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'Indian democracy faces an unprecedented challenge'

By ARCHANA MASIH
Last updated on: August 18, 2021 08:52 IST
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'The larger intention is to create a political State where there is no opposition.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi lays the foundation for the new Parliament building, December 10, 2020. Photograph: PTI Photo

"India is a thriving democracy when it comes to elections and the peaceful transition of power, but a diminishing democracy when it comes to other institutions and freedoms, notes the distinguished political scientist Zoya Hasan, Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University whose forthcoming book is titled Ideology and Organization in Indian Politics: Growing Polarization and the Decline of the Congress Party (2009-2019).

As India celebrates Independence Day, Dr Hasan spoke about the weaknesses and strengths of Indian democracy in an e-mail interview with Rediff.com's Archana Masih. Part 1 of an eloquent interview:

 

As India marks another Independence Day, how do you assess the health of our Republic?

Indian democracy and its institutional structures face an unprecedented challenge. India is a thriving democracy when it comes to elections and the peaceful transition of power, but a diminishing democracy when it comes to other institutions and freedoms.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of our Independence, which is a landmark in the history of any democracy, the dissonance between electoral success and institutional erosion and the depletion of freedoms is quite apparent.

One finds a growing tendency of the State to control all facets of life -- politics or social relations or culture or culinary habits.

The larger intention is to create a political State where there is no opposition, either at the electoral and legislative level or at the ideological level in terms of alternative views and ideas.

In what ways have the Modi years changed the working of Indian democracy?

Indian politics was known to converge towards the Centre. This is not true anymore as the pendulum has moved decisively to the right.

Since 2019 the BJP government moved swiftly to reshape India's secular Republic to match their vision of a Hindu-centric powerhouse. The combination of communalism and authoritarianism has come to the centre stage flanked by the marginalisation of minorities which is a trademark of the right-wing regime.

Shouting anti-Muslim slogans by political activists and sympathisers of the ruling dispensation at Jantar Mantar in the heart of the capital is the most recent example of this brand of politics.

The working of Indian democracy has changed in at least three significant ways.

The muzzling of dissent in the name of nationalism, silencing the Opposition in the name of the popular mandate and undermining institutions in order to establish tight control to push narrow political agendas.

This government has weaponised the electoral mandate to dispense with consultation and debate even on issues of critical national importance.

This encapsulates a long-term political programme of eliminating political dissent to build a Hindu State. And, therefore, those who dissent are branded as anti-nationals, urban Naxals and terrorists and so on.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

What have been your observations of the functioning and conduct of Parliament under the Modi government?

The decline and descent of Parliament is most palpable.

Passing bills without debate while ignoring the need for deliberation and scrutiny chokes the parliamentary process of discussion. But the government isn't particularly bothered because legislative business is carrying on amidst protests by the Opposition over the Pegasus issue in the current session.

The manner in which farm bills were introduced and rushed though last year and the numerous bills passed in this session without democratic debate indicate contempt for the democratic system.

The Rajya Sabha passed nine bills in this monsoon session spending 17 minutes per bill for discussion and the Lok Sabha passed 11 bills, each taking about eight minutes.

India has been recently dubbed an 'electoral autocracy' -- are we going to see a democratic erosion year on year? Or can we stop that from happening? What are some of the safeguards that can prevent that?

India has been dubbed an electoral autocracy because of democratic erosion and the crackdowns on freedom of speech and dissent. That's the main factor responsible for India's backsliding on democracy indexes.

The tendency to use the sheer weight of numbers to trash all deliberative processes is turning governments into elected autocracies in India and in several other countries dominated by right-wing populists.

The full force of the authoritarian tactics of the government have been showcased in its response to the two largest protests in the past few years, the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the farmers protests.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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