Since opening gates to the neo-liberal economy, India is adorned with the titular compliment of being the largest democracy in the world. There is no apprehension in this, with our universal suffrage, multi-tier governance system, a Constitution in place, Army in the barracks and an elected government making laws, we can very well compete with our Western contemporaries, at least on the parameters of cosmetic democracy. According to the estimation of the UN, our population is expected to overtake that of China’s in 2028 to make India the most populous nation in the world. A populous nation with a robust and properly functioning democracy is the realm of perfection that every contemporary political scientist would like to see.
However, with changing dynamics of the country’s politics and society, the meaning and the essence of democracy is altered fast; even before the people are able to comprehend the earlier meanings and concepts, we are introduced to some new concepts of democracy. The BJP government, with Narendra Modi at the peak, is the perfect example of being a ruling clique that has some really strange concepts around democracy. For example, take the ranting of the prime minister, using his usual demagogy, during the Budget Session of the parliament, where he claimed that it’s not Nehru who led our transition to democracy as a nation from a purely colonised state, but it was the Hindu monarchs of some distant past, when we probably had aircraft, nuclear bombs, plastic surgeries of ancient kind, etc. that the Indian people were introduced to democracy and they actually lived in democratic societies with democratic values. Quite a touché fellow democrats, we must lift our hats to salute that past when we had democracy before Plato and Aristotle were even born.
To understand our prime minister’s “democracy” jibe better we need to first understand what democracy means.
If we go little back to history to understand the genesis of democracy, as we understand it now, it is revealed that its founders had two main influences. One was Lockean liberalism, which (to oversimplify) is about each of us standing up for our own self-interest. Classical liberalism calls for democracy because each of us is thought of as an individual with a particular view of what self-interest means, with the right to advocate for our own interests.
And the other one being republican thought, which emphasised on the inherent value of political action for its own sake. Therefore, democracy is (from this point of view), the best form of government because it gives everyone an opportunity to enjoy public life, regardless of the quality of their contributions or the policy outcomes that flow from them. Many, it turns out, won’t get involved in political life even given the opportunity, but at least the door is open to everyone.
However, defining and understanding democracy isn’t smooth. For at least two and a half centuries, scholars have debated democracy. The narrower concept of democracy is purely electoral; it focuses simply on two things: contestation and participation. The former means the capacity of political parties freely to contest the incumbent government in elections, while the latter points to the adult universal franchise. Universal franchise means the equal right to vote granted to all individuals, which isn’t based on the voter’s caste, creed, race, ethnicity, income, gender or religion.
Democracy has a broader notion attached to it as well which goes beyond elections. It also speaks of politics between elections, about fundamental rights and more. So when our honourable prime minister gave his widely noted parliament speech on 7th February, he probably obliterated what democracy stood for. His claims about Indian democracy were gratuitous. He said, “India did not get democracy due to Pandit Nehru, as Congress wants us to believe. Please look at our rich history. There are many examples of rich democratic traditions that date back centuries ago. Democracy is integral to this nation and is in our culture.”
After knowing what democracy stands for, it is clear that ancient Indian politics had no clue of what democracy means. Did they have elected governments? How comprehensive was the franchise? One can indeed find polities in ancient India where kings bound themselves to assemblies and debates. But kings were unelected, and very few subjects had the privilege of participating in political debates in those assemblies.
Forget about kings leading democratic societies, can the prime minister tell us what he thinks about the caste system that compartmentalised the Indian society, by and large everywhere and still holds sway over the mindset of the people, who identify themselves first as a member of a particular caste-group before the “Indian” identity? It’s evident that the prime minister didn’t read anything outside the Sangh Parivar’s highly contaminated literature throughout his life and hence it’s not surprising to see him and his colleagues often exhibit such eccentric, yet worrisome behaviour.
However, if he wants to know why India couldn’t have democracy in the numerous kingdoms that ruled various stretches of land in this subcontinent in the early days, which he calls glorious, then he and his party need to delve a little deeper into history and see three broad reasons why India couldn’t see a democracy in the “golden past” that the Sangh cherish so much.
