Indian democracy turned 70 this year and this may be as good a time as any to look back on how the world’s largest democracy has fared these seven decades. Arguably, Indian democracy was shaped from its infancy by the Congress, the Nehru-Gandhi family, elite groups of civil servants of the day and an assortment of courtiers. After Mahatma Gandhi’s death, it didn’t take long for the Congress to distance itself from the idea of democracy close to his heart—a decentralised governance from the grassroots managed by the people—and embrace the realpolitik of a democracy run by parties and majorities.
The five-yearly elections that brought the winner undreamt-of power across the full spectrum of state authority, especially the exchequer, sent a motley crowd clambering upon the democracy bandwagon. Legislative Assemblies as well as houses of Parliament abounded with mediocrities and criminal elements, and the opposition were little different from the ruling parties in the abuse of democratic power. Each state hosted its own reality show of democracy.
Elections legitimised every misdeed. They constituted the seal of democratic credibility. Film stars and liquor barons to business magnates and common criminals took their seats in the grand casino of Indian democracy and played to win, and keep winning. Not that there were no exceptions. But they did not last—or count. Just over 25 years after the birth of the Republic, the Emergency was declared, deleting democracy from the nation’s credentials. Ironically, as types go, the people who imposed the Emergency were a near-replica of those who kick-started democracy in India—the Congress, the Nehru-Gandhi family, civil servants, courtiers, et al.
Emergency was—perhaps the time has come to remind ourselves—a beyond-belief betrayal that fundamentally altered the nature and course of Indian democracy. The deep-rooted anti-democratic outlook of the Indian ruling classes—with their essentially feudal mindset, an open secret no one seems to want to acknowledge—that culminated in the Emergency did not die with it. It was, for the astute politician, an 18-month practical course in the art of undoing a liberal democracy. The anti-democratic mindset—the contempt for and impatience with the common man, and the disregard for their rights and freedoms—came to permeate every arm of governance.
Legislations that dealt deadly blows to fundamental freedoms and human rights were enacted one after the other with hardly a murmur against them. The unkindest cut fell on the people of Kashmir, who rotted in a horrendous limbo between two terrors. Side by side took place the slow but steady conversion of a large chunk of the Indian media from its time-honoured role as a whistle-blower for democracy and freedom to a fellow traveller of the state. Sections of the media ceased to stand with the people on fundamental issues of nationhood, the state’s overt and covert suppressions of rights and freedoms, and the brutal use of force.
In parallel, intellectuals in general took democracy for granted, paying attention only when violations directly hurt their own domain. The more the media identified with the state and intellectuals neglected the peril democracy was in, the more the grip of dangerously ignorant, even imbalanced, men and women grew stronger over them and the rest of the nation. Perhaps the secret of the BJP’s success is that its think tanks have zeroed in on the decay in all its ramifications, identified the opportunities it held, and are using it to their advantage. The others do not seem to have even sensed there was a disaster, that they were a part of it, that each had a role in its making.
Bogged down in the rot and mired in their self-centred dreams of power divorced from the destiny of the nation, they kept playing their tattered cards. But by then, the BJP had changed the rules of the game itself, having become masters of decadence. It is a sad realisation that there is no Indian political party whose hands are not tragically smeared with the blood of democracy. A micro and macro upheaval of the belief systems and behaviour of political parties seems crucial to the survival of Indian democracy—and of the nation itself. Memories of Partition, of the wars, of the Emergency, of other horrors, return. The third front is dead. We do not even have a second front.
The Congress, even as it stands condemned by history, is the only party whose name rings a bell in the minds of people across India. But is there a Congress? Can it reinvent itself? It is a question that applies to every political party in India. They might do it in terms of acquiring cutting-edge social media clout, to upgrade their vote-gathering power. But will they reinvent themselves as democrats committed to the people of India? The answer will determine the future of India and that of a billion-odd women, men and children as free people.
Ambedkar’s prescience is terrifying. In his concluding speech in the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949, he said: “...in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds, we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds... this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever.”
Award-winning fiction writer