison worried that in a system of majority rule, the majority in a population may override the interests and welfare of the minority. He, thus, thought checks and balances on the power of the majority are needed.)
In India’s 2019 general elections, only about 37% of the electorate voted for the ruling BJP. But even if they were to now vote more decisively for a party advocating a Hindu rashtra or Hindu nation, it does not negate the fact that by the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution a Hindu rashtra is essentially unconstitutional.
Even if one moves away from the authoritarian bigotry and communalism of large sections of the ruling party and their rabid followers, it is important to recognise in some sense the more unpleasant fact that, whatever India’s leaders may say, democracy is not in our DNA.
Keeping in mind centuries-old inequalities, oppressions and hierarchical structures of Indian society, BR Ambedkar, the prime framer of the Constitution, was nearer the truth when he said in 1948: “Democracy is only a top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”.
In the decades since, a great deal of public effort has gone into nurturing and cultivating the fragile plant of democracy in India – it is a matter of great sadness that much of these efforts are now being negated.
Pranab Bardhan is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of California, Berkeley.