The peaceful conduct of the recent elections reinforces Churchill’s idea of democracy as “the little man walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper...” to elect a person of one’s choice. But the lesson of our evolving democracy is that a ballot by itself is not enough to yield a truly democratic state. A report by the Pew Research Center on social hostilities distressingly ranks India first. On several indices, our democratic deficit impels an urgent introspection, even as we celebrate the resilience of our elective processes.
A thoughtful reflection on the quality of our democracy must contend with many troubling questions. Has our democratic engagement expanded the reach of fundamental freedoms and enlarged the circle of human dignity? Can we reasonably claim that our democratic processes have facilitated self-determination, moral autonomy, and free choice? Has our democracy yielded politics that answers to the “injunctions of conscience”? Whether our democracy has served as a bulwark against authoritarian inclinations generated by majoratarian triumphalism remains a chastening interrogatory. Honest answers to these will attest our record as a faltering democracy.
A flailing democracy
A polity captive to the pull of sectarian mass mobilisation and an economy in which the top 10% hold 77% of the nation’s wealth do not sit well with the foundational principles of an egalitarian democracy. That ours is a flailing democracy is evident in an abandonment of civil conversation on the core challenges that beset us as a nation. A political discourse laced with vicious calumnies against political rivals is a grim reminder that language and thought in a dialectical relationship corrupt each other.
Clearly, a political culture which sees “villainy as virtue” and “elevates unfettered abuse, imperious ignorance, untamed egotism and reflexive bigotry” across parties as political conversation has disabled the nation from reaping the full dividends of a constitutional state. Politics that thrives on persecution of adversaries in an abuse of the state’s coercive processes negates the essence of justice, just as the Opposition’s compulsive disdain for every action of the government regardless of its intrinsic merit has weakened its credibility as a countervailing democratic force. Anchored solely in expediency and unmindful of the moral imperatives, our politics stands condemned in its failure to deliver the constitutional promise of a liberal state committed to a just exercise of accountable power. It instead mirrors a society riven by cleavages and debilitating social discord amplified by sophistry and absolutism.
Failure of justice
Despite a proclaimed commitment to the rule of law, the country’s legal processes have failed justice in several ways, prompting the highest court to lament the “mortality of justice at the hands of law” (Rani Kusum, 2005). President Droupadi Murmu’s significant observation questioning the need for more jails and the apex court’s caution against routine custodial interrogation confirm a painful disregard for the dignitarian promise of democracy.
The uninterrupted ramping up of executive power has unsettled institutional power equations designed to ensure a dispersal of power as the first principle of constitutional democracy. This has rendered the Indian state dysfunctional in its wider promise of freedom and justice under law. The decline of our democracy coinciding with the largest-ever expansion of the national economy and reduction in the levels of abject poverty question the absoluteness of the co-relation between economic growth and a robust democracy. Experience dictates a review of such assumptions and an examination of the extent to which our occupation with material pursuits has diminished our capacity to resist the state’s encroachment of fundamental rights.
Notwithstanding its backsliding, we can rescue our democracy as long as the flame of freedom is alive in our hearts and is nurtured by the valour of free people willing to walk the path of justice. Critical to the project of democratic renewal is a search for leadership whose quest to remain on the opening pages of history is driven by a cause larger than the self. Indeed, a true democracy cannot allow the flourishing of boastful individuals dwarfed by the narrowness of their politics. We must restore humility as a desideratum of democratic politics. It is time that we reinvested ourselves in the Gandhian tradition of politics that emphasises the importance of means in furtherance of political goals. Our pursuit of democracy must address a flawed system that enables “manufactured consent”, manipulated majorities and perversion of the ends of democratic politics.
The decline of democratic institutions can be arrested through a politics of national renewal based on reasoned conversations and a collective political assertion in favour of freedom over fear, inclusion over exclusion and justice over injustice. Democratic institutions are, after all, only enforcers of national conscience, not its progenitors. The efflorescence of “millions of free voices into one harmonious melody” as the basis of national consensus suggested by the Prime Minister, as against one by diktat, offers hope for bridging the deepened social and political divides. But this is possible only through a politics of accommodation and conciliation inspired by political magnanimity and honesty of purpose.