Seeing dystopia in India’s democracy

The state’s attachment to the procedures of democracy has not been matched by concern for a fulfilling life for Indians

Published - September 24, 2020 12:02 am IST

The United Nations has declared September 15 ‘ International Day of Democracy ’. An entry on its website states that this “provides an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world”. To review the state of democracy in India would be timely given the times we are living through. Indeed by now, as India meets fresh challenges almost daily, for us to do so is arguably more important than to celebrate independence from colonial rule, which we do out of habit annually. But to review the state of democracy in India we would need to adopt a suitable criteria.

A partial evaluation

Formally, India is a democracy alright. There are multi-party elections with universal suffrage subject only to an age restriction. In evaluations of democracy in India it is often observed, to its credit, that it is the world’s largest democracy. Further plaudits are given for the smooth changeover in government after elections, the existence of an independent press and judiciary, and the guarantee of civil liberties justiciable in courts of law. While these are valid observations, the assessment is based on a partial evaluation. To an extent it amounts to admiring a form of government for its own sake without concern for the socioeconomic outcomes that are produced. It is like admiring the architecture of a building without pausing to enquire whether its inhabitants are happy to be living in it.

Data | How has the state of democracy in India changed since 2008?

Outcomes differ among countries that are democracies. Take for instance the life satisfaction that citizens report. First, it should be noted that this is potentially an important metric as it is based on people’s perceptions on what matters most, including the responsiveness of the government to their needs. In the UN’s World Happiness Report for 2020 , the list of top 10 countries is heavily loaded with the democracies of western Europe. The U.S. barely edges into the top 20. India, on the other hand, is ranked 144 out of the 153 countries evaluated .

Further, its ranking has dropped in recent years. We should be giving serious thought to both the fact of India’s low ranking on the happiness index and its slide. To my mind, the criterion that in a democracy the people must be satisfied with their life is given very little thought these days. It was not so in the early days of our republic.

Built by the people

Two leaders who had recognised this criterion in their engagements with the public were Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Nehru was explicit in his speech on August 15, 1947 when he stated that the goal of independence was to create institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman. Note that Nehru had not promised that the government will create these institutions. He was far too aware that democracy is not synonymous with statism; it is about the people. Ultimately, the institutions that enable persons to lead fulfilling lives are built by the people themselves. Let me give you three examples, all from the United States. In the 1960s, that country saw movements for black empowerment, women’s emancipation and sexual liberation. These movements were remarkably successful in the outcomes they achieved, while receiving no support from the U.S. state. This is the sense in which it may be said that it is the people who build the institutions that matter. That said, however, the state has a role in their building. Laws must not constrain liberty when it is self-affirming and must change when it is realised that they do.

Also read | India drops 10 ranks to 51st position in Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index

On development

The role of the state does not end with removing restraints though. It extends to the endowment of individuals with capabilities in the sense of Amartya Sen. Prof. Sen had thought of capabilities as the endowments that allow individuals to undertake the functionings, or do the things, that they value. We can think of a person’s health and education as among the most important inputs into the capabilities that they end up possessing. While radical approaches to empowerment rightly emphasise the importance of self-help, it is not sufficiently recognised that individuals cannot easily equip themselves with capabilities, requiring the state to intervene. Think of a person born into poverty or a woman born into wealth but into a world with social sanction against education for women. Similarly, historically, the caste system in India had excluded a large section from education. While private initiative should not be de-legitimised, it has had only a limited impact on building capabilities in India as it has focused on those with the ability to pay. In a move to measure the capabilities of a population, the UN devised the Human Development Index. The main elements of this are health and education. As with the UN’s Happiness Index, India fares very poorly in the UN’s Human Development Index too. In 2019, India ranked 129th out of 189 countries . Judged in terms of human development — and one would be hard put to defend any other sense in which development is to be understood — Indian democracy is severely challenged.

Also read | Freedom in the World 2020 report ranks India among least free democracies

Pointing to the incongruence between India’s low level of human development and its status as a democracy evokes the response that this is to see the latter in instrumental terms. Democracy it is asserted is a form of government, namely government by discussion. The answer to this deflection is that democracy may be a form of government but surely the people have come to adopt this particular form of government with a goal in mind. We may safely assume a fulfilling life is that goal. Authoritarianism is not compatible with such a life, only democracy, which at least in principle grants individuals a voice in governance, is. Second, people adopt democracy so that they can participate in their own governance. They cannot but have foreseen that they must be endowed with capabilities if this is to be possible at all. Thus, liberty and capability are conjoined as the ultimate aspiration in a democracy.

Comment | A ‘democracy capture’

Neglect and repression

In India, the state’s ritualistic attachment with the procedures of democracy has not been matched by an awareness of its implicit goal of a fulfilling life for Indians. By the 1950s, freedom of speech had been restricted by the First Amendment to the Constitution and the Directive Principles, that had enjoined upon the state to promote health and education, had been all but forgotten. Inevitably, the consequential underinvestment in a public health system has left the country severely unprepared for the emergency when COVID-19 struck. After reading of bodies left lying in their wards, we now read of an emerging shortage of something so basic as oxygen supply in metropolitan hospitals. COVID-19 affects the human respiratory system and oxygen is vital to avert the loss of life. Those who have survived thus far live with foreboding of a gruesome end. Not only has the state neglected its responsibility but it has resorted to repression when its inaction is questioned. Recently, an agency reported that a representative of the State in southern Andhra Pradesh publicly threatened with arrest a government doctor who had dared to mention at a review meeting that there were not enough beds in the primary health centre that he was responsible for.

Comment | Retrieving ideas of democracy and nation

Dystopia was imagined as a place where the people experience great suffering as they fend for themselves under the watchful eyes of an authoritarian state. Is it so far from where we live today?

Pulapre Balakrishnan is Professor of Economics at Ashoka University, Sonipat

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