The tyranny of the majority is a product of the democratic process that could end up killing democracy itself. It stifles dissent, criticism and all shades of the opinion except that of the brute majority. As the 19th-century British political thinker JS Mill noted, the tyranny of the majority does not limit itself to the political sphere but also encroaches on the social and personal domains of citizens and the community.
In order to limit the tyranny of the majority, democratic constitutions all over the world adopt some restraints on authority, such as guaranteeing the rights of citizens. But what about a situation when rulers under the guise of majority rule short circuit democracy by concentrating authority in themselves or abandoning rationality in decision-making and in policy?
Under the tyranny of the majority, wrote De Tocqueville, rulers base their claim to rule on numbers, not on righteousness or excellence. They substitute rule of law with rule by law. All differing opinions are viewed as challenges to the ruler.
The gravest instance India has experienced of the democratic process being subverted by a ruler was the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975, when civil liberties were suspended. But the tyranny of the majority gives rulers the scope to subvert the democratic process even without declaring an emergency.
The last four-and-a-half years of Bharatiya Janata Party rule in Uttar Pradesh are a good example of this. During this time, two characteristics of the subversion of the rule of law have become apparent: the concentration of authority in a person instead of in a position, and the abandonment of rationality in decision-making and in policy. This has been a bureaucrat-run government where the ministers and other elected functionaries have been relegated to the background.
For instance, the entire management of the Covid-19 pandemic, affecting the state’s 23.5 crore people, has been put in the hands of the team of nine bureaucrats led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. There is no mechanism for receiving feedback from citizens, as is evident from the letters of ministers, MLAs and office bearer of ruling party that have now become public. Thus, it is not surprising that the government does not have any figures about the exact number of government officials who died from Covid-19 after they were pressed into election duty for April’s panchayat polls.
The newspapers are filled with reports about the numerous people who died across the state because of the lack of hospital beds, oxygen and medicines. But the chief minister has taken the position that the government has brought the situation firmly under control and that no one in Uttar Pradesh has died due to a lack of oxygen or medicine. If anyone were to discuss the problems on social media, she could be tried under the notorious British-era Sedition Act.
Another example of the subversion of rule of law in Uttar Pradesh is the large number of extra-judicial killings under BJP rule. In December 2019, the Uttar Pradesh Police announced that 103 “criminals” had been killed and 1,859 injured in 5,178 police incidents in less than three years. It is true that the state of Uttar Pradesh faces the challenge of large-scale criminalisation. But that does not justify the administration taking it upon itself to punish offenders.
The Private Property Ordinance, 2020, is a perfect example of irrational decision-making by the government. It was passed by a government that was in hurry to punish the people in the state who were agitating against the provisions of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which, many fear, endanger the rights of India’s Muslims. The ordinance allows the state government to attach a person’s property to compensate for property claimed to have been damaged during political protests or riots.
The state government did not care to remember that there is already a procedure laid down by the law to recover damages in such situations and that such recovery can take place only under the supervision of the High Court. The new ordinance has no reference to this procedure or the role of the High Court in such situations.
The government even put up posters of people who had been accused of participating in violence during the protests in the state against the Citizenship Amendment Act. This despite the fact that these people had not been tried or convicted. The High Court eventually ordered the government to take down the posters.
Similar nonchalance is evident in the government’s decision to move the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, 2020. In the guise of controlling so-called love jihad, the conspiracy theory which maintains that Muslim men have launched a campaign to marry Hindu women merely to later convert them to Islam, the government has infringed on the personal liberty of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution.
High Courts have repeatedly stated that the marriage between the two consenting adults is their personal right. Despite this, the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance law imposes severe restrictions on inter-faith marriages and gives undue powers to the District Magistrates to decide such cases. The moral policing by the Uttar Pradesh government is a serious infringement of personal liberty.
There are myriad examples of serious lapses by the government in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of law and order machinery to threaten dissidents and the suppression of all forms of criticism. The textbook definition of the tyranny of the majority is on display in full course in Uttar Pradesh: there is a concentration of political power, citizens’s rights are repeatedly infringed and decision-making is frequently irrational.
The misuse of political power to silence critics is nowhere more pronounced as it has been under the present BJP regime. The mismanagement of public affairs is visible in every aspect of public life.
Uttar Pradesh has become a laboratory to study the downfall of democracy by a democratically elected government. The people of the state may not understand the intricacies of how political authority is being misused but they are keenly aware of the consequences of it being captured. With elections due next year, the people of Uttar Pradesh will ensure that they throw their weight behind political stability and will vote out those who misuse political authority and the subversion of democracy.
Sudhir Panwar is Professor at University of Lucknow and former member of Uttar Pradesh planning commission.