The government should listen to the President’s counsel, and engage with aggrieved citizens
As India prepares to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the adoption of its majestic Constitution that empowered "We the people" on Sunday (January 26) , its democratic credentials have come under less than flattering scrutiny. The 2019 Democracy Index report of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) released on January 22 placed India at the 51st spot, marking a sharp drop of 10 places from the previous year's rankings.
While Norway leads the list, and is in the category of "full democracies", North Korea, ranked 167, is at the bottom of the ladder and clubbed among "authoritarian regimes". India has been placed in the category of "flawed democracies", which has a total of 54 countries. It is instructive to note that the world's oldest democracy, the United States of America, is deemed to be similarly "flawed" and is at the 25th spot. Furthermore, in the neighbourhood, Bangladesh has moved up eight rungs to the 80th rank.
The EIU democracy index has been assessed across five categories: Electoral process and pluralism; the functioning of government; political participation; political culture; and civil liberties. Clearly, 2019 has been a blighted year for democracies, for the report notes that the average global score for democracy declined from 5.48 in 2018 to 5.44, and added that "this is the worst average global score since the EIU index was first produced in 2006".
India has also been accorded its lowest score since the democracy index was mooted 14 years ago, and the 2019 average was 6.9: derived from electoral process, 8.67; functioning of government, 6. 79; political participation, 6.67 ; political culture, 5. 63 and civil liberties, 6.76.
The erosion of civil liberties in India over the last year has been highlighted as one of the primary reasons for the drop in the Indian ranking and the specific allusion was to the abrogation of Article 370 and repealing Article 35A, removing the special status of Jammu & Kashmir. The clampdown in Kashmir and the detention of local political leaders, as also the shutdown of the Internet and other restrictions imposed on citizens found mention in the EIU report.
India has, in the past, rejected international assessments that have been critical of its track record even while enthusiastically accepting more positive endorsement of its achievements. Selective petulance is not the hallmark of a self-assured democracy that can accept objective and constructive criticism, and the Narendra Modi government has been particularly sensitive on this score.
Recent protests across India over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the manner in which the State has responded only reinforces the image of a "flawed democracy" that uses disproportionate force against its own citizens. Reports from Uttar Pradesh about the local police physically man-handling peaceful anti-CAA protesters reveal the ugly side of the State.
Dissent by citizens through peaceful protest is integral to the democratic ethos, and it is ironic that the world's largest democracy has shown little empathy or patience with such exigencies. The CAA and related initiatives such as the National Population Register have triggered a nationwide, student-led peaceful protest. This has progressively drawn support from a wide cross-section of civil society, including retired bureaucrats, academics and stoic women with young children. This is vintage Gandhian assertion by the collective, but the response of the State has been far from democratic and disappointing.
Home minister Amit Shah unambiguously declared in Lucknow on January 21 that, despite the protests, the government would adopt a hardline policy in relation to the CAA, and that come what may, it would not be withdrawn. In short, there is no window for any dialogue with the aggrieved citizens, and this again is antithetical to the democratic compulsion.
Ironically, President Ram Nath Kovind, on January 20, dwelt on the centrality of "debate" in a democracy at a media awards ceremony in Delhi, in which he observed: "A democracy like ours deeply relies on the uncovering of facts and a willingness to debate them." The Modi government would be well-advised to objectively ponder over this sage counsel from the President — the custodian of the Constitution — and initiate a sincere debate in Parliament and with the citizen.
It is paradoxical that in the world's leading authoritarian State, China, where student-led citizen protests in Hong Kong have continued for months, fewer people have died than in the recent protests in India.
Arend Lijphart, an eminent academic in the field of comparative politics, reviewed the puzzle of Indian democracy in 1996, and the validity of a consociational (power-sharing) interpretation. Equitable power-sharing through the accommodation of all demographic groups and an empathetic deliberative engagement between the State and the citizen are the desired parameters for a normative democracy. Lijphart concluded that India, despite certain shortcomings, "is not a deviant case for consociational theory but, instead, an impressive confirming case."
It is moot if this conclusion is as valid or less so in 2020.