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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 15 New Delhi March 30, 2019

Indian Republic @ 70: Democracy at Crossroads

Sunday 31 March 2019

by Nayakara Veeresha

The decline in global peace has largely been driven by changes in measures related to safety and security. (Global Peace Index, 2014) The Fragile States Index 2018 indicated that internal and external pressures affect the world’s richest and most developed nations too. Accordingly, Qatar, Spain, the United States of America and United Kingdom experienced social and political instabilities in the year 2017. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index (EIUDI), 2017 presents an idea of the functioning of democracy and its legitimacy in 165 countries and two territories. The index has been prepared on the basis of five indicators, namely, electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture.

The index classifies four types of political regimes on the basis of the nature and state of democracy existing all over the globe. They are ‘full democracies’, ‘flawed democracies’, ‘hybrid regimes’ and ‘authoritarian regimes’. According to the report, 76 out of 167 countries are to be considered as democracies. In this only 18 nations are categorised as ‘full democracies’ and 58 countries are classified under ‘flawed democracy’. The remaining 91 countries come under either ‘hybrid (39 nations) and authoritarian (52) regimes’. This means almost 55 percentage of the countries in the world are still governed by authoritarian rule. One of the world’s leading scholars in democracy, Larry Diamond, says that “we are going through a democratic regression” which has been reflected in the annual democratic index of 2017.

The North American region is the only region that has retained its democratic score as that of 2016. The report has found that Asia and Australia are the worst-performing regions in the score of the democracy index. Norway once again tops the index followed by Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand and Denmark. North Korea occupies the last place with a score of 1.08 with Syria, Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo occupying positions above North Korea. Gambia recorded a good performance in the Democracy Index of 2017 improving its rank from 143 to 113 and moved from the ‘authori-tarian’ to the ‘hybrid’ regime stage by witnessing the first ever democratic transfer of power. Indonesia is the worst-performing country as it dropped 20 places in the ranking from 48th to the 68th position. Similarly, India has slipped to the 42nd rank from 32 (in 2016) and Guyana enhanced its rank from the 73rd to the 63rd place.

The EIUDI 2017 reports that 2017 was ‘Asia’s year of regression’ experiencing the biggest decline of its rank among all the regions of the world. The average score of the democracy index for the Asian region is 5.63 which is better than the global average of 5.48. However, it lags behind the regions of Latin America (6.26), Western Europe (8.38) and North America (8.56). The two largest democracies of the Asian region, that is, India and Indonesia, are performing badly in the latest assessment with a significant decline both in score and rankings. India stands at the sixth position in the Asian region among 28 countries.

In the Democracy Index, India stood in the 42nd position with a score of 7.23 out of 10. This is its lowest score since 2006 which was 7.68. This shows the declining trend of democracy in India with the rise of majoritarian governance. In particular the report notes that “The streng-thening of Right-wing Hindu forces in an other-wise secular country led to a rise of vigilantism and violence against minority communities, particularly Muslims, as well as other dissenting voices.” (EIU, 2018: 27) The scores of various democratic indicators for India are strong electoral process and pluralism (9.17/10), a fair amount of civil liberties (7.35/10) and political participation (7.22/10). But it is under-performing in the overall democracy index. From the report, the decline of democracy in India can be attributed to the political culture (5.63/10) and functioning of government (6.79/10). On the basis of this score, Indian democracy is classified under the category of a “flawed democracy” regime.

This has made India to further decline in the Media Freedom Index placing it in the 49th position out of 154 countries with a score of seven out of 10 and classified under the status of ‘partly free’. It is observed that “India has also become a more dangerous place for journa-lists, especially the central State of Chhattisgarh and the northern State of Jammu and Kashmir”. (Ibid. p. 55) In both these States there was a high hand of the state to curb media freedom and internet services including killings of several journalists.

On this January 26th India has celebrated its 70th Republic Day. It’s a historic moment and this year is critical as we as a nation are going for the people’s mandate in the general elections of May 2019. Democracies across the world are at risk with the rise of populist and authoritarian regimes; India has been no exception, especially since 2014 under the current BJP regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The government has come under heavy criticism within and outside the country for its political intrusion into the autonomous functioning of institutions of governance such as Parliament, the CBI, RBI, UGC and even the Supreme Court to some extent through its patronage and identity politics.

Two things happened during the BJP rule for sure; these were: (i) a frontal attack on the idea of India through its divisive policies, parti-cularly in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016, Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2018, and 10 per cent reservation for the economically weaker sections by distorting the ethical, philosophical and social foundations of the constitutional governance values; (ii) democracy became the casualty in the hands of the political elites ably promoted through the extremist Hindu political ideology and fringe groups. These two have aggravated the social divisions and deepened the crisis between the dominant constructs of the ‘majority’ and ‘minority’. This binary classification is seriously problematic for a heterogeneous, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-party country like India and for that matter for any democratic nation in the world.

