Whither the Democracy in Contemporary India?

  • Dr. Biswaranjan Mohanty

India is one of the oldest civilizations of the world, with ‘Unity in Diversity’ and rich cultural heritage. Indian cultures still cherish their oldest traditions and bring newness to it. After independence, the Indian Constitution was enacted and the strong framework of Indian democracy was established. India is one of the largest democracies in the world, and it is often praised for its diversity and pluralism. Liberty, equality, sovereignty, fraternity, secularism, justice, tolerance, collective responsibility and respect to public voice are the main features of our democracy. Democracy is not limited to political democracy. It means more than a mere form of government. In its comprehensive form, democracy means, or ought to include a form of government, a type of state, a pattern of social system, a design of economic order and a way of life and culture. Therefore, when it is said that India is a democratic nation, it doesn’t only mean that its political institutions and processes are democratic but also that the Indian society and every Indian citizen is democratic; reflecting basic democratic values in the social environments and individual behaviour. Here, people elect their own Government and Government runs on the basis of People’s will. After independence, our country witnessed more than 65 successful elections & peaceful changes of governments at both the centre and in the states. Democracy is not limited to just a process of election, but also fulfilling the social and economic aspirations of the people. For political democracy to succeed, its alliance with economic and social democracy is necessary. Economic democracy means that every member of society should get equal physical facilities for his/her development. According to a recent report, our nation’s 1% of the rich have more than 85% of country’s wealth which shows the high economic inequality. Everyone has equal social rights in our country. Economic inequality, caste & religion discriminations, poverty, exploitations are major challenges for Indian democracy.

Legislature, Executive & Judiciary are the three major pillars of Indian democracy. The legislature consists of elected representatives. Democracy will be strong if our elected representatives will be accountable and competent with strong and clean character. If the elected Government will be dictatorial with overwhelmed majority, then it weakens our democracy. The laws enacted by the legislature are implemented by the executive for the service, rights, protection & betterment of the people. Judiciary also ensures the protection of law and democracy within the constitutional framework. Recently, questions are being raised about the moral values, working style, competence and accountability of the elected representatives. Their power is shrinking & the power of the bureaucrats is expanding. Power is centralized in the hands of certain politicians and bureaucrats, which is not a good sign for our democracy. India’s judiciary, which is independent of the executive, has faced criticism. Many retired supreme court judges have said that India’s democracy appears to be “on the downswing” due to the court’s inability to uphold civil liberties in some cases, by denying people bail and the misuse of sedition & anti-terror laws by police. Few judges becoming MPs after their retirement as judges and retirement from other government appointments, poses a serious question on their moral values and ethics. The official data shows that there are more than 60,000 cases pending before the Supreme Court, over 5.9 million cases before high courts & more than 2.5 crore cases before district and lower courts. 4 out of every 10 judicial seats are currently empty. Several prominent lawyers and retired judges have said that they believed the government was seeking to influence the judiciary, which could be unconstitutional. Government is also trying to interfere in judicial collegium system to appoint judges.

Media is called the fourth pillar of democracy. Its main responsibility is to fix accountability and to question government on the failure of governance and policies. Its important role is to create public awareness and provide information that shapes attitude and public opinion. It’s an increasingly powerful tool of the democracy. If the media is biased instead of being neutral, if it undermines the Constitution and democracy, then it will lose the public trust. Now-a-days, there is an assault on free press. Critical journalists have been harassed, prosecuted & investigated, put under surveillance, many of them are facing criminal prosecution including false sedition charges. Alt News Mohd. Zubair was jailed, Bhaskar group promoter was raided by IT after it was critical of Covid19 mismanagement. NDTV faced CBI raids, and there were raids on BBC News. Social Media Platforms are spreading sensational, provocative & inflammatory news. False news & data are creating confusion in society. Our country fell down to 161, out of 180 countries in press freedom index, which is not a good sign for our democracy.

