‘Crisis of Democracy’

Let us believe the official fiction. Let us pretend that the five-day special parliament session has indeed been called to discuss “Parliamentary Journey of 75 Years Starting from Samvidhan Sabha – Achievements, Experiences, Memories and Learning”.  And now that we are on a fantasy trip, let us also imagine that our worthy parliamentarians are all wise men and women who are engaged in a collective pursuit of truth.

So, what indeed is the story of the journey of 75 years of parliamentary democracy in India? I reckon we might hear three different stories in this session. All three would be false and seriously misleading. We need to tell ourselves a different, more truthful and enabling story. After all, human beings are story-telling animals. Our stories make us who we are. Stories can saddle us with an unbearable burden of the past or gift us a better future.

Let us hear the first story of the much delayed but inevitable recent fruition of democracy. This bizarre and brazen version could well be the dominant story that you get to hear in this session. Bharat, the mother of democracy, was deluded by a polluted western version that its Anglicised elite practiced for a few decades. This alien and limited opening was used by the people to assert their voice, their culture. With the dawn of true democracy in 2014, democratic majority finally prevailed. Bharat finally had its madhur milan with destiny – a new name, a new vision and a new sansad building.

We can also anticipate two counter narratives that may oppose this official history during this session. There could be an exact mirror image: a story of rise and rise of Indian democracy till it met a sudden and fatal accident in 2014. Modi’s sudden rise to power was an authoritarian coup in the name of democracy. Though they do not put it so bluntly, it is amazing to see how easily our elite buys into this story of kya se kya ho gaya.

The other version, more popular among the radical circles, is the story of the inevitable decline and fall of democracy. On this reading, democracy was always a fragile achievement, if not a pretense. Those who tell this story offer different reasons for the inevitable collapse. It could be persistence of undemocratic culture. Or the hierarchical caste system. Or the Indian model of capitalism. But they all agree that the bubble was bound to burst.

The problem with all these stories is not just that these are untrue. The real problem is that all of these are very poor guides for action. At this critical juncture in our history, these stories invite us to sit back. Either rub our hands in glee or wring our hands in despair.

All these three stories fail to understand both the successes and the failures of Indian democracy. Indian democracy has defied the theory that we inherited from the western experience.

Let us imagine that a new wisdom dawns upon our parliamentarians in the new building, thanks to a perfect vastu. The parliament might say: our journey of the last 75 years is our own journey.  We are not re-living Europe’s biography or its autobiography. Nor have we resumed the unfinished journey of the ancient Indian republics.  

The received understanding of the preconditions of democracy suggested that it required some degree of affluence and widespread literacy. If so, India should never have been a democracy in the first place. The received model insisted that democracy requires an oscillation of power within a multi-party competitive framework. If so, the founding decades of Indian democracy that were dominated by what was called the “Congress, system” could not be characterised as democratic.

If we believe the received European notion that the cultural boundaries of a nation and the political boundaries of a state must coincide, then India with its deep diversities should never have survived beyond its first decade. If we believe that robust institutions are necessary for a democracy, then India should not have survived the onslaught of Emergency. And, once democracy became “the only game in town” and was buttressed by an unprecedented rate of economic growth, Indian democracy should not have faced the crisis it faces today.

Simple stories of democracy do not tell us why Indian democracy did not collapse in the face of serious challenges. It could have collapsed in the mid-1960s, in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war, or at the death of Nehru and the subsequent crises that included serial famines. Democratic entreprise had collapsed during the Emergency, but for Indira Gandhi’s overweening self-confidence and misjudgment that led to the elections in1977.

The intersection of Mandal and Mandir with the sudden collapse of Congress and the economic crisis, all around 1990, was another possible challenge. Compared to all these moments, 2014 was the most improbable juncture for democratic collapse.

So, let us imagine that our parliament arrives at a different, more layered but truer story of what has happed to our democracy. The current crisis of Indian democracy may be described as “democracy capture”. To call it “democracy capture”, rather than, say, “authoritarian capture of democracy” or merely “crisis of democracy” is to remember that democracy is both the object and the subject of this capture. The apparatus being seized is democracy, a constitutionally sanctified and ideologically legitimised form of governance. The means being deployed for this capture are also democratic, at least seemingly so – by way of an electoral majority attained in “free and fair” elections. It is to remind us that the formal procedures of democracy have been used to subvert the substance of democracy.

This subversion is not just an accident in an otherwise well-planned journey. Nor is it the end point in the inevitable decline and fall of Indian democracy. The conditions for this capture were shaped by our post-independence history, yet it was not inevitable. It was indeed contingent, but was not a fluke or merely an accident. Modi did what political leaders often do: seizes upon a very difficult chance and convert it into a personal triumph. At the same time, this democracy capture could not have happened without some structural weaknesses within the Indian democratic enterprise.

Let us imagine that a new wisdom dawns upon our parliamentarians in the new building, thanks to a perfect vastu. The parliament might say: our journey of the last 75 years is our own journey.  We are not re-living Europe’s biography or its autobiography. Nor have we resumed the unfinished journey of the ancient Indian republics.

Our democratic enterprise was an open-ended journey with no predetermined starting point, fixed route, and given destination. We were to be guided by the values laid out in the constitution, which itself was a distilled wisdom of our civilizational heritage. In this journey we cleared the path as we moved along. We maneuvered many dangerous turns and allowed complacency to set in. And we skid on a much less slippery slope. We let ourselves down. We also let our country down. We accept the responsibility of allowing our democracy to be captured. We the people of India resolve to recover the sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic of India.

Sounds incredulous? Not to me. I have just seen ‘Jawan’ and am learning to read the truth of fantasies.

(Note: Some of the ideas here are drawn from Introduction to my book Making Sense of Indian Democracy)