Firstly, the compartmentalisation of the society into the hierarchical caste system, even to this day, is in itself the most undemocratic and inhuman thing on earth. The caste system is in itself the biggest apartheid that the Indian society, especially its labouring class are subject to for thousands of years due to the dominance of the Aryan Brahminical religion – Sanatana Dharma and its Varna Shrama system. Under the caste system, the people are not allowed to choose profession, partner, lifestyle, residence or even the right to live with little dignity. What’s the worth of democracy when one wouldn’t be allowed to sit beside another human being for their birth, for their immediate identity? How could one justify that a person can be beaten to death for touching, yes, touching someone accidentally? Probably, for the RSS that’s the best lynchocracy – oops! Democracy to live in.
Secondly, the progress of every society can be gauged by the amount of independence that the women of that society enjoy. Indian Constitution allowed universal adult franchise for people of all race, gender, creed, caste, religion unless they aren’t insolvent or mentally unstable. It allowed these rights even before the American women could go and vote! While, the period that Narendra Modi and his coterie boast on is the very period when the women weren’t allowed to even come out of the “Andar Mahal”, the inner part of their residence because they were considered assets and treated as a commodity that holds neither brain nor intellect. If she would become a widow at a young age, then to save her from polluting herself (i.e. by indulging with another man) the norm was to ensure she was burned alive in the pyre of her dead husband. This was indeed a democracy and given the experience of the RSS-led Hindutva camp in burning people to death, there’s no wonder they would love to bring the same system back, if given a chance, say from tomorrow.
Thirdly and most importantly, like any other philosophy and political system, democracy didn’t fell one fine day in the lap of mankind, rather it evolved with the transformation of the production system and became a paramount system only after commodity production started taking place and feudalism was overthrown in Europe and America to pave way for the rapid growth and expansion of capitalism. Democracy, in its present form, is the political superstructure of the capitalist production relation in the relatively non-crisis period (fascism is the political system that the capitalists employ when their finances go through any crisis, insurmountable through conventional techniques) and therefore, it couldn’t have been conceived even in the late 15th century, unless the traits of the capitalist system could become visible.
So, as we saw above, the dissonance over democracy and the usual Nehru-bashing exercise of Narendra Modi are as unfounded as the doctrine of Hindutva that strongly negates the notion of democracy and any values that it represents. The reason Narendra Modi dragged democracy and Nehru in a discourse happening 54 years after Nehru’s death is the failure of BJP in fulfilling any of the governance promises that it made to the electorate, whom it burned during the “contesting” stage in 2014.
Promoting and speaking highly of oneself and the party they belong to is legitimised but denying the acclaim one should get is awry. India has lost the crux of the healthy and rational debate. Such statements coming from those who hold uncontested powers represents the miserable condition of our country.
Instead of being vocal about all the scams and frauds that have currently alarmed the nation, drawing attention towards insignificant debates show us whereas a democratic nation we stand? The citizen of the country needs the assertion of the situation from power-holders as they are responsible for one. However, there is none standing with the people.
Reticence on the critical issues, no clarification on the deceits happening from the public sector banks repeatedly, no assurance of punishment against the counterfeit, denying common people their basic fundamental rights (the freedom of religion and expression for example) or introducing policies which take the GDP of the country to the lowest ever level is not what a democratic nation or democratic values stand for.
“An institution,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Institutions are collections of rules and norms agreed upon by human beings. If leaders attack, denigrate and abuse them, they will be weakened, and this, in turn, will weaken the character and quality of democracy.
Let not saffron colour become the colour of our nation. India has always stood for its secularism, diversity, incredibility and togetherness. Let’s preserve the essence of our nation and work towards building an egalitarian and better India.
A silent admirer of galaxy and star follower, given a choice between human or books, would prefer latter with a cup of cold tea. A Jamia Millia Islamia alumni and an expert political consultant.