To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism

In 2011, I was in a learning event in Mwanza, Tanzania. In the room were Oxfam colleagues, partners, and community leaders all connected by a program Chukua Hatua which means ‘Take Action’ in Kiswahili. This was a governance program that sought to increase accountability and responsiveness of the Tanzanian government to its citizens. We were discussing what had worked and not and why, when somehow, we went down a rabbit hole of “what does democracy mean?”. Not only did this unplanned digression mess up the entire schedule, but it also led to fascinating insights into how different people saw democracy differently. One thing that has stuck in my mind was how inseparable the idea of elections was to the understanding of democracy.

I remembered these discussions while reading “To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism” by Debashish Roy Choudhury and John Keane. It was here that I first ran into the term Psephocracy: a political system in which elections become the end-all. This, I think, is what India’s much vaunted democracy has been reduced to.

The book has been a very interesting read. It has thrown up many ah-ha moments for me, but the key one was the very broad understanding and definition of ‘democracy’ that the authors have used. This synopsis tries to capture the essence of that dominating concept.

The book is divided into four parts:

Part 1: Tryst with Democracy which takes the reader through the heady days of India’s independence in 1947 to a time when democracy started falling ill and is eventually close to death, or at least becoming unrecognisable 75 years later.
Part 2: Social Emergencies that weaken the concept of democracy but are often not viewed as such.
Part 3: Democide is the ways in which democracy is eventually killed off or at least neutered considerably.
Part4: Despotism which occupies the void left by an absent democracy.

Before you go further, it is important to acknowledge that the process of weakening of Indian democracy began a long time ago. No political party has clean hands. Narendra Modi and the BJP-RSS may have hastened the process, but let’s accept that almost every State has had a satrap who for some time in recent history has behaved like a despot. The book is not about bashing the BJP-RSS and Modi. It is about making the reader aware of the different ways in which we all have contributed to the slide to despotism – through our ignorance, connivance, selfishness, or silence.

Tryst with Democracy

…back in the mid-twentieth century, against formidable odds, the people and leaders of India courageously mobilized to snap the chains of imperial domination and set out on the rough road to democracy. They built a democracy that’s today not only the planet’s biggest, but a democracy that breathed fresh life into its ideals and boosted India’s global reputation as a country that survived a murderous Partition, defeated an empire and blessed the fortunes of self-government by its people, and for its people, in radiant style.

At a time when the country itself was not expected to last long, millions of poor and illiterate people rejected the imperial and pseudo-scientific prejudice that a country must first be deemed materially fit for democracy. Struggling against poverty, they decided instead that they must become materially fit through democracy.

This did not last very long though. Leaders grew increasingly autocratic, multiple parties emerged with no distinguishable differences in ideologies or proposals for governance, power became an end in itself and we slid into an abyss ending up with imposition of Emergency in 1975. This did not last long and the autocratic Indira Gandhi was drubbed in the 1977 general elections. The political defeat of the Emergency gave credibility to the India Story. More than a few observers reassuringly noted how Indian citizens had set a global example: they had demonstrated that demagogy could be defeated using democratic means, and that the arrogant could be humbled, taught that they couldn’t make a table eat grass. The saga convinced many observers, both inside and outside the country, that India was a consolidated democracy, and that it was a polity blessed with political resilience, and with great powers of renewal. India’s reputation as the world’s largest and most successful new democracy was strengthened. This too did not last. While India hasn’t seen another formal declaration of emergency and suspension of rights of citizens, the time we live in now do resemble a state of undeclared emergency.

Social Emergencies

This paragraph below outlines what the authors discuss in detail in part 2.

Democracy is freedom from hunger, humiliation, and violence. It’s public disgust for callous employers who maltreat workers paid a pittance for scraping shit from latrines and unblocking stinking sewers. Democracy is saying no to brazen arrogance. It’s the rejection of caste and religious bigotry and every other form of human and non-human indignity. Democracy is not being forced to travel in overcrowded buses and trains like livestock. Democracy is not having to wade through dirty water from overrunning sewers, or breathing poisonous air. Democracy is respect for women, tenderness with children, jobs that bring satisfaction and sufficient reward to live comfortably. Democracy is hygienic living conditions, and answering nature’s calls in safety and privacy. It’s public and private respect for different ways of living. Democracy is humility. It is the willingness to admit that impermanence renders all life vulnerable, that in the end nobody is invincible, and that ordinary lives are never ordinary. Democracy is sharing and caring for others. It’s freedom from fear and the right not to be killed. It’s equal access to decent medical care and sympathy for those who have fallen behind. Democracy is a learned sense of worldly wonder. It’s the everyday ability to handle unexpected situations wisely. It’s the rejection of the dogma that things can’t be changed because they’re ‘naturally’ fixed in stone. Democracy is thus insubordination: the refusal to put up with everyday forms of snobbery and toad-eating, idolatry and lying, bullshit and bullying. Democracy is the defence of the social footings that put springs in the steps of people freed from the curse of indignity.

I have a question for you: When you think of democracy, do you think of all these aspects? If you haven’t, think now. Think of what your idea of a democracy is and how close it is to how the authors have defined it.

