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BARRING the dark days of the Emergency (1975-77), the Indian experiment of building a democratic republic has generally elicited favourable commentary. Most analysts have been surprised at the relative ease with which Indian political/social leadership and the common citizen have been able to overcome a formidable mix of adverse conditions and lay down the architecture of a modern, liberal democracy – a rights based constitutional order, a system of institutional checks and balances to help avoid an unwarranted concentration of power, and success in ensuring regular elections and an orderly transfer of power.

Of course, even admirers of the Indian experiment underscore the need to move beyond a fixation with ensuring free and fair elections, and instead focus more on what happens between elections and whether the life of the citizen has improved. Equally on the need to further strengthen the freedom of the media to promote a robust culture of enquiry, debate and dissent; safeguard the autonomy of institutions, judicial and regulatory; and encourage the functioning of civil society associations so as to deepen both traditional and modern values of tolerance, equality and justice. But the overall refrain remains been positive.

No longer. A recent report compiled by Varieties of Democracy, a team of over 2500 social science experts headquartered at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden looking at the status of democracy, worldwide, signals deep disquiet about the ‘health’ of Indian democracy. In sharp contrast to official claims about the country’s progress, the report warns that Indian democracy is on a ‘downward spiral’, a trend that has markedly accelerated under the current dispensation. It points out that India’s Liberal Democracy Index score, never too high to begin with, has slipped by more than ten points over the last four years, a slippage in ranking echoed by many other global assessments. Currently, in the region, the country ranks below even Sri Lanka and Nepal, despite their recent history of violent conflict.

Fortunately, unlike most conventional assessments of democracy, this report does not limit itself to elections – the fact that they elicit high participation, are fiercely contested and, barring exceptions, seen as ‘free and fair’. Moreover, voter turnout rates increase, not decrease, as we go down the socioeconomic ladder. Clearly elections continue to be popular and legitimate. Nevertheless, many infirmities remain unaddressed, viz. the long-standing demand to clean up election financing which tilts the contest in favour of richer candidate/parties or the need to impose stiffer penalties for rule violation. Incidentally, despite numerous recommendations for electoral reform, all parties remain reluctant to act.

For the authors, more important is the alleged clampdown on key liberal features of the Indian system – increased infringements on media freedom, restrictions on the activities of civil society organizations, dilution in the quality of protection to individual and minority rights, and a weakening of the system of checks and balances between different players in the system. The report claims that the Index of Freedom of Expression has fallen by as much as 27% since 2014. Also that with cancellation of the registration of over 20,000 CSOs, mainly those working on human rights and environmental issues, and greater restrictions on funding, there is a sharp fall in the Civil Society Participation Index.

Expectedly, critics of the current dispensation will cite this report as vindication of their assessment that under Narendra Modi the country has entered a dangerous phase, en route to becoming an illiberal democracy. This they claim is part of the long-standing project to rework our extant constitutional order and bring it in line with what the ruling BJP and the Sangh Parivar believes is the true Indian (read Hindu) civilizational ethos. The reworking of institutions – judicial, regulatory and cultural – through a complex strategy involving greater control over appointments and funding, and instituting changes in rules and regulations to both promote certain views and exclude others, often without public debate, is integral to this project. Equally worrying is the conscious strengthening of a majoritarian ethic, accompanied by an alarming coarsening of public discourse labelling all forms of dissent as illegitimate, if not anti-national.

Even those who accept that our policies and institutional arrangements are in serious need of reform and that for far too long a narrow section of elites has controlled the levers of state power in a manner that serves to keep out all those not seen as ‘suitable’ by deploying selective criteria of judgement and legitimation, are worried that far from renewing the Indian democratic project, these tendencies, left unchecked, will only add to strife and anarchy. The fact that comparisons to the Emergency years have become so much more common should be a matter of concern.

Harsh Sethi

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