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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Prayagraj, India, Thursday, May 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Prayagraj, India, Thursday, May 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Opinion: A failure to imagine what a faulty democracy is like

Civil freedoms can be lost in ways that are too unspectacular to catch popular attention

On 16 May 2014, far exceeding all expectations, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the last general elections with one of the country’s most decisive mandates. If the BJP wins again this time, critics of the right-wing government, just like five years ago, will be asked to shut up—because, “Come on, how can anyone question a popular mandate?"

I was sitting with a BJP supporter last week when he said if Modi was really what he is accused of being—divisive and filled with sectarian prejudice—then why is the country voting for him in such large numbers?

He is right. Modi didn’t come to power through a coup. It’s not like he inherited the prime ministership. He is a democratically elected leader, and hence exactly what the majority in the country wanted and perhaps still wants.

As David Runciman, author of a number of books on the history of democracy, says, “Elections are the final test of which product will sell." So maybe a mix of development and Hindutva was what the country wanted and hence bought.

By now, we know that Modi managed to touch a sensitive chord among Indians (of minorities threatening the existence of the majority), channelized this collective anxiety (worsened by a sense of betrayal they feel towards Muslims for their role in India’s history), and in the process, a large number of citizens came to conclude he was “the one" for the country.

I don’t remember the first time I heard the word “democracy". It would have been in class 7, I guess, through my civics textbook. It was the easiest political system to memorize: rule of the people, by the people, for the people. We also learned that there are four pillars of democracy that uphold it—the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, and the press.

How often in the last five years have we sighed talking about what looks like a compromised legislature, slowly crumbling media and a crisis of judicial independence? Here is a small recap. Remember the sudden press conference called by four judges of the Supreme Court to tell the world that everything was not right with the judicial system, and saying democracy was in danger? This question was raised again after a clean chit was given to the Chief Justice of India on allegations of sexual harassment raised against him.

Remember how a deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India came out speaking about government meddling in the central bank’s functioning? Or how the conduct of the Election Commission in these polls is not seen as unbiased? Or the manner in which several bills, including the Aadhaar bill, were passed? This bill, which had several controversial provisions, was passed only because the government introduced it as a money bill. Similarly, the Finance Bill of 2018 was passed within 30 minutes in the Lok Sabha without any debate on funding demands. The government has been accused of hastily passing bills with barely any debate.

Lastly, think of the media’s crisis of legitimacy. For everything people don’t want to believe, they blame “paid news" or “biki hui (sold out) media". Ironically, they trust the WhatsApp messages they receive without doubts.

It doesn’t help that the opposition is not playing the role it’s expected to play in a democracy. All these are signs leading to a pattern that we perhaps don’t want to see.

In his book How Democracy Ends, Runciman talks about just this. He writes: “How long can we persist with institutional arrangements we have grown so used to trusting, that we no longer notice when they have ceased to work. So, even if it is breaking, since there is no dramatic breakdown, perhaps we wouldn’t even see it happening."

Particularly because these arrangements, such as regular elections (the bedrock of democracy), legislatures, courts and the press all continue to function as they ought to, even while failing to deliver what they should. “Democracy could fail while remaining intact," Runciman writes.

He writes about a common imagination that people have of how a failing democracy would look like. Since we are trapped in the landscape of the 20th century, he says, we usually expect the failure to be spectacular—tanks on the streets, tin-pot dictators barking out messages of national unity, violence and repression in tow. Which, unless it is a coup, doesn’t happen. Once democracy is established as a default condition of politics, the lines between democracy and its subversion, Runciman writes, become blurred. At most, because of the wavering stability of its constitutional institutions, we might start noticing its slow death.

It is easy to look at democracy as a sacrosanct way of governance (because of course we don’t want theocracy or a monarchy), but we somehow forget that 20th century global politics has shown us time and again how it is within just this democracy that totalitarianism or elements of it can emerge. Remember the Führer?

The ruling government in this country has often been compared with the regime of Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s, when the country was put under an emergency. That period was called a blot on democracy. But, unlike now, at least the emergency was openly declared.

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