Indian democracy can do with a weak state, the Indian republic cannot

Indian democracy has strengthened communities at the cost of the rights of the individual


When it comes to the rights of the individual, the weak Indian state surrenders to mobocracy. Photo: PTI
When it comes to the rights of the individual, the weak Indian state surrenders to mobocracy. Photo: PTI

In past days, one could stand when the national anthem played—if one wished to. But that equation has changed of late. Now, one dare not do otherwise. Although the Supreme Court has made the playing of the national anthem mandatory in movie theatres and filmgoers are required to stand up and pay respect, it is not a hidden cop watching them that they fear. Not even a possible secret informer furtively lurking à la the East German Stasi. Once the reports of recalcitrant sitters being roughed up started trickling in, the fear of being at the receiving end of instant “justice” has become real. In a democracy with no limits, it is the majority that decides for the minority. What makes Indian democracy palatable and good for the people of India is the Indian republic.

As Shruti Rajagopalan has pointed out, the part of the Constitution which lays out the fundamental rights of citizens is the most “undemocratic” in nature. The fundamental rights of a citizen, or the republican values in our Constitution, curb the powers of the democratically elected government. But the real effect of those rights has been gradually eroded due to various exceptions introduced to the fundamental rights both by the legislature as well as the judiciary, excesses of democracy or majority rule, inadequate state capacity, and lack of demand by the citizenry for upholding fundamental rights.

The judiciary is also part of the scheme to curb the powers of the government. And it has indeed given some very progressive judgements. In Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala (1986), the Supreme Court in a welcome judgement expanded freedom of expression to include the right to remain silent, thus allowing children belonging to a sect called Jehovah’s Witnesses the right to not sing the national anthem. But the same court has now mandated, from on high, respect for the anthem. The unremitting quest for popular legitimacy, a product of democracy without curbs, has also corroded institutions that are supposed to safeguard the cherished values of the Indian republic.

A contest parallel to that of democracy and republic is one between communities and individuals. The case I wish to make here is that Indian democracy has strengthened the power of communities and the weak state has meant that the Indian republic has not been able to protect the rights of an individual in conflict with a community. While the Constitution gives space for affirmative action for certain castes and allows the right to practise and propagate religion, most of the fundamental rights have been bestowed upon individuals. In principle, the rights of individuals should trump those of communities. But the power of democratic mobilization has been skilfully employed by communities to turn that principle on its head.

The “first past the post” system of electing representatives has permitted political parties to choose a select number of communities to cultivate for elections. Various tools of governance ranging from reservations in jobs to subsidies for power, water, fertilizer, etc., are employed to cultivate groups which can deliver en masse votes. A few minority groups tend to gain a disproportionate share in the governance agenda. This is not always bad but the worst sufferers are the minorities or the weaker sections within the minority groups. The case of triple talaq is an example: Most of the political parties have sided with the Muslim orthodoxy in the name of protecting the traditions and customs of the minority group.

When it comes to the rights of the individual—the freedom to write a book that offends a religious community, the freedom to make a film that offends the supporters of a political party, or the freedom to not sing the national anthem—the weak Indian state surrenders to the mobocracy of groups with votes. Francis Fukuyama has postulated that for a liberal democracy to be successful, it requires the following three institutions in a stable balance: a strong state, rule of law and political accountability. Fukuyama places India firmly in the group of what Joel Migdal calls strong societies and weak states.

The weak state that India is can become very efficient when it chooses to do so. And it makes that choice often to uphold Indian democracy and seldom for the cause of the Indian republic. Take elections, for example. As the world’s largest democracy, India conducts the world’s largest democratic exercise when the members of the Lok Sabha are elected. Even many of India’s state elections are some of the largest in the world. And it is not just elections; take the Hindu religious gathering of Mahakumbh. Given its scale—the festival is attended by tens of millions of pilgrims—the state has to get involved and the event is organized in a near-flawless manner.

But the same state fails in empowering the individual—whether it is in protecting the individual’s freedom of expression or delivering quasi-public goods like quality education, healthcare or drinking water. So perverse is the effect of Indian democracy that there is hardly a solution in sight for the air pollution choking several cities across north India. Since relief delivered on this count will not be a “club good” that can be claimed by any particular community, there is no incentive for the state to take strong decisions.

Indian democracy can do with a weak state that can conduct elections efficiently, but the Indian republic needs a strong state (not to be confused with an authoritarian state) that can protect individuals from the groups that those elections empower.

Kunal Singh is a staff writer at Mint.

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