While delivering his speech on the 76th Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “India is the mother of democracy, diversity is its strength”. The Prime Minister did not elucidate why or how India is the mother of democracy. Some political observers see the statement of Modi as a tactic of self defence against the strident criticism of his government’s failure to protect human rights and the flagging democratic institutions. The opposition parties in India and many international organizations, committed to the protection of human rights and democracy, have been critical of the Modi government on these two issues. Against this backdrop, it is pertinent to make an assessment of the progress of democracy in India, especially, on the occasion of India celebrating 76th year of its independence.
It is a fact that India is a free country and it has not shed the democratic form of Government in favour of dictatorship. It continues to be a formal democracy, but some critics say that India has become an ‘electoral autocracy’.
When India got independence and adopted a democratic form of government, many had doubts about the sustainability of democracy in a country that was largely illiterate and ridden with caste and class divisions. While democracy failed in many countries that got freedom after India, India has proved that the sceptics were wrong. Elections have been held periodically and there has been smooth regime change as per the provision of the Constitution. Except for the period of emergency (1975-77) the fundamental rights of citizens were not suspended. The federal structure of governance continues despite the increasing centralization of power with the Union government. The democratic institutions like Parliament, Judiciary and other constitutional bodies like Commissions have been functional in spite of their emaciation. From the external appearance one can say that India is a democratic country.
India may have to go a long way to realize the true meaning of democracy, “a government of the people, by the people, for the people”. A government by the people means that the government is run by representatives elected by the people of the country through periodic elections. But the periodic elections also can become a sham, if there is no level playing ground for all participants. In the context of India there are dangerous portents in this regard. Ramchandra Guha and P Chidambaram have pointed out the dangerous trends in their respective write ups on the occasion of Independence Day. The opacity of the electoral bonds scheme, the partisanship of the Election Commission, subjugated and tamed media and the coercion and bribery used to topple elected state governments are some among the dangers to Indian democracy. According to Chidambaram, the BJP garnered about 95% of the money donated to the political parties through the opaque instrument called electoral bonds.
‘Government of the people’ means accountability of the elected executive to the people. This accountability is ensured through the Parliament in which issues related to people are raised and the executive (government) is bound to respond, and the laws are to be passed after thorough discussion and study through parliamentary committees after inviting people's views. Unfortunately, the ruling party because of its brute majority in the Lok Sabha often refuses to discuss the burning issues of people. For example, during the Monsoon session of the Parliament, the BJP government refused to discuss the issues of price rice, rising unemployment and misuse of investigation agencies by the government despite the persistent demand by the opposition parties. The Parliament has become more or less a rubber stamp, as most of the significant Bills are passed without discussion.
‘Government of the people’ also means the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the citizens by the Indian Constitution are protected by the government. There has been a tendency on the part of the executive, irrespective of the party in power, to restrict the rights and freedoms of the citizens. Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, there has been an unprecedented increase in the arrest and incarceration of citizens by making use of the draconian laws like Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), National Security Act (NSA), Sedition Law etc. By the government’s own figures, between 2016 and 2020, more than 24,000 people were arrested under UAPA, of which less than 1% were actually convicted. Most of the victims of the abuse of the draconian laws are journalists who are critics of the government, social and human rights activists, academics and opposition leaders who express their dissent with the government and its policies.
According to the Constitution, the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, has a crucial role in protecting the rights and freedoms of the citizens. Unfortunately, the higher judiciary has often chosen to side with the State against the citizens. In the words of political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “rather than being the guardian of rights, the Supreme Court is now a significant threat to it”. According to the constitutional scholar, Anuj Bhuwania, “Not only has it (Supreme Court) abdicated its function as a shield for citizens against state lawlessness, but it has also actually acted as a powerful sword that can be wielded at the behest of the executive.” The recent judgement of the Supreme Court, upholding Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), including its stringent bail conditions that impose a reverse burden of proof on the accused, is cited by critics as the SC toeing the line of the executive to restrict the rights of citizens.
It appears that the SC is not willing to challenge the government on constitutional basics. In fact, the Supreme Court lets down citizens when it fails to hear Habeas Corpus cases; when it fails to hear expeditiously the constitutionally crucial cases like abrogation Article 370, Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), electoral bonds etc.
Another significant implication of ‘Government of the people’ is equal treatment for all citizens without any discrimination, as EQUALITY is one of the cherished goals or values of the Constitution. What India has been witnessing for the last 8 years is blatant discrimination against Muslims both by the state and the Sangh Parivar organizations with the explicit or implicit support of the BJP governments. “In India today, Muslims are massively under-represented in politics and the professions, discriminated against in the workplace and the marketplace, and taunted and mocked on television and social media. In their suffering and stigmatisation lies our collective shame,” writes Ramachandra Guha.
