Is the future of Indian democracy secure?

Procedural democracy may endure but the liberal spirit is in danger of extinction

May 17, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:20 am IST

Over the past few months, while observing the discussions and rhetoric surrounding the parliamentary elections, I have been struck by the disjuncture between the concerns expressed, on the one hand, by the liberal elite who write in the English press and engage in debates on the more serious talk shows and, and on the other, the preoccupation of the majority of Indian voters who will decide the winner of the electoral contest.

This article does not attempt to denigrate the concerns of the latter; it merely seeks to highlight the disconnectedness between elite and mass concerns and bring out its implications for the future of Indian democracy.

Three concerns

Members of the liberal elite are greatly worried, and rightfully so, about the future of political institutions that the founders of the republic had nurtured with great care. Several of these institutions, including the Supreme Court, the Election Commission of India and the Central Bureau of Investigation, which are constitutionally mandated to be autonomous agencies, have recently come under a cloud because of their perceived inability to work independently of the political executive or because of the lack of transparency in their performance.

The other major apprehension is the threat posed to the “idea of India” as a plural and inclusive polity by the rise of Hindutva and its political instrument, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress party’s pursuit of “soft” Hindutva, as against the BJP’s “hard” Hindutva, has heightened such concerns. This is why many members of the liberal elite are greatly worried about the visible transformation in the ideology of India’s Grand Old Party.

The third major concern is the discernible rise in populist and authoritarian tendencies in the country reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency that threaten to reduce India to merely a procedural democracy where elections are held primarily to anoint populist leaders. This outcome, if it occurs, will be antithetical to the democratic ethos enshrined in the Constitution that Mrs. Gandhi had tried to subvert unsuccessfully.

Although I deeply sympathise with these concerns of the liberal elite, it occurred to me that whereas liberal intellectuals have been fixated on subjects such as the erosion of institutions, the rise of majoritarianism and the proliferation of populist and authoritarian tendencies, most voters are unconcerned about these issues. Very few, except for the religious minorities, are worried about the erosion of the pluralist idea of India.

Their concerns as they relate to the electoral process are limited to three types of issues: jobs and livelihood; caste and communal considerations; and demonstration of Indian strength especially vis-à-vis Pakistan. The first is perfectly understandable since a substantial segment of the population lives just above the poverty line and is constantly worried that it may be pushed below that line. Even middle class Indians feel economically vulnerable in the absence of a social safety net and are incessantly nervous about job insecurity. This explains the attraction of underpaid government jobs that provide life-long security and the fight for and against reservations in the public sector. The economic distress in the agricultural sector makes the rural population even more acutely aware of threats to their financial well-being, indeed to their physical survival. It is these economic concerns that have made both the ruling BJP and the Congress emphasise economically ameliorative measures (although most of them are unlikely to be implemented) in their election manifestos.

Caste and community continue to play a very important role in Indian politics. Several parties are explicitly based on caste or sub-caste coalitions. All parties choose their candidates based on caste and community calculations within individual constituencies and engage in mobilising caste-based support for their candidates. Voting on caste lines is taken as a given in elections and political pundits frequently base their prognoses of electoral outcomes on the caste arithmetic. At the same time, right-wing parties such as the BJP emphasise the religious divide in order to take advantage of communal consolidation on the basis of religion.

Favoured strategy

One factor that appears to cut across caste and linguistic divisions is the attraction for many voters to hyper-nationalism, sometimes bordering on jingoism. Hyper-nationalism has always been the favourite strategy of populist leaders seeking to retain or to attain power. It is no coincidence that this has become a prominent feature of these elections. The Pakistan-engineered terrorist attack in Pulwama and the retaliatory air strike on Balakot have provided an excellent opportunity for the expression of hyper-nationalist sentiments.

The ruling party has very shrewdly used this action-reaction phenomenon for electoral purposes especially by projecting the Prime Minister’s image as a strong and decisive leader capable of teaching Pakistan a lesson. A combination of the factors outlined above — lack of concern for institutions, preoccupation with livelihood issues, obsession with caste and community benefits, and the propagation of hyper-nationalism — taken together facilitate populism, which, as history shows, can easily lead to authoritarianism. The danger of this occurring is reinforced by the fact that there seems to be an innate desire among many Indians that a “strong leader” should rule the country and that institutions are redundant when it comes to people’s daily concerns. In fact, many argue that the liberal elite’s obsession with institutionalising the policy process is a luxury that a country in a hurry cannot afford and that a decisive decision-maker is preferable to the complicated mechanism of institutionalised decision-making.

The constellation of these factors, especially as depicted during the run-up to the elections, does not bode well for the future of democracy in India. Procedural democracy in the form of periodic elections may endure but the liberal spirit undergirding democracy, so cherished by the drafters of the Constitution, is in danger of becoming extinct.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University and Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington DC

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