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Dissecting the State of Our Democracy

Islam recognizes democracy as a gift, as exemplified by the election of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Democracy promotes open expression of views, social and political equality, and the freedom of religion, media, and association. It also holds rulers accountable to the people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

– Arshad Shaikh

 

Professor Tarunabh Khaitan teaches Public Law at the London School of Economics (LSE). Recently, he was interviewed by a news portal referencing his article – “Killing a Constitution with a Thousand Cuts: Executive Aggrandizement and Party-State Fusion in India” which was written in 2020 and published in the journal Law and Ethics of Human Rights. The article examines the accountability mechanisms in liberal democratic constitutions and the many ways in which they can be dismantled systemically, endangering democracy itself.

The paper notes that the assault on democratic norms during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975 was direct or full frontal. After 2014, it was more subtle, indirect, incremental, and systemic. That is why the article calls this phenomenon “killing a constitution by a thousand cuts.” The author feels that the government may in the future abandon this “incremental-ist” approach for a more direct assault on democratic constitutionalism.

Prof Khaitan outlines three key ways in which liberal democratic constitutions make the executive accountable: vertically by demanding electoral accountability to the people, horizontally by subjecting it to accountability demands of other state institutions like the political opposition, the judiciary, etc., and diagonally by requiring broad accountability to the media, the academia, and other civil society institutions.

The article then maps how the government (since 2014) incrementally and systematically undermined these three forms of accountability in its first five years in office, either by executive aggrandizement or by blurring the line between the ruling political party and the state. The article concludes by arguing that incremental authoritarianism always justifies its assaults on constitutional governance on broadly accepted excuses and that it is essential to document these assaults on existing constitutional mechanisms.

Electoral accountability to the people is one of the three key ways in which liberal democratic constitutions make the executive accountable. The government is required to seek the endorsement of the people through free and fair elections. This vertical accountability can be undermined by extending the interval between elections, removing parliament’s power to vote down a government or doing away with the requirement that ministers must be elected representatives. One example of bending electoral accountability is the laws passed by the government that made it easier for parties to receive anonymous donations (via electoral bonds). It made it difficult to trace the source of funding for political campaigns. This undermined the integrity of the electoral process and made it more difficult for opposition parties to compete with the ruling party on a level playing field.

Another example of ducking electoral accountability mentioned by Prof Khaitan is the government’s attempt to move to a “one-country-one-poll” system. The government argues that conducting elections for state assemblies and Parliament in a staggered manner causes a distraction from effective governance”. It says, “Elections a once-in-five-years affair will reduce the costs of conducting and contesting elections”. The paper asserts, “Essentially, a simultaneous polls system, as currently proposed, would take away the legislature’s power to fire the political executive, thereby shifting the regime toward the BJP’s long sought-after ideological goal of a presidential system or as close as you can get to it while still pretending to be abiding by parliamentary democracy. Since parliamentary democracy is part of the unamendable basic structure of India’s Constitution, an informal constitutional change is being attempted.”

The political opposition, the judiciary, and fourth-branch institutions (EC, CAG, etc.) subject the government to accountability demands horizontally. The paper argues that since 2014, the government tried to undermine these institutions. The paper alleges that “The Modi government worked systematically to either cripple these institutions to prevent them from performing their accountability-seeking function (often by simply refusing to fill vacancies) or pack them with party ideologues to ensure their institutional capture. The fact that the political executive has an exclusive (or, at least, dominant) say in appointments to most of these institutions has aided the project of ideological capture of these institutions, which are increasingly being staffed by affiliates of the BJP’s parent organization and ideological mentor: the RSS.”

Similarly, Prof Khaitan articulates that the government systematically reduced the discursive or diagonal accountability it has towards civil society and other institutions such as the media, universities, campaign groups, NGOs, trade unions, religious organizations, and charities. To substantiate this claim, the paper accuses the State governments under the control of the BJP have repeatedly utilized their police powers to conduct searches and seizures against various human rights and media organizations that have opposed their policies and actions. Additionally, these state governments have arrested numerous human rights lawyers and activists, labeling them as “Urban Maoists”.

The BJP government in Assam has filed 245 sedition cases in less than two years. Members of anti-religious “rationalist” movements have been killed by affiliates of the Sangh Parivar. Muslim citizens have been lynched for allegedly possessing or consuming beef, leading to over 50 filmmakers, writers, and others returning their national awards in protest. Despite numerous allegations against Hindutva nationalist groups, the federal and state governments have failed to take action against vigilante violence, with many BJP lawmakers even expressing support for these groups.

Democracy encompasses the principles of freedom and opportunity, allowing for the presentation and rejection of ideas, the establishment and operation of systems, the practice and preaching of religion, and the service to humanity. It serves as a safeguard against false ideologies and provides the means to change governments. Contrary to popular belief, democracy is not solely based on majority rule. Rather it ensures the protection of minority rights. A society’s strength lies in its belief in and adherence to democratic values, while weakness is evident in extremism and the infringement of others’ rights.

Islam recognizes democracy as a gift, as exemplified by the election of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Democracy promotes open expression of views, social and political equality, and the freedom of religion, media, and association. It also holds rulers accountable to the people. The rise of fascism, however, poses a grave threat to democracy. Fascism manipulates the masses through superstition, lies, and racial prejudice, perpetuating reactionary behavior and social brutality. It thrives on conflict, bloodshed, and violence. The emergence of fascist tendencies in our country demands a united effort to confront and eradicate this threat.

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