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Democracy in descent

Ramachandra Guha

These past few weeks have been bad, if not disastrous, for Indian democracy. Three public institutions that were not in rude health to begin with have further declined in capability and credibility.

First, the police. The misdoings of the Delhi Police in Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University were trifling compared to the riots that it enabled (and, in some accounts, furthered) in the second half of February. Not since 1947 has the country’s Capital experienced such bloody Hindu-Muslim violence. And it is well known that major riots only take place when the political leadership is unable or unwilling to stop them. The pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 could have been prevented if Rajiv Gandhi, then prime minister, and Narasimha Rao, then home minister, had promptly called in the police and paramilitary. I was living in Kolkata at the time, and recall how Jyoti Basu immediately instructed the police and the administration to ensure that the (some 30,000) Sikhs of the city be safe. And they were.

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah followed the example of Rajiv and Rao rather than of Basu. As reports by independent journalists have shown, the Delhi Police did nothing while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders openly called for attacks on Muslims, and continued to look on when these attacks started. When they were finally forced to come out, the Delhi Police did not act like a force that wished to act promptly or impartially. For all the attempts by the home minister in Parliament to whitewash the crimes of the Delhi Police, the image of cops smashing the CCTV cameras that had captured evidence of their own brutality will not easily fade away.

In Kashmir in 1989-90, Hindus suffered horribly at the hands of Muslims. However, in every other state of the Union, whenever there have been clashes between Hindus and Muslims, it is Muslims who have suffered disproportionately, in terms of lives, livelihoods, and the destruction of property. This was true of riots in Ahmedabad in 1969 and 2002, in Mumbai in 1992-93, in Bhagalpur in 1989, in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, and in a hundred other places at a hundred different times in our history as an independent nation. And so it was in Delhi last month. With the United States President Donald Trump visiting, and this being the national capital besides, the one-sidedness of this violence was widely documented and commented upon in the world’s press. The Delhi Police have thus actively facilitated the characterisation abroad of India as a majoritarian Hindu State bent on repressing its minorities.

To be sure, this representation was already in currency, not least because of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA, and its deliberate exclusion of Muslims. But what happened in the Capital last month has dramatically consolidated this. The public shaming of India in the eyes of the world is a cross that the Delhi Police – and those it reports to – will have to bear for a very long time to come.

The second major public institution that has further degraded itself in recent weeks is the legislature. That Indian politicians lack principle is not news. That, for most of them, material reward trumps ideological commitment is not news either. Even so, what has happened in Madhya Pradesh (MP) in recent weeks is shocking. That, against the backdrop of the Delhi riots and the emergence and spread of Covid-19, the ruling party at the Centre sought to expend its time, energy and resources on seeking to destabilise the ruling government in MP showed a truly perverted sense of priorities. Power (and pelf) was what mattered, not the national interest, which lay (and still lies) in restoring social peace nationwide, and in promoting collective and cooperative action to manage the fallout of this pandemic.

The happenings in MP (and since then, in Gujarat) also display an utter contempt for voters and for representative democracy. In both states, assembly elections are in effect a two-party contest – between the BJP and the Congress. What does it say about the democratic process if so many legislators elected on the Congress ticket cross over to the party they just recently, and successfully, opposed? That their decision is not voluntary or principled is evident – why else would they be flown to distant Bengaluru in a herd? Only because of the fear that their original party would offer them a higher inducement to stay back than the inducement offered them to defect.

The third public institution that, in recent weeks and months, has not acquitted itself honourably is the higher judiciary. It is past reason, for example, that the Supreme Court has not yet heard the electoral bonds case, or habeas corpus petitions. Its tardiness in this regard is unfortunate; but this pales into insignificance in comparison with the alacrity with which the recently-retired Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, has accepted a Rajya Sabha nomination. Surely decency and propriety required that he refuse. He has not, prompting widespread criticism from his former colleagues on the Bench. Justice Gogoi’s opportunistic act, comments Justice Kurien Joseph, “has compromised the noble principles on the independence and impartiality of the Judiciary.” And so it has.

I have singled out three public institutions whose credibility has come under increasing scrutiny. This is not to say that other public institutions are functioning optimally. The civil services are as prone to partisan political capture as the police; the Enforcement Directorate and the Intelligence Bureau, arguably even more so. The Reserve Bank of India and the Election Commission do not enjoy the high reputation they once did.

To be sure, there was no Golden Age in the past. Our democracy was always imperfect and flawed. It was the Congress which, when in power, first politicised the police and civil services, first destabilised elected state governments, first compromised the independence of the judiciary. But the Modi-Shah regime has taken this process much further and deeper. Back in 2007, I characterised India as a 50-50 democracy. On our last Independence Day, I downgraded this to 40-60, warning that we may soon be at 30-70. We are there already, and our democracy seems set to decline and degrade further yet.

(HT Media)

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