Preventing Democratic Backsliding Isn’t the Same as Securing Democracy

The INDIA bloc’s ability to rein in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vaulting ambition to godhood does not extend to addressing a vast democracy deficit

In an interim assessment of the election results, I made six points:

One, India’s next government would be a coalition government.

Two, Indian democracy has become stronger with the emergence of a strong Opposition, and a clear verdict that the people do not appreciate the politics of hatred and division, peddled aggressively by Prime Minister Modi.

Three, the Congress has halted its steady decline, which had persuaded several of its aspiring leaders and spokespersons to defect to the BJP.

Four, Rahul Gandhi acquires political authority within the Congress and the larger Opposition.

Five, the BJP remains the single largest political force in the country, but it has been given a severe reality check and can no longer believe that its politics has natural traction in the country.

And, six, Modi has been taught that hubris does not go down well with the people and India’s political leadership has narrowly escaped being consumed by the God complex.

Let us look at some further implications.

Not there yet

To say that Indian democracy has become stronger is right, but that assertion must be qualified. When a prematurely-born baby kept in an incubator for a month is shifted to the infants’ ward, it is true that the baby has become stronger. But to infer that it is in robust health or strong enough to represent the country at the next Olympics would be a little off.

Indian democracy is still in the making, far more rudimentary than democracy in, say, Europe, where also it remains half-formed. Caste hierarchy remains alive and kicking in swathes of rural India.

Extreme inequality of income, social and political power afflicts urban India as well. A police force accountable, if at all, only to the executive, and a tardy, expensive judicial system combine to mock constitutional rights, except in the case of a tiny elite.

A tiny administrative machinery (the government employs about 2 per cent of India’s population, which is puny by the needs of governance and by international comparison). It tends to be dysfunctional and unaccountable, as well, with high levels of absenteeism by teachers in government schools, and performance of routine work offered as purchasable patronage to those with the purchasing power.

Majoritarian instinct is strong

The majoritarian instinct remains strong, despite India’s polytheistic traditional culture that recognises no deviance in spiritual diversity.

The INDIA bloc’s ability to rein in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vaulting ambition to godhood does not extend to addressing such democracy deficit.

The space available for political action to build democracy had been closing over the past 10 years, with the media muzzled and dissent treated as unlawful activity that could be prevented with draconian laws.

The current electoral outcome squeezes in a wedge to prevent that space from closing completely. That is the gain from these election results.

EVM flaws

Incidentally, the setback dealt to the BJP does not mean that all is well with the electronic voting machines (EVMs). The voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) unit, which sits between the ballot unit, on which the voter registers his vote, and the control unit, which is operated by the polling officer, contains programmable software that can be hacked.

The signal to the control unit, which is where the votes are aggregated and is used for counting, goes from the hackable VVPAT unit, rather than directly from the ballot unit. These are systemic vulnerabilities.

Further, there is not foolproof system to audit if these vulnerabilities have been exploited in any constituency. EVM reform remains a vital part of the needed electoral reform.

Congress in UP

The Congress has made its presence felt in Uttar Pradesh. That is not good news for the BJP. It is not good news for the Samajwadi Party or the BSP either.

Muslims are no longer a captive vote bank for the SP, nor Dalits for the BSP – a viable Congress offers itself as an alternative. Expect the SP and the BSP to try and crush this claim to their political base.

Nor is Rahul Gandhi’s establishment of his authority within the Congress, by means of the present electoral achievement, particularly a blessing for the party.

He has come up with populist schemes of welfare handouts and a new version of Mandal politics, besides opposing crony capitalism and the sectarian politics of the Sangh Parivar.

Rahul’s shortcomings

Opposing sectarian politics is well and good, but not sufficient to deepen democracy. Customs that violate the democratic value of equality and justice abounds in Hindu as well as Muslim social practices. Muslim personal law gives legal protection to some of these gender-unjust customs.

Similar inequality between the genders is made into law in the Hindu succession law. These need to be addressed.

Rahul Gandhi is yet to articulate an overall vision, leave alone a programme, that melds these strands together into a democratic future of broadbased, inclusive prosperity and national power sufficient to retain strategic autonomy in a multipolar world.

Nor can such a vision be realised without empowering the people, by organising them in their everyday struggles for a better life and against injustice.

Positive alternative

It is arguable that the people would have rejected the BJP and its leader’s divine pretensions decisively if they had been presented with a positive alternative, rather than a mere outlet to vent their frustration at the Modi government’s multiple failures.

But, having tasted limited victory against Modi with his perambulatory activism, Rahul Gandhi is unlikely to feel any pressure to do anything more than trundle along his present path to the next election and the ones after that.

The BJP’s share of the votes polled has come down marginally, from 37.7% in 2019 to 36.6% in 2024, a decline of 1.1 percentage points, but it brought its Lok Sabha seats down from 303 to 240. The Congress vote share has gone up by 1.5 percentage points, to 21.2 per cent, raising its tally from 52 in 2019 to 99 now.

The BJP had won more than 50% of the vote in several North Indian states in 2019, with brute majorities that drove up its overall vote share without increasing its tally proportionately. This time around, its votes are more evenly distributed across the country, and it has opened its account in Kerala, and made headway in Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

Sangh ideology

The Sangh ideology has spread across the country. Many institutions have increased presence of Sangh personnel.

The boundary between the armed forces and the civilian government, as well as that between the state and the majority religion, has been rendered semi-permeable.

Aggressive, threatening displays of militancy have become routine in processions that should have resonated only with religious piety. Civil servants openly espouse partisan causes.

The National Education Policy has foisted self-propagating governing bodies on autonomous institutions. None of this is going away by bringing Modi down to earth, but free to run.

Secularism integral to democracy

It is not enough to counter the government on its faulty working. The undemocratic ideology of the Sangh must be fought with the ideology and practice of democracy.

Secularism must be an integral part of democracy, not a fetishized bait for the minorities.

The challenge is to build comprehensive democracy in the country, which would be inclusive, by definition, and empowering–socially, economically and politically. That would mean not just agitation on the ground, but cultural intervention, in literature, painting, movies and the short videos that proliferate on social media.

Do we have any political party that shows any sign of taking on such a long-drawn, constructive programme to build democracy in the country?

Yes, celebrate we must the temporary halt to democratic backsliding, but also bear in mind that the baby has a long way to go, to reach healthy adulthood.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in The Federal as ‘No, stopping democratic backsliding does not mean securing democracy‘ on June 06, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Mansi Garg, a Visiting Researcher and Assistant Editor at IMPRI.