The task of restoring democracy

Civil society has a big role to play in restoring institutions that form the bulwark of democracy

On April 24, an ultra-right wing Italian group assembled in Milan to resurrect Benito Mussolini. The day and the place were both symbolically significant. April 25 is celebrated as Liberation Day in Italy, and it was at the Piazzale Loreto in central Milan that Mussolini’s body was hung upside down on April 28, 1945. Pictures of the people in the group showed them holding with one hand a big banner that read ‘Honour to Mussolini’, while their other hand was raised in the old fascist style of salutation to his memory.

This story is not dissimilar to how an ultra-right wing group recreated Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on his death anniversary this year. Not dissimilar, too, to how a Lok Sabha election candidate bragged about the ‘patriotism’ of Gandhi’s killer. As we are seeing now, the memory of the assassin of the Mahatma is being brought to the surface by the ultra-right to take pride in what was clearly a shameful and sorrowful event in India’s history.

The dark clouds of fascism

These instances send shivers down the spine of all those who shun violence. All over the world, decent human beings have spent the last seven decades thinking that fascism is a thing of the past and that the crimes against humanity that fascism consciously perpetrated will always be seen as the most heinous among brutal crimes. But that confidence is now becoming a precious luxury. This year, for instance, in Italy, the right wing Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has proposed to put up a joint right wing front for contesting the upcoming election to the European Parliament. The ominous possibility of the ultras in Austria, Germany, France, and some ‘new’ European countries confronts Europe in the face.


The Italian development is not entirely unrelated to the outcome of the elections in Spain. While the Socialists won the election, the right wing continues to play an important role in the formation of the new government there. The Spanish election results bring to mind a term that has dominated the Indian media for the last few months — a hung Parliament. In Spain, the Socialist party (PSOE) has won 123 seats and the anti-capitalist Podemos, which has indicated a readiness to work in a PSOE-led coalition, has won 42, which makes it a total of 165. This is 11 seats short of a clear majority. The traditional conservative People’s Party has got 66 seats; their stronger shade, the centre-right Citizens party has won 57 seats; and the far-right Vox, the type that wants to resurrect Mussolini, has won 24 seats.

The dark clouds of openly declared fascism have cast a large shadow over Europe. The history of Hitler’s rule tells us how he befriended the rich industrial class and destroyed the German Parliament. His use of capital, science and technology for creating an unprecedented torture machine for Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists and all his critics was based on the capacities available in his time. Today, these capacities have increased beyond one’s imagination. The technological aids for deeply invasive surveillance that the state has at its disposal are so advanced that the idea of individual freedom and non-conformist thought will have no space left if the ideas of the ultra-right were to capture power.

The Lok Sabha election has come to an end and in a few days we will know what the ballot box has in store for us. Given India’s place in the world, there is no doubt that all political parties in Europe will be keenly watching the outcome of the Indian election. Is it a small irony that a powerful bloc of nations, the BRICS, that was seen as being on an impressive and economic rise some years ago has changed so much? Brazil, Russia and China today have totalitarian and anti-people regimes, and India has obscurantist theological outfits openly claiming space in the decision-making process.

Challenges for the new regime

After the election results are announced, the new government will have many challenges waiting for its attention. These include jobless growth and a record drop in employment rates, deep agrarian distress, an education system that has completely eroded, caste discrimination and the continuing harassment of women. All these are real issues even if the government pretends they do not exist.


The most important, though, is the serious loss of credibility of democratic institutions. The Central Bureau of Investigation and the gubernatorial offices have declined beyond repair. The Election Commission, the judiciary and the Comptroller and Auditor General can still be rebuilt. Many other institutions such as the University Grants Commission, the national academies, scientific institutions and data-gathering mechanisms will require not just first-aid care but serious cure. The TRP demon will hardly permit redemption of the electronic media, but traditional print journalism and online journalism will require greater self-reflection and self-regulation. No government will be able to cope with these challenges by itself unless many active sections of the citizenry participate in the task of restoring democracy.

The task I suggest will be difficult for the country to accomplish even if a non-right government is formed, no matter of what composition. Over the last seven decades, democracy has been protected by civil society, which has critiqued the faults of various regimes. This time, civil society will have to rush to the assistance of the government in restoring institutions that form the bulwark of democracy. This task will be enormously daunting if a right wing government comes to power. Curbing its jingoism and propaganda juggernaut will require heroic efforts. To keep vigil on complicit office-holders in key institutions will become full-time voluntary work for political opponents and non-party groups.

Yet, if many of us do not do this, we will provide an unintended impetus to the ultra-right. It is true that democracy has erred often. Yet, it is also true that democracy solidly stood the world’s guarantee for averting wars. Democracy has erred, but it has not failed us. The idea of democracy today is a pale shadow of what it was imagined to be. U.S. President Donald Trump’s vision for the country as a place only for Americans and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s imagining of India as a place for only those who agree with him are versions of democracy that have reduced their respective Constitutions to a forgotten baggage. Indians must hold vigil in both good and bad times. We will soon know if we can.

G.N. Devy is a thinker and cultural activist Email:

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Printable version | Jul 1, 2020 12:00:04 PM |

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