Media (Press) is considered as the fourth estate in a democracy, as it has a vital role in protecting democracy as well as the freedom and rights of people. In the context of India, in two ways, the media have failed in protecting democracy. First, instead of critically viewing the policies and actions of the government, the bulk of the media brazenly side with the government and often become a propaganda machine of the government. It is very disturbing to observe that the media openly disseminate hate, taking the side of the ruling party and the Sangh Parivar organizations. Secondly, the BJP governments often make use of the draconian laws to arrest journalists who are critical of the government and keep them in jail without bail. For example, it has been more than 19 months since Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan was jailed. He was arrested in October 2020 while on his way to Hathras in Uttar Pradesh to do his job as a journalist – to report the gruesome rape and murder of a Dalit girl. Thus, the media in general, with the exception of a few, have miserably failed to be a guardian of democracy and the rights of citizens.
“Government for the people” means that the government exists for the people, their development and wellbeing. The policies and programmes of the government should benefit all people, especially the last and the least. In the context of India, the term SOCIALISM in the preamble of the Constitution refers to promoting social change and transformation to end all forms of inequalities, preventing concentration of wealth and power in a few hands, and the state playing an important role in economic development by adopting an approach of mixed economy. The Directive Principles of State Policy have been incorporated into the Constitution with the broad objective of promoting the welfare of the people by securing a social order in which social, economic and political justice prevails. What has been the progress of India in economic and social justice?
Since independence the number of people living in absolute poverty has been reduced, literacy percentage has been improved from 12% to 74% and average life expectancy increased from 32 to 70. Still India has to go a long way in eradicating poverty. In the 2021 Global Hunger Index, India ranked 101st out of the 116 countries and it is included in the ‘serious’ category. India ranked 131 out of 188 countries in the Human Development Index Report 2022 prepared by the UN. The report is prepared on the basis of three key human development dimensions: life expectancy, education and standard of living.
With regard to economic equality, India remains a highly unequal country. In fact, the policies of the government since 2014 have accentuated the disparity between the rich and the poor. According to the World Inequality Report 2022, the wealthiest 1% of the Indian population held 22% of the national income, whereas the poorest 50% held just 13%. In July 2021, Mukesh Ambani was worth $80 billion, a jump of $15 billion over the previous year.
75 years since India got freedom from the British, India continues to be a highly hierarchical society. Although untouchability was abolished seven decades ago, its blatant practice still continues. As per the media reports, a Dalit boy died recently in Rajasthan’s Jalore district after his teacher allegedly assaulted him for drinking water from a pot meant for “upper castes”. The Times of India reported on 12th August that a group of 30 eminent seers and scholars has prepared the first draft of a “constitution” for a “Hindu Rashtra” in order to replace the present Constitution. According to the constitution of the Hindu Rashtra, Muslims and Christians will have no voting rights. “It will abolish the rules and regulations of the British period and everything will be conducted on the basis of the Varna system," Swami Anand Swarup told TOI.
The Prime Minister spoke passionately during his Independence Day speech about respect for women. He said that respect for women is an important pillar of India’s growth and stressed the need to extend support to ‘Nari Shakti’. But what is the actual status of women in India? The female labour participation rate, at about 25%, is much lower than that in Bangladesh. According to the Global Gender Gap index, India ranks 135th out of 146 countries surveyed. Why is the PM silent on the women’s reservation bill pending since 2010, if he is so much concerned about women?
To conclude, when one applies the three parameters of democracy -- government of the people, by the people, for the people -- India cannot be considered ‘Mother of Democracy’. There has been serious erosion in the practice of democracy, especially during the regime of Narendra Modi so much so that Christophe Jaffrelot in his book, 'Modi's India', says that India has become the world's largest de facto ethnic democracy. On the eve of India’s 76th Independence Day, 102 prominent international writers, including authors from India and Indian diaspora, wrote a letter to President Droupadi Murmu expressing grave concerns about the rapidly worsening situation of human rights and calling for the release of imprisoned writers. “Free ex
Regarding a realistic assessment of democracy in India today one may agree with what Suhas Palshikar, a renowned Indian academic, and social and political scientist writes. “Democracy in India continues to be a desirable goal but it is not something that citizens think is important to fight for. Democracy remains attractive but only in its minimalist avatar of the vote and electoral participation. This allows the voters to draw satisfaction about their prowess and simultaneously allows the rulers to invoke the idea of ‘people’ without investing in them active powers of supervision and control.” Failure to educate people on democracy at different levels, especially in educational institutions, and vigorous promotion of an ideology that is antithetical to democracy are the two main reasons for the flagging of democracy in India.