Worrisome? Indian democracy is eroding on multiple fronts… socially, culturally, economically

democracyBy Jitamanyu Sahoo*

Indian democracy project is an endeavour fraught with difficulty. The reason is not because the thesis is enormous, complex and unravelling itself as it is growing older. It is rather the need to assess the complexities which arise from the project is a fragile task. The Indian democratic experiment can lead to construction and misconstruction, it can impale the line between realism and cynicism and it can evoke experiences and horror at the same time. However, if anyone seriously engages with the democracy project one cannot but help admit the existence of conflicts.

Interpreting and understanding the layers of Indian democracy needs comparative tools as well as historical and cultural lenses. Indian democracy over seven decades old has been a source of contemplation for the observers. Despite the ‘first world’ conditions prevailing in significant pockets, India has been typified with the ‘third world’. Combined it with the rise of ethnic and religious conflicts, it appears to be a rather unlikely place for democracy to have taken roots.

Being a part of the billion people is the fascinating story of the specificity of Indian democracy. The process of democratization will always unsettle the existing power equations and produce radical uncertainties. Once democracy was instituted it slowly proliferated into all areas of social life. Indian democracy is necessarily episodic and its practice is going to be profoundly confusing. As Tocqueville put it incomparably, ‘The lines between authority and tyranny, liberty and license, right and might seem so jumbled and confused that no one knows exactly what he is, what he can do and what he should do’.

The experience of democracy in India has opened up fissures of dissent, new conflicts of values and identities, opening up different directions at once thus leading to a state of anxiety. The appearance and disappearance of conflicts that democracy has provoked are components of deepening the democracy. However, the presence of conflict enables participation of different groups ushering democratic accommodation. Indeed, our democracy’s monumental victory is its effectiveness in holding India together.

The fact is that the idea of India is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus. That consensus is around the simple principle that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree—except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. The reason India has survived and thrived all the stresses and strains that have beset it for seventy years and that led so many to predict its imminent disintegration, is that it maintained consensus on how to manage without consensus. This is where lies the great hope for the survival and success of India’s pluralism.

There have been major threats to the nation from separatist movements, caste conflicts and regional rivalries; political democracy has helped defuse them. Though democracy program is motivated by a concern about the core institutions of our democracy—elections, mass media, political parties, interest groups, social movements, and, especially, legislatures. However how these institutions address the large problems in the public interest is where the ‘Anxieties’ of our democracy resides.

Our Anxieties

First, why should we always assume that democracy would produce outcomes conducive to liberty? Liberty is the ability of an individual to pursue their own goals with minimal interference from outside forces. Democracy is rule by the people, where there is a rule of law that allows all people to elect accountable leaders. The relationship is complex because being part of a democracy usually entails limiting certain personal liberties at the expense of democratic principles.

Second, can Indian democracy be a threat to individuality? Though there is a common agreement that individual is the moral centre of Indian life but the feelings and attitudes that grow out of the centrality of the individual is steadily being eroded. The mere demand that all actions be justified on the altar of public opinion may produce a kind of conformity and threat to individual liberty. Moreover power intoxicated majorities can put minorities at risk.

Third, our democracy requires mediation of all sorts. It best works through representatives, not directly. It requires institutions that can fragment power so that it does not become overwhelming or tyrannical. The maladies that behest the basic institutions of democracy needs to be weeded out. It requires leaders that can take a long term, deliberative view rather than succumb to any passing fancy.

And finally there is a need to carve out the space for democratic performance. The lack of democratic space has muted individual behaviours that democrats finds valuable. So, there is a need to preserve a space for the pursuit of genuine distinction and excellence though that is often antithetical to its own egalitarian impulses.

Indian democracy is eroding on multiple fronts — socially, culturally, and economically. The breakdowns in social cohesion (meaning citizens are more fragmented than ever), the rise of social conflicts, the erosion of democratic norms such as a commitment to rule of law, and a growing decline of faith in the electoral and economic systems as clear signs of democratic erosion. There is a sense that the alarm bells are ringing.

Democracy, as power-down populism, in its political, economic, and even cultural manifestations, has gone too far. Instead, there is an urgent need to return to “self control” and balanced thinking with respect to the concepts of democracy and liberty and their practical applications for governing. While democratic in name, many of the political forces let loose providing a prescription for more chaos than democracy. However, the future of democracy reposes in returning and confronting these anxieties about democracy.

*Junior legal and research consultant with the National Human Rights Commission. Views are personal

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