Where is Democracy?

Where is Democracy?

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Protests

In 2019, in India, the interests of cis male, upper-caste, middle-class, heterosexual Hindus, and those who are able to approximate to this identity were furthered and safeguarded. To minimise the opposition to these efforts, dissent has been further criminalised, and spaces that imagine and work towards proposing alternatives have been attacked.

However, the year has also witnessed the reinvigoration of progressive movements that hold rich histories of providing community and sustenance to the marginalised. With renewed efforts, these movements have continued to diagnose the specific ways in which dominant structures inhibit and circumscribe people’s lives. They urged the state to deliver on its promises. And, given that the state often has diverging interests that disavow its promises, the marginalised have found support among others affected by these same structures and built solidarities that can scrape away and dismantle chauvinistic systems.

This process of dismantling systems involves protests and varied expressions of dissent. However, it must not be seen exclusively in a mainstream masculine form—as public and spectacular—but rather as consistently practised, in small and large ways, by those who are impacted by exclusionary ideology, and who make efforts to survive.

People

The Preamble of the Constitution begins on a pluralistic note, “we the people,” to accommodate India’s heterogeneous population. The Constitution envisages India as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic, and republic, ensuring justice, liberty, and equality to all its citizens. However, in 2019, India has continued to follow a retrograde path by failing to protect minorities and socially disadvantaged groups, and by stripping its historically and culturally distinct regions of their relative autonomy. Further, continuing with the trend witnessed over the past few years, 2019 has been punctuated by the alienation of minorities— under-representation of Muslims in the Lok Sabha, the lockdown of Kashmiris, increased instances of violence against women, undermining of LGBT+ rights, uprising of tribals, renewed attacks on Dalits and tribes, and the forced statelessness of millions of people. In effect, the idea of periodic elections and universal suffrage does not translate into empowering the diverse citizenry socially, politically, and economically. This questions the foundations of India’s constitutional democracy.

Fundamental Rights

The fundamental rights guaranteed to Indians in Part III of the Constitution are the right to equality, to freedom, the right against exploitation, the right to property, and the right to constitutional remedies. These rights exist as a limit on the power of the state. While, at face value, these rights cannot be infringed upon, the realisation of these rights for every citizen depends on the elimination of structural inequalities. Fundamental rights act as an umbrella under which a number of other individual rights can exist. For instance, the right to freedom can have under it, the freedom of speech, the freedom to practice any religion, the freedom of movement, and more. The achievement of social justice depends on the realisation of these rights. Together, the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary are responsible for ensuring that individual rights are not infringed upon. Particularly, the judiciary is responsible for upholding the rights of individuals, even against the government. In 1967, in a historic ruling, the Supreme Court deemed that the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution could not be amended by Parliament through the regular procedure for constitutional amendments. One would think that this would be an adequate safeguard to protect individual rights. However, all these rights are contingent on citizenship. Therefore, if the citizenship of an individual is made questionable, their entitlement to fundamental rights under the Constitution is no longer guaranteed.

Elections

While other components of democracy in India are vulnerable to changing governments and ideologies, elections in India have largely been able to retain their neutrality and adherence to due process.

India’s path towards universal suffrage, and its codification of electoral processes in the Constitution, was a natural by-product of its colonial struggle. However, the country’s first electoral experience—and thus its first attempt to choose its own representatives—was viewed by its previous colonial administration as an experiment doomed to fail. However, India’s ability to successfully execute a general election and ensure a glitch-free transfer of power, then, constituted the final blow to the British Raj.

Thus, India’s elections are not only seen as a celebration of its independence, but also as a ritual that reiterates its ability to unanimously overcome divisiveness. Despite this, 2019 has raised several questions about the manner in which elections are conducted in India. For instance, the Election Commission of India (ECI) was unable to counter the misuse of social media by parties to spread electoral propaganda, opposition parties have remained unconvinced about the validity of electronic voting machines, electoral politics in Maharashtra has seen parties break-and-make alliances with unlikely partners in order to remain in power, and the general elections also saw a surge in election-related instances of violence. Moreover, the prime minister signalled an intent to carry out simultaneous general and assembly elections, which could blur local issues in favour of the national.

Thus, at a time when the ECI is unable to maintain its neutrality, we examine India’s electoral trajectory in 2019 and what it means for the years to come.

Institutions

When institutions are subverted, nations fail. For a democratic nation state to function, institutions have to be autonomous and free from the influence of the executive. Otherwise, democratic values are discarded with ease, and authoritarian leaders who cry for “strong” and “decisive” leadership amass political power for their own preservation.

2019 has been a trying year for India’s institutions. The autonomy of the judiciary has been compromised by the state's attempts to stall the appointment of judges, the Reserve Bank of India’s independence continues to be questioned, official data has either been manipulated to show the government in a more positive light, or has simply been withheld. Further, the Election Commission of India has been criticised for its conduct during this year’s general elections: violations of the model code of conduct by the incumbent party were largely ignored, and the ECI also failed to record dissent within its own ranks. The Right to Information Act, which was seen as a necessary check on secrecy and abuse of power in the government, has been amended to hinder easy access to information. Most stark, however, have been the steps taken by the government to repeal Article 370 and Kashmir’s special status—by denying citizens basic civil rights.

Through this list of articles, we examine the state of India’s institutions in 2019, and assess their independence for the year(s) ahead.

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Curated by: Abhishek Shah, Akshita Mathur, Kieran Lobo, Titash Sen, Vikram Mukka

Inputs by: Sohnee Harshey, Vishnupriya Bhandaram

Design: Gulal Salil

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