Democracy in India never faced the challenges it is facing today. It is something that we cannot miss as it stares at you in the face. We have reason to be worried.
Freedoms are being curtailed.
Those who take part in protests are being booked under terrorism laws.
Laws are being pushed through in parliament without allowing debate.
Opposition governments nervously wait to be overthrown by devious methods.
NGO’s who take any anti-government stand find their funding stopped or are taken to task.
Activists who spent the best years of their life helping the oppressed get justice and a better life, are today in jail. Many of them are facing charges of terrorism.
False cases are slapped under draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act that ensure that the arrested do not get bail and languish in jail. Some of them are Varavara Rao, 79, left-leaning poet and writer, Sudha Bharadwaj, trade union activist, Gautam Navlakha, human rights activist, and Arun Ferreira, a lawyer.
Public figures like Jayati Ghosh, an economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Yogendra Yadav, political commentator and analyst, Rahul Roy, documentary filmmaker and Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the CPI(M) have been accused by the government of inciting communal riots in Delhi. Those who actually made hate speeches inciting the riots, but belong to the ruling party, were not arrested. The fact that there is documentary evidence on it, does not matter.
The media is toeing the government line fearing government ire.
Voices of dissent are crushed and critical voices of political leaders, university professors, students, journalists, and others are being silenced.
Political violence is being ignored as if it is okay.
The last parliamentary session got rid of Question Hour. A confident government would never do that. Why is the government scared of a disorganized and directionless opposition that is in shambles? Why is it pushing through legislations that have far-reaching consequences without allowing debate and correction?
The very party that encouraged the youth to rebel against bad politics when it was in the opposition, is today jailing them when they speak up. Many student leaders are behind bars without bail on serious charges like sedition and terrorism when all they did was raise their voice against the establishment.
Is not all this so blatantly indicative of a system that is rapidly turning intolerant and autocratic?
The downward slide of democracy is too obvious to be missed. The idea of India is under threat.
The Sweden-based V-Dem Institute that comes out with an annual report on the state of democracy in the world, said in its latest report: “India is on the verge of losing its status as a democracy due to the severely shrinking of space for the media, civil society, and the opposition under Prime Minister Modi’s government.” V-Dem is an independent research institute and is one of the world’s largest data collection centers as far as democracy goes. It says it relies on modern technological tools to collect data.
In its report called, “Autocratization Surges–Resistance Grows, Democracy report 2020”, it points out that 92 countries are witnessing autocracies that are home to 54% of the global population. India gets a significant mention. With the help of data, it shows that globally, the spirit of democracy is on the decline.
The report said: “The countries that have autocratized the most over the last 10 years are Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Serbia, Brazil and India. The autocratizing governments in these countries first restricted the scope for media and civil society. Once they had gained sufficient control over the “watchdogs” in the media and civil society, they dared to begin eroding the quality of elections.”
There is a reason to worry.
The report also said: “Autocratization is affecting Brazil, India, the United States of America, and Turkey, which are major economies with sizeable populations, exercising substantial global military, economic, and political influence.”
Democracies all over the world are declining. The report says, “Democracy declined in 26 countries during 2019, up from 18 in 2017. For the first time since 2001, democracies are no longer in the majority. Down from 55% (98 states) at its peak in 2010 to 48% of the countries in the world as of 2019, the world is now left with 87 electoral and liberal democracies, which are home to 46% of the world’s population. The dramatic loss of eight democracies in the last year sets a new record in the rate of democratic breakdowns.”
The media which is considered the fourth pillar of democracy all over the world can no more claim that exalted position in India. It can by no stretch of imagination be called the fourth pillar anymore as it too has got polarized, has distinct political identities and does not care about objectivity. Instead, it seems keen on pushing the government agenda and not ask tough questions. It hesitates to talk to power. A media that does not do this is redundant.
Mainline media today is no more a watchdog. It is not upholding democratic values, safeguarding human rights, or even calling out to those who are systematically destroying democratic institutions.
