Sunday, May 9, 2021

Flawed democracy

Seven decades after the Indian nation adopted its Constitution; the Republic Day has been turned into an annual ritualism with parades, flag hoisting and hollow speeches even as the true essence of the Constitution which recognizes justice, liberty, equality and fraternity as the core fundamentals of Indian democracy has never been realized. The celebratory tone of the Republic Day for years has glossed over the inability of the country to overcome the prejudices and socio-economic disparities that have fed the cycle of injustices and inequality. There has never been an honest introspection of how the country has fared on its tryst with constitutional democracy and there has never been introspection enough. While occasions of Republic Day in the recent decades have been used to amplify the external threats to the nation, the threats to democracy from within through authoritarian and corrupt regimes, weakened institutions and prevalent inequalities in the system have never been assessed fairly. This was all the more important at a time when India has slipped 10 places to 51st position in the 2019 Democracy Index’s global ranking. The Index that provides a snapshot of the current state of democracy worldwide for 165 independent states and two territories. The Index prepared by The Economist cited “erosion of civil liberties” in the country as the primary cause for the downtrend and India has now been put in the category of ‘flawed democracy’. The worries of those who framed the Constitution reposing their entire trust and faith in liberal values are becoming real. The likes of BR Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Constitution, and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru were aware of the difficulties of implementing the project of making India a truly democratic, socialist, federal and secular republic while carrying along an entire nation with its immense diversity and inherent inequities. Ambedkar had even warned, “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Nonetheless, the country embarked on the journey but the real goals remained far distant decades later. There were occasions in India’s journey of democracy when its constitutional foundations were shaken but it was always peoples’ power that rose up in rebellion to keep democracy in check, as happened during the dark years of emergency. That moment is frighteningly back now with a threat that is far bigger than the seventies as the present regime is hell-bent to not just impose its authoritarian will on the people to stay in power but also consciously is making an attempt to hollow out the Indian constitutional values with its majoritarian political ideology and its emphasis on religion as a prime mover and shaker in India’s socio-political set-up. Like always, the length and breadth of the country today is teeming with protests against laws like religion-based Citizen Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). Unlike the Mandal agitation of the 90s which turned violent, the ongoing protests are not only by and large peaceful, they are creative and they have adopted constitutional symbols like the flag and the preamble of the Indian Constitution, which encapsulates the essence of India’s constitutional democracy. Far from the glamour of the official functions ensconced in security zones, it is these celebrations of the Republic that inspire hope and pride. They are neither ritualistic, nor hollow. They are manifestations of the people’s firm belief in democratic values and their courage to step out of their comfort zones to protest in bitter cold and face the physical threats. Protests representing people power and aimed against ruling elites proliferate in non-democratic, authoritarian regimes and often succeed in toppling such regimes which refuse to heed the voice of the public. While this moment of inspiring courage of people rising up together to oppose the threat to Indian democracy needs a celebration, beyond the cosmetics, it is for the government to realize that the real power in a democracy is vested in the people of the nation, not those who rule. That is the lesson it needs to learn and alter its course before it is too late.