Subversion of democracy

Updated April 23, 2018


THE problem starts at a fundamental level. How does one define a sadhu? Tied to the meaning of this word, or character, is in a way the well-being of the world’s largest democracy. Most people would think of a sadhu as an ascetic or monk of some sort. Dictionaries, however, are more specific. The Cambridge English Dictionary describes the sadhu to be a Hindu holy man, especially one who has chosen to live apart from society, while Collins, similarly, declares him to be a wandering holy man.

None of this is relevant anymore in saffron India. With the saffron Bharatiya Janata Party in power at the centre and in the majority of India’s 29 states, the sadhus get to play politics and wield enormous power. Early this month, five of this species were conferred minister of state rank after they were put on a committee to create awareness about tree plantation and water conservation by the chief minister of BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh. It was a straight deal. The sadhus were threatening an agitation and were bought off.

There is no let up in the appalling ways democratic norms are being thrown aside as the BJP consolidates its hold over the country, the motto being power by any means. There was another bizarre twist when the Narendra Modi regime at the centre ordered the Delhi government, run by his bête noire, the Aam Admi Party (AAP), to dismiss a clutch of advisers. These were professionals who were advising the Arvind Kejriwal government on overhauling the functioning of critical sectors such as education and health. None of the advisers was being paid. They were specialists offering ideas and time in a public cause. The work of some of these advisers, particularly of Atishi Marlena in the educational sector, has been spectacular. But the centre cribbed. It said that Kejriwal had not taken its permission.

The Modi regime’s intolerance of political opposition and its cavalier attitude is killing Indian democracy.

If that appears petty and vindictive, that’s how the Modi regime treats its opponents. It has been gunning for the AAP government ever since it came to power in 2015 in a sweeping victory that stemmed the Modi wave. The relentless assault on the powers of the Delhi government — this is an issue which is in the Supreme Court — has dealt a severe blow to the spirit of cooperative federalism which is a foundational pillar of the republic. It is symptomatic of the BJP’s contempt for constitutional norms and democratic traditions. In the process, autonomous institutions which are key to the survival of the republic have been eviscerated.

One is the Election Commission which has become the ruling party’s handmaiden as the BJP pursues its single-minded objective of power at any cost. If the EC has been compliant in meeting the BJP’s agenda on poll dates, it has been zealous in going after opposition parties on the flimsiest pretext. In the case of AAP, it has been way out of line and has been pulled up by the court for disqualifying 20 of its Delhi legislators on the charge of holding offices of profit. The Delhi High Court, setting aside the disqualification, reminded the poll panel that its procedures were neither fair nor reasonable. The principle of natural justice had been violated.

But what happens when the judiciary itself appears to have taken sides? As India is roiled by the crisis in the Supreme Court over the functioning of the chief justice, its democracy is looking increasingly fragile. The refusal of the apex court to allow a petition seeking an independent inquiry into the death of a special judge hearing a case involving BJP chief Amit Shah has brought to a head the simmering problems in the judiciary, the last bastion to have fallen as the BJP tightens its power over all pillars of democratic governance.

Seven opposition parties led by Congress have begun an unprecedented move to impeach Chief Justice Dipak Mishra for misusing his authority to undermine the independence of the judiciary. Whichever way the move ends, the notice of impeachment will cast a long shadow over the republic.

If democracy is in danger, the primary reason would be Modi’s lack of tolerance for political opponents and his inability to accept competing parties as legitimate rivals. His party’s frequent call for a ‘Congress-mukht Bharat’, or an India free of the Congress, reflects the poor understanding he has of how democracies work.

Then there is the BJP’s discomfort with following the constitution in letter and much less in spirit. For a party spawned by the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which has been contemptuous of the constitution, the constitution is an albatross that must be shaken off, primarily because it embodies the Nehruvian values of secular liberalism. Many of the BJP leaders openly talk about changing it as does the RSS which is working on a new template to include what it calls the Hindu ethos. Yet, a large majority of Indians are sanguine in their belief that their democracy is in no danger because of the ultimate weapon: elections.

Elections are no panacea, warn two Harvard professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who offer a checklist on how robust a democracy is. Autocrats are elected, and maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance, they warn. Worse, institutions alone would not be enough to rein in elected autocrats. And while constitutions must be defended — both by political parties and citizens — it also needs to be safeguarded by democratic norms. “Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not,” they caution in their recently published book How Democracies Die.

There is a particularly chilling passage which lists how autocrats subvert democracy: by packing and ‘weaponising’ the courts and other neutral agencies, by buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence) and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy — gradually, subtly, and even legally — to kill it.”

On all these counts India ticks the boxes.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2018