‘To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism’ review: At a dangerous crossroad

Harsh and dark phrases are usually deployed to signal the end of democracy, but Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane refreshingly use history, marshal facts and weave a complex and compelling narrative on why India’s democracy stands at a dangerous crossroad.

Wide gap

The book’s fundamental argument is that there is a wide gap between India’s political reality, which offers political equality, and its social reality. The absence of egalitarian values in India’s social life has finally caught up with its political project under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2014. This is not too far from Dr. Ambedkar’s warning in an interview to the BBC in 1953 that the authors quote. Frustrated by opposition to his plans to reform Hindu personal laws, he did not think much of the chances of Indian democracy surviving “for the simple reason that we have got a social structure which is totally incompatible with parliamentary democracy.”

It is ironic that with an Indian government which is trying hard to embed ‘democracy’ as central to its international and strategic outreach, the Indian edition of the book has been hard to procure, with little clarity on whether it will be printed here, thus lowering the cover price, or be imported.

Keane’s The New Despotism on ills plaguing several democracies including India was valuable in understanding the contemporary crises, where he argued that elections and popular will were being used to conjure up support for despotic and authoritarian rule. This, he argued, was not just an imposition. A significant section of the population was willingly supporting the despot.

The missing essence

Roy and Keane invoke Periyar’s worldview, of the essence of democracy being equality and freedom for each of its members. It is not limited to elections where “bread and fish” secure votes and sap the system of its essence. A “well-functioning democracy requires a special kind of social life. Democracy is freedom from hunger, humiliation and violence... It’s freedom from fear and the right not to be killed. It’s equal access to decent medical care and sympathy for those who have fallen behind. Democracy is a learned sense of worldly wonder. It’s the everyday ability to handle unexpected situations wisely. It’s the rejection of the dogma that things can’t be changed because they’re ‘naturally’ fixed in stone.”

By meticulously recording the degrading of life in India for an average citizen, the authors conclude that India had been setting itself up for a collapse. The dangers of the promise of equality, once it remained unfulfilled, lead to a contempt for democracy when large sections begin to thirst for someone who could cut through the system and deliver. “Give me a despot,” they said.

The despotism in India has come combined with Hindutva ideology, which as a consequence of electoral dominance, is trying to fundamentally remake the nation as an ethnic democracy. Even though this was pointedly negated during the freedom struggle and the crafting of the Constitution.

Where we stand

There is, generally speaking, a desire to see whatever degradation we see around us, as historical baggage, of bitter fruits of a past when Indian society was always prone to privileging powerful sections with others falling in line. The other view is to prioritise the present, and blame it all on events, a single person or party in power. What this book tries to do is get away from choosing one or the other of the reasons to account for where India stands today. It connects all that has been achieved by India by adhering to its constitutional values as its desired ideals. It is also able to measure the large gaps between socially acceptable norms which were left mostly uncontested even as India went to boldly embrace universal progressive values. You would not be wrong to argue that this book is an expansion of Ambedkar’s address to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949. It was in that speech that he clearly spelt out his worries for India’s future, when politics guarantees one man being equal to one vote but within a social reality which does not accord each citizen an equal value. He was convinced that unless dealt with, the divergence will tear the modern Indian project apart.

A pushback

But as they conclude, the authors spot hope due to substantial counter-currents against the current regime. The authors see challenges to authoritarian decisions in numerous protests and India’s diversity. This diversity, they say, could serve as the most effective counter to the ruling dispensation’s ideology of one-nation and one-everything.

This important and well-written book’s title is inspired by the Harper Lee classic, To Kill a Mocking Bird . Democracy is ultimately “insubordination: the refusal to put up with everyday forms of snobbery and toad-eating, idolatry and lying, bullshit and bullying.” The problem that the reader is left with is, can this be done in the absence of social democracy? As the authors conclude, “if despotism replaces democracy then this isn’t because despotic power is somehow inevitable, but because citizens allow it to happen.” Citizens will have to be the proverbial Atticus Finch to prevent the killing of India’s democracy.

To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism ; Debasish Roy Chowdhury & John Keane, Oxford University Press, ₹995.

The reviewer is a journalist-writer based in New Delhi.

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Printable version | Apr 25, 2022 12:23:41 pm |