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India’s embattled democracy

BY HARTOSH SINGH BAL
A fair and independent electoral process, an independent judiciary, a Parliament with a noisy opposition, a relatively free press and an army that has stayed away from politics have defined India since it adopted its Constitution in 1950. India stood apart in the developing world as a country where the Constitution served as the basis for the operations of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But it has taken just four years of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the country to realise how fragile that achievement was, how close it has come to being subverted.
India has a fairly decentralised system of governance. States are governed by chief ministers, who are the elected leaders of a political party or a coalition of parties that has a majority of the seats in a state assembly. An Indian state also has a governor, a federal appointee holding a ceremonial, non-partisan, constitutional position. After an election, the governor invites the party or the coalition that won the most seats to form the government. While every government has attempted to use this office to its own ends, the corrosion of the governor’s office became evident this month after state elections in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. An alliance of parties opposed to Mr. Modi’s BJP won a majority of the seats. Karnataka’s governor, Vajubhai Vala, who used to be an aide to Mr. Modi, was constitutionally bound to invite the non-BJP alliance to form the government.
Instead, Mr. Vala demonstrated his loyalty to Mr. Modi by asking the BJP to form the government. The Indian Supreme Court had to intervene so that a basic task of a democracy could be accomplished: letting the alliance that had a clear majority form a government. A similar corrosion is apparent in Parliament, too. Over the decades, the Parliament has served as a venue for the opposition to critique the government. A few months back, opposition lawmakers made several attempts to move a vote of no confidence against the government. A no-confidence motion takes precedence over other parliamentary business, but the speaker of the lower house, who is drawn from the BJP, denied the opposition lawmakers their motion for over a month.
The BJP has a strong majority and the no-confidence motion posed no threat — except that during the nationally televised debate, the opposition would point out the failures of Mr. Modi’s economic policies. Despite the partial opening of the Indian economy the annual budget still has an oversize impact. Lawmakers discuss the allocations for health, education and the like for weeks. If the parliamentary session is ending, the allocations that haven’t been approved yet are consolidated and voted on in a procedure called the “guillotine.” In March, three weeks before the budget session would come to an end, Mr. Modi’s party denied the lawmakers their crucial role of assessing and critiquing financial allocations by invoking the guillotine.
The desire of Mr. Modi’s government to ensure that the core democratic institutions function not as they are meant to but as it desires has even affected the esteemed Supreme Court. Cases there are decided by two or more judges assigned by the chief justice. In January, four senior justices held a rare news conference. They accused the chief justice of violating procedure in the assignment of judges. Prashant Bhushan, one of India’s most prominent lawyers and a critic of the Modi government, explained the implications of the accusations. “Politically sensitive cases are being assigned to handpicked benches, with no senior judge on them, so that the desired outcomes are achieved,” Mr. Bhushan said in an interview. “The chief justice is clearly manipulating and misusing the judiciary in the interest of the government.” Mr. Bhushan alleged that the government and the ruling party were blackmailing the chief justice, who faces charges in a graft case.
The erosion of India’s institutions under Mr. Modi extends to the Indian Army as well. Gen Bipin Rawat was appointed army chief in violation of the tradition that the senior general takes that job. Since his appointment, General Rawat has backed the Modi government’s position on political issues to a degree unseen in previous chiefs. Even the Election Commission of India, which had a reputation of overseeing free and fair elections, has faced allegations of modifying election dates to favour Mr. Modi. Unsurprisingly, the commission, until early this year, was headed by a bureaucrat who worked closely with Mr. Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat.
And further, the Indian news media, with a few respectable exceptions, has turned into cheerleaders for Mr. Modi and his politics. Most of the press not only ignores critical reporting but also actively spins the news to favour the government. The spin resonates with the large segment of Indian society invested in Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist politics. A sting operation by the website Cobrapost recently illustrated the fall in standards. Representatives from the website, posing as members of a Hindu nationalist group, met with the executives of some of India’s largest media companies. They offered to pay the companies millions of dollars to publish and broadcast Hindu nationalist propaganda aimed at benefiting the BJP. Most of the media companies agreed to consider the deal.
As India prepares for the national elections next year, Mr. Modi’s ratings are falling. And there is a sense of alarm: If Mr. Modi was willing to drown dissent and subvert national institutions when his government enjoyed popular support, how far down an undemocratic path might he and his party go to ensure a victory?

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