Right after independence, the path that was chosen by India to realize her destiny was a difficult one. For a nation with a humongous population with widespread illiteracy and poverty, democracy was nothing less than a mirage. Before this great experiment in the country of subcontinental size, democracy flourished only in the cocoons of rich nations of Europe and America. According to some western thinkers, certain prerequisites were required for the introduction of democracy in any country.
They included an educated population, absence of poverty, and vibrant democratic culture. Unsurprisingly, none of these conditions was available in our country. The colonial rule robbed us of our wealth and fortune. The reading of thinkers like J. S. Mill suggests that the oriental societies were barbaric and democracy was not meant for them. He placed India in this category.
When India decided to be a democracy there was an agreement across the world that this grand experiment would fail. The decision to grant universal adult franchise was termed as the “greatest gamble in the history“. Nowhere in the world was democracy introduced at such a large scale. It was a revolutionary moment for the country.
Amid all these suspicions, there was optimism on the side of Indians as the soul of a nation, long suppressed, was going to find utterance. In the words of our first Prime Minister Pt. Nehru, “Long years ago… we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.” He further remarked, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
After almost 70 years of this experiment, history stands witness to the spectacular success of democracy in this land of great diversity and resilience. But this is also the time we should ask ourselves some tough questions. Has the pledge been redeemed? Why did the freedom promise remain unrealized for most of us at the bottom?
The experience of the last decade especially since 2014 has raised many questions on the functioning of democracy in India. The journey of democracy in India was like a roller-coaster ride but it managed to emerge stronger after every crisis. The most severe assault was of course during the era of emergency(1975-77). But the period of emergency, rather than breaking the neck of democracy, only deepened its roots and made the resolve to protect it stronger. Post – emergency period saw the emergence of a strong civil society and various social movements.
The next major challenge was the period of the 1990s. The country faced an economic crisis of an unprecedented scale. There was political instability without a stable government. Faced with immense pressure, democracy again demonstrated remarkable resilience. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and the country witnessed one of the highest growth rates in the world. This helped normalize our relations with the west, uplifted the international stature, and gave strategic weight to India’s position.
But since 2014, the developments that have taken place in the country not only challenge democracy but also raise some serious questions about its viability and existence. Constitutional values like secularism, liberty, equality, justice, fraternity, etc are being challenged. Democratic norms and practices are blamed for being an obstruction in the road to development.
Senior bureaucrats and politicians are blaming “too much democracy” for delayed development. In short, democracy today is not only challenged but facing an existential crisis. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we are living in a state of undeclared emergency. So, we must identify the major trends that pushed us to such a sorry state of affairs.
1. Shrinking Public Space – Public space is that part of a democratic society where different ideas compete, confront and converge. It acts as a zone of harmony. The success of any democracy can be measured by identifying the richness of this space. A well-represented, diverse, and inclusive public space is an indicator of a healthy and mature democracy.
The divisive agenda of the current government based on the ideology of Hindutva has done great harm to this invaluable democratic asset. The result is intense polarisation, mutual hatred, exclusive nationalism, etc.
2. Weakening Institutions – Vibrant and functioning institutions are the bedrock of any democracy. From RBI to Constitutional bodies like Election Commission, the credibility of institutions is being questioned. This is resulting in a loss of public trust.
3. Hijacking Of Parliament – Parliament which is the highest deliberative body of the country is getting diminished with each passing day. Once the temple of Indian democracy is now merely a rubber stamp to approve the executive’s agenda. Bills are pushed without parliamentary scrutiny. Increasing resort to ordinances even during normal times is a worrisome trend.
4. Turning Into A Police State – Political prisoners accused of crimes against the state are filling up jails which is again a dangerous signal to the rights of citizens. Activists, students, NGOs, etc are all facing the wrath of the government for speaking up freely. Draconian statutes like UAPA, NSA, 124A, etc are unleashed with full force to curb dissent.
5. Demonising Opposition – For the first time in the history of this country, the opposition is becoming so meaningless. An opposition -‘ Mukta(free)’ Bharat is a precursor to the fascist ambitions of the current government.
6. Electoral processes – With serious doubts raised over the impartiality and independence of the election commission, the future of democracy in India seems to be in a perilous state.
All the above-mentioned problems remind us of colonial rule. The only difference, it seems, is that the government committing these sins is elected by the very people of this country.
Democracy is not the private property of few rich people. It is a collective asset of all citizens. To blame others only is nothing less than turning back to our Constitutional and moral responsibility to protect it. ‘We The People’ will have to unite and punish those who are trying to subvert it. The democracy that we have today should not be taken for granted. Millions of fellow citizens sacrificed their lives for it. The time is difficult and any resistance on our part would invite severe repression by those in power.
But great struggles demand great sufferings and sacrifice. I would like to conclude my article in the words of our great freedom fighter Bhagat Singh – “If you oppose a prevailing belief, if you criticize a great person who is considered to be an incarnation, you will find that your criticism will be answered by calling you vain and egoist.” This is the time to remind the saboteurs of our freedom that governments will come and go but democracy is here to stay forever.