The experience of recent years suggests that basic trust in Indian democratic institutions is somewhat eroding. Examples to support this view include the Supreme Court coming under scrutiny, lack of transparency in the funding of political parties, debates around EVM tampering and on whether or not we should amend the Constitution. Notwithstanding the existence of a multiparty, parliamentary system, regular elections, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary, doubts are raised with respect to the fairness of elections, alliances of the media, insufficient separation of the judiciary from the executive, populism, and plutocracy.

A major characteristic of a populist regime is that it is influenced by a strong, popular mass leader who appeals to the linguistic, religious, regional, or community sentiments of a populace. Typically his campaigns throw up issues of cultural pride, adopt a pro-poor and anti-elite language, deify ideas of nationhood, aggrandise military might, glorify a golden past and assure a prosperous future.

The current government has manifested most of these attributes in the past four years. Demonetisation was couched in anti-elite language, military aggrandisement came in the wake of the “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control, and statements by numerous Bharatiya Janata Party leaders hint at the glorification of the idea of Hindu nationhood. The 2014 election slogan of Achhe Din was nothing but the promise of a prosperous future. Alongside the rise of populism has been the deepening of plutocratic politics — governments of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. It is easy to find a positive correlation between the net worth of an individual and his likelihood of obtaining a ticket to contest elections. Given an open market of cash for votes, such individuals also tend to amass more votes.

In India, a strong alliance of class interest and political power is apparent. At a broad level, massive tax evasion and multi-billion-dollar scams involving not only big corporates but also public banks demonstrate how profits are increasingly being privatised while the losses are being nationalised. Even during the United Progressive Alliance regime, mega scams such as those associated with the Commonwealth Games or the coal sector surfaced, in which political leaders were allegedly involved.

There is a risk that the combination of populism and plutocracy, which prioritise personality and private interests over public good, may dilute the independent functioning of institutions that sustain a vibrant democracy. Any strategy to prevent such institutional erosion must aim to collectively reinforce faith in the principles and practice of democracy, constitutionalism and social justice.

The writer is a PhD scholar at the University of Delhi, and founding partner, Jan Ki Baat

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