The birth of parliamentary democracy in India is intrinsically linked to state violence through the repressive apparatus of the military and police. Mass killings took place in the military operation known as ‘Operation Polo’ in the Telangana region as documented in the Pandit Sundarlal Committee Report on the Massacres in Hyderabad (1948). Currently, Indian democracy is experiencing various uprisings in the regions of Central and Eastern India, Jammu and Kashmir, and North-Eastern regions. However, the nature and causative factors of these uprisings are different. The insurrection in Central India is popularly known as the “largest internal security threat” that the country is facing as described by the former Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, in 2006. Nirmalangshu Mukherji (2013) argues that the “current Maoist upheaval needs to be under-stood as a part of the general phenomenon of democratic deficit”. The way the BJP has functioned since 2014 pushes any citizen of the country to say yes, including the party members of or those affiliated to the BJP. It is in this context that there is a need to understand the decline of democracy as a global phenomenon, including in the developed nations such as the USA, UK and European Union. The Democracy Index, 2018, produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit, corroborates this trend. The report has stated that the “various global surveys that we consider in the Democracy Index, such as the World Values Survey (WVS), Eurobarometer, Latinobarometer and Afrobaro-meter, have demonstrated that the confidence in democracy is on the wane. In fact, in 2018 the score for perceptions of democracy suffered its biggest fall in the index since 2010.”

The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), in its annual Democracy Report 2018 “Democracy for All?”, finds that

autocratisation is now manifesting in a number of large countries, including Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. Aspects of democracy that make elections truly meaningful are in decline. Media autonomy, freedom of expression and alternative sources of information, and the rule of law have undergone the greatest declines among democracy metrics in recent years.” (p. 6)

It has been noted that “identity politics has become a key feature of domestic politics, suggesting that reformist and liberal candidates could struggle in future”. In India, “various coercive tactics used by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to consolidate power” have severely affected the health of democracy. The failure of the BJP Government in delivering the 2014 election promise of ‘development through job creation’ and ‘minimum government and maximum gover-nance’ and the neglect of farmers’ issues gave a setback to the party in the recent five State Assembly elections. The report specifically mentions that so far, “the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition—led by the BJP’—will be contesting the 2019 elections on a weak footing at the State level. Having also lost the support of many small regional parties, the coalition could fail to gain a clear majority in Parliament.” The V-Dem data for the first time “find the world’s most populous democracies—the United States and India—as backsliders on democracy”. (V-Dem, 2018: 20)

Liberal Democracy under Threat

Some of the individual liberal values of democracy which faced severe assault from the BJP Government are right to freedom of expression, religion, choice of food, right to worship, right to economic freedom and the right to dissent. The state’s heavy-handedness on the civil society ogransations, media, human rights activists, researchers and progressive thinkers has diminished the long cherished democratic tradition and culture at the cost of people’s constitutional rights. The multiple indicators in the “V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index for India have shown that the pursuit of economic formalisation measures” such as demonetisation and goods and services tax have come at the cost of the overall quality and content of its democracy.

The 2019 elections are critical not only for the political parties in India; they are crucial for its citizens to assert their democratic rights to rekindle democracy in the country. At this historic moment, the whole world is looking at India for a people’s renaissance in the 17th general elections. The role of individuals as citizens has immense importance in electing those with a commitment to the Constitution and people’s welfare. Individual assertion is the basis of all the reforms, be those political or social in the spirit of democratic insurrection and active citizenship. Let’s hope that the newly elected government takes up the challenge of restoring the lost democracy through trans-formative politics.

References

1. Mukherji, N. (2013), “The Maoists in India: Tribals Under Siege”, New Delhi: Amaryllus.

2. The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (EIU), (2018). Democracy Index 2017: Free speech under attack, London, New York and Hong Kong: The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (EIU).

3. The Fund for Peace. (FFP) (2018), 2018: Fragile States Index, Washington: The Fund for Peace (FFP).

4. The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). (2014), Global Peace Index 2014, Sydney: The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP).

5. V-Dem Institute (2018), “Democracy for All?” (V-Dem) Annual Democracy Report 2018, Sweden: V-Dem Institute.

The author is a Ph.D Fellow, Centre for Political Institutions, Governance and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bengaluru. He can be contacted at e-mail: veeresha[at]isec.ac.-in; nayakaraveeresha[at]gmail.com

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