Is India’s democracy in danger?

Is India’s democracy in danger?

Seminar, 30 January 2020

WITH Home Minister Amit Shah sitting in front of him, corporate magnate Rahul Bajaj bravely stated, ‘You are doing good work, but if we want to openly criticize you, there is no confidence you will appreciate that.’ While Shah himself deflected the response, government ministers and those supportive of the government were quick to attack Bajaj for his question.

There is a perception that this sort of stifling and intimidation of voices critical of the government has become increasingly commonplace in India. When one juxtaposes this reticence to criticize the government with the extraordinary ability of the BJP machinery and Narendra Modi to present their narrative, a public space that is often lacking in diversity of opinion or debate becomes apparent. Furthermore, the ruling BJP’s hold over media and sources of political funding raise serious questions about whether political opposition is given enough opportunity to express itself.

Whether it be effectively locking down of Kashmir for months on end or promulgating a citizen registration system (the National Register of Citizens or NRC) and a naturalization process (the Citizen Amendment Bill or CAB) that would render many members of India’s Muslim community stateless, this government has shown a willingness to use the might of the state to deprive certain citizens of basic civil rights for its own political purposes.

But documented civil and human rights violations, as such, are insufficient to make claims about democracy. Civil and human rights standards have changed over the years, and many early democracies do not have great records on this count. And just because the BJP’s narrative is most prominent does not mean that democracy has been subverted. Its positions may just be overwhelmingly popular and its political skill as a party may just be greater.

How should we assess whether we are seeing an erosion of democratic practice – what political scientists call ‘democratic backsliding’ – in India? If one is to argue that India’s democracy is under threat, a minimal case needs to be established – one which shows the central government has infringed upon the core principles of democracy.

Let me put my argument up front. Every plausible definition of democracy implies a basic set of principles that structures political competition – what we may think of as rules of engagement in a democratic system. These rules are breached when the state’s institutions, which should be impartial across democratic political actors, can be used in service of the ruling party. The use of state institutions to weaken or stifle opposition is in direct contravention to these principles – constituting a fundamental threat to democracy. Under the guise of Hindu nationalism, India has seen a rapid increase in anti-democratic preferences among its population. This confluence of mass opinion and a governing party willing to use state institutions for its own ends has raised the specter of serious democratic backsliding in India.