Trivia is being doled out in the form of news or it is pushing official propaganda when it should actually be focusing on burning issues. And there are enough of them. Like the sliding economy, collapsing law and order, wrong priorities, border crisis, unemployment, damage caused by communalism and casteism, wastage of a demographic dividend, tax and loan defaults, delayed justice and so on. This could have been a great time for media to focus on these issues and encourage policy change.
However, the media rattles on subjects that are completely inconsequential. Look at television channels and you will get the drift. News television is normalizing the absurd, again and again, every night with ridiculous shouting debates. Television news has become almost unwatchable.
The so called fourth pillar of democracy is being taken over by corporate India. No, they do not want to make money out of it but use it as a tool to pressurize the government as far as their business interests are concerned. It would be stupid to expect a corporate entity to be interested in investing money to investigate corruption in high places, rigging of elections, plight of migrants, health issues, poor quality of education, rising prices of vegetables, or conditions in jails where prisoners wait for years to get heard. The list is long.
The media is supposed to be a channel that connects people to the state so that the state knows what people want, what hurts and pains they have and how they can be helped or empowered.
It is the media’s job to flag the fears and anxieties of society. The media is supposed to be a platform for incubation and exchange of ideas. But, when journalists ask tough questions, they are dubbed anti-national or trolled.
It is their job to ask uncomfortable questions. It is precisely the asking of questions and the seeking of those answers that helps a democracy flourish and thrive.
Today, it is a partner in crime actively working overtime to destroy democracy. It is helping the government of the day to deflect attention from burning issues like economic distress, unemployment, inflation and destruction of democratic principles.
A moot question to ponder is, what was the need for a majority government to clamp all kinds of restrictions and pressures. In fact, the BJP government had such a fantastic window of opportunity. With the backing of the electorate that chose the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Front over a fractured opposition, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in both 2014 and 2019 an opportunity to transform India.
Being in a majority, it could have swept aside narrow considerations, short-term political victories and fundamental elements trying to call the shots to usher in reform. Reform that India had never witnessed and reform that the country was pining for. Look at how the economy has slid and why. India was growing well and what is it that stopped it. Certainly, it was not an act of God, as Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman put it. Even Bangladesh is now on the path to overtake India as far as development indices and the economy is concerned.
Has the BJP led government missed the enviable window of opportunity to transform India? It has.
Look at the opportunity it had. It could have brought in parliamentary and electoral reforms to clean the political system, stop horse-trading and crossing the floor at the drop of a hat by politicians whose only focus is to stay in power.
It could have engineered economic reforms to boost the economy and triggered growth. It could have created job opportunities for millions of young people who are well-qualified to lend their shoulder to one of the largest and most promising economies in the world.
It could have created a host of social service programs to reach out to the disadvantaged.
It could have set up world-class institutions of education to revamp what the British designed over two hundred years ago as they wanted clerks to run the administration.
It could have tapped the extremely talented NRIs asking them if they would like to return if opportunities were created for them in the areas of Information Technology, science and research.
It could have clamped down on communal elements spreading hatred and division.
It could have brought in reforms in the police so that it truly became a force that people would trust.
It could have said that it has zero-tolerance against corruption and taken measures to show that. It could have cracked down on institutions and individuals who were crippling the banks by not repaying their loans.
It could have done things to show that though it is development-oriented, it would not do anything that permanently damages the environment and displaces people without adequate rehabilitation
Numerous projects that have serious environmental issues have been pushed through. What is going to be the collateral damage and who is going to pay for it? Such projects need to be cleared through a democratic process of public hearings and debate and not through strong-arm tactics.
It could have strengthened the Right to Information instead of weakening it. It is such a reform that can glorify India in the eyes of its people and the world as it is ready to answer questions on governance. these are some things they did not do, what did they do with the opportunity that India had given them?
It could have encouraged pressure groups and NGOs who have expertise in various areas to help it formulate policy and reach out to the people. These groups, if nurtured, can become the heart of democracy.
It could have been more empathetic to the voices of people creating the environment for expressing popular needs, demands and grievances.
It could have made it clear that India will cling on its constitutional values and made an example of what a real democracy is.
To say that democracy is in danger is serious. But look around and see what is happening to the legislatures, the executive, the judiciary and the press. It should worry every Indian.
First published in Indian Currents.