I had not, at least not to this depth. Now that I have read and re-read this, I do not think that I will ever have a very narrow view of what democracy means. We all know about Winston Churchill’s ““Democracy is the worst form of Government, except all those others that have been tried.” That is a witticism. However, in my book if the description above is what democracy offers, I will take it every time and not even bother searching for an alternative.

Having said this, I want to add a caveat. This definition of democracy that the authors have used, has many dimensions social, economic, humanitarian, even moral. It may be unreasonable to expect any form of governance to meet all of them, for any number of reasons. That does not mean that the forms being practiced are undemocratic. We will need to move well beyond binaries; either you are democratic, or you are not, and think in terms of a continuum existing in many planes. Perhaps, the authors vision needs another term and not ‘democracy’ lest there be a danger of some thinking “This is utopian; I cannot do it. Therefore, I shall not even try.” Also, I tend to look at democracy as means to a just world, the authors are defining it as a just world.

Democide (the murder of democracy)

This section is at the core of the book. It takes the reader through the different ways in which a thousand cuts are inflicted on the idea of democracy, almost daily. The section speaks of how:

  • Indian democracy is now increasingly being redefined as a psephocracy; a political system in which elections become the end-all. It speaks about how muscle power has become the mainstay of the electoral process. How violence is increasingly part of the ‘festival of democracy’. Voter exclusion whether through tampering of electoral rolls, intimidation in and outside polling booths is now a ‘strategy’.
  • Elections are increasingly becoming expensive moving India to a CHREMACRACY: a type of politics in which money not only talks but decides things. Derived from chrema (money, to need / to use) and kratos (to rule).
  • Will of the people is often subverted after elections through buying of ‘representatives’ with power of money or threats of retribution. All this has led to is the temples of democracy, parliament and legislatures, becoming utterly useless and only useful for ceremonies. What can one make of bills being passed without debate? Of representatives not being able to vote as per their conscience but only as decreed by the whip?
  • The bureaucracy, once meant to provide an intellectual frame for implementation and a body that gives continuity to policy has been completely captured. Capture is a form of corruption of authority that occurs when a political entity, policymaker, or regulator is co-opted to serve the commercial, ideological, or political interests of a minor constituency, such as a particular geographic area, industry, profession, or ideological group.
  • People have lost faith in the justice system; what reason could there be otherwise for so many celebrating extrajudicial killings?
  • The judiciary itself seeking to get closer to the executive, a process that has hastened significantly in the Modi government times.
  • Media, once called the fourth pillar of democracy, is now only a business that seeks profits at any costs. Those who want to stay true to their calling have to pay in terms of harassment, imprisonment, or even death.

This is a very depressing section. It makes the reader feel that one is trapped in a million page long Russian novel where suffering continues to be piled on suffering and there is nary an escape in sight. However, it is also an important read. We are experiencing all of this every day but reading it all together is a punch to the gut that we perhaps need.

Towards Despotism

First, let’s look at how the authors define despotism.

Despotism isn’t old-fashioned tyranny or military dictatorship, or describable as a single-ruler horror show the ancients called autocracy. It mustn’t be confused with 20th-century fascism or totalitarianism. Despotism is rather a new type of strong state led by a demagogue and run by state and corporate poligarchs with the help of pliant journalists and docile judges, a top-down form of government that has the backing of not just the law-enforcement agencies but also the backing of millions of loyal subjects who are willing to lend their support to leaders who offer them tangible benefits and daringly rule in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘the sovereign people’.The butterfly of democracy becomes the caterpillar of despotism. A weird new kind of phantom democracy is born.

Does this sound familiar to you?

Many decades ago, Babasaheb Ambedkar had warned us of the dangers of hero-worship. In a powerful speech in the constituent assembly he said:

“There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O’Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

Ambedkar’s worst fears may be coming true. Supported by Caesars large and small sprinkled throughout the political system, demagogy is spreading black-and-white thinking about how society should be organized and government should operate. Fuelled by hopes of betterment, seething anger at social injustices and upper class fears of disorder, demagogy is stirring up friend-versus-enemy politics and peddling impatience and disrespect for institutional pluralism. State capture and top-down rule, a kind of slow-motion coup d’état, are its thing.

Apart from vandalising institutions, despotism also sets one group of people against others. It needs hate and divisiveness to survive and thrive.

To conclude

The authors don’t necessarily end with a feeling of doom-and-gloom. They ask “Is Indian democracy nearing the end of its life then?” and answer “Given the profound social decay and government corruption in today’s India, it would be tempting to conclude that the democratic spirit of equality and institutions designed to prevent bossing and bullying of citizens and their everyday lives don’t stand a chance. But India doesn’t lend itself to simple, reductive conclusions. The counter-currents to despotic power are substantial.”

“..democracy stirs up a sense of possibility. When confronted by setbacks and sticky situations that tempt people to conclude, ‘Well, that’s the way things are’, wise citizens think twice. They’re encouraged to say: ‘Actually, things can be different.”

We can all draw strength from the CAA-NRC protests that led to the suspension of the plan to further marginalise Indian citizens, the farmers protests that led to the de-facto withdrawal of the farm-laws.

However, eternal vigilance is needed. For that, we need to read, reflect, and learn to join the dots (no not before they are formed; we are not all that ‘gifted’). We need to stay alert. Become activists. Become vocal. Help other voices be heard.

A good way to start would be to get this book and give it a read.



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