Parliament is an essential institution for Indian Democracy. It’s known as the ‘Temple of Democracy’. Parliament is a place where acts of the government are examined to ensure nothing is amiss. The functioning of parliament has been severely undermined in recent years. Opposition voice is not heard. The expunging of parliamentary statements of opposition leaders is questionable. In past, Atal Bihari Vajpayee could criticize Nehru severely on several occasions but could still be heard seriously. Now, Prime Minister is running away from his parliamentary responsibilities whereas He and His Cabinet are directly accountable to the Parliament. PM is visible more on his Party platforms than in Parliament debate and discussing laws. He is not answering the questions on PMO. Indian Parliament is diminished by official disruption with overwhelmed majority. Legislative enabling and quickly passing legislations and budget grants. The recently concluded budget session witnessed its accelerated erosion. The Union Budget 2023 of 45 Lakh crores of rupees of people’s money was passed in parliament without discussion due to deliberate and designed disruption by treasury bench, what we have never seen before in India’s parliamentary history. Parliament is barely functioning during the session time. In our parliamentary system, the standing committee is called the “Mini Parliament”, where the voices of all stakeholders are heard, rising above the party line. Now, the important bills are not referred to standing committee. Most of the bills are passed through select committee and rest without discussion in parliament. During 2004-2009, about 60% of the bills were sent to parliamentary standing committees, while after 2019, only 12% were sent to committees. India’s parliament has also come under scrutiny for passing important laws with little debate, including a religious driven citizenship law and controversial anti-farmer agriculture bill that led to massive protest. More than 650 farmers died, government withdrew the black laws & people of India saw it as the victory of Indian democracy. Present government has undermined our Parliament, drained our democracy of the true spirit of our ‘Temple of Democracy’ and has also dismantled all the pillars of democracy systematically.

Now-a-days, Governors have become the face of the widened rift between the Center and the States, run by the non-BJP government, and has threatened the spirit of cooperative federalism. In many states, they have not given fair chance to form the government to political parties that won the largest number of seats and have encouraged defection to destabilize the democratically elected governments. The office of Governors in many states are acting in violation of the constitutional provisions and frequently hindering the governance of the state. They are blatantly interfering in the day-to-day functioning of the state government. They are wilfully undermining the democratically elected governments and are deliberately obstructing the governance. CMs of Kerala, Telangana, Punjab, Delhi, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu & few other states are complaining to the President of India against their Governors. Consequently, a serious question mark arises on the role of Governors. Now, there is an open tussle between Central government and many non-BJP State Governments, which is not a good sign for our democracy.

There is a blatant misuse of Central Agencies against opposition leaders and those who pose questions on the government’s ill policies and misgovernance are branded as Urban Naxals, Anti-National and draconian laws including seditions & UAPA Act are invoked against them. Dalits are attacked, minorities are lynched, journalists & lawyers are attacked & prosecuted, minority homes are bulldozed, rapists are given remission, activists from civil society are thrown behind bars and critical opponents are arrested by the ED & CBI. It seems that the institutions have surrendered to the government. And to the world, we are projecting a new definition of democracy.

Apart from this, Indian democracy faces major other challenges. In India, approximately 35% of the total population lives in poverty. Our society is sopping with socio-economic inequality. People of our country are still living in poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. Although gender equality is a basic principle of our democracy, gender discrimination exists on every small step. In India, women constitute 50% of the total population but in State Assemblies and Parliament, they don’t complete 10% representation. There is not even 6% women representation in governance. The women reservation bill is still pending in the Parliament. Incidents of violence against women are rising. Casteism, communalism, religious fundamentalism & regionalism still exist in Indian society. Now-a-days, corruption is a major problem in India as it has its roots in every field - be it land, health, education, agriculture, industry, transport, property, armed forces, spiritual pursuit and even religious institutions. It exists at all levels of politics, bureaucracy, government & corporate. Indian democracy faces further challenges because of criminalization in politics and political violence. Recently, Indian festivals, occasions for joy & celebration which spreads the message of brotherhood, are now turning into communal violence in several parts of our country. These all are not good signs for a healthy democracy. Nothing can be a greater injustice to democracy than destructing the fabrics of democracy in the 75th year of its Independence.

Indian Democracy has many glorious achievements to its credit since independence. It is deep-rooted and has strong foundation. Every Indian is the custodian of our democracy and the youths of our country are its vigilant soldiers. To address all the challenges, India needs to promote greater transparency and accountability in our political system, to strengthen democratic institutions and promote a more inclusive & diverse political culture. There is a need to create greater economic opportunities for marginalized communities. Only then can it realise its potential as a vibrant, strong and prosperous democracy.

The Author is an Ex-Secretary, AICC