Expression Of Dissent, Stalling Of Reforms: How Indian Democracy Has To Work Through Fair And Unfair Demands

by Ritu Bhandari - Jun 1, 2021 05:41 PM
Expression Of Dissent, Stalling Of Reforms: How Indian Democracy Has To Work Through Fair And Unfair Demands Punjab rail roko.
Snapshot
  • When a mob of a few can stall reforms meant for all, what is the way out?

In the last few months, questions have been raised on whether India is still a democracy. In March, V-Dem, a Swedish institute that studies democracy, said India had ceased to be an electoral democracy in 2019. Instead, it has become an "electoral autocracy" that places it alongside Mali, Kenya and Hungary. Recently, USA-based Freedom House downgraded India's status from "free" to "partly free" for the first time in almost 25 years, a status India shares with Ecuador, Albania and Malawi.

It is appalling to put India alongside these countries. Mali witnessed a coup last year when elements of the Malian Armed Forces began a mutiny. The International Federation of Journalists recently reported that journalists in Kenya were routinely harassed and intimidated by the police and political party supporters in the 2017 elections.

Various independent media outlets, print, online, broadcast, either changed their editorial line or were shut down in Hungary last year. It is interesting to note that it has been more than twenty years since Malawi first held multiparty elections. Even Donald Trump had raised allegations against the sanctity of national elections held in the USA. Does that mean the USA is not a democracy?

India is a functioning democracy. India is one nation—multiple election country, i.e., elections to local bodies, state government, and national government. Elections serve the purpose of letting people express their dissent via voting instead of on the street, as well as providing feedback to the political party to do a course correction.

India fulfils the criteria of holding free and fair elections and peaceful transfer and transition of power. Recently concluded general election to the Legislative Assembly of West Bengal in May, where regional party Trinamool Congress (TMC) won the elections defeating BJP is a perfect example of India being a functioning democracy.

While India is a functioning democracy, do we as citizens understand and respect that? What is true democracy in spirit?

Violence began in Bengal right after the assembly election results were declared on 2 May, with BJP supporters bearing most of the brunt. Is this the democracy that we aspire?

Indian democracy has, for the most part since independence, been beset with dynastic rule.

Responsible citizens make a democracy. Do we as citizens weigh issues as a citizen of India or from parochial perspectives of region, caste, religion or their interest group?

Democracy gives us the right of expression, but does it give us the right to make unsubstantiated accusations?

Recently, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had made a false claim that a "Singapore variant" of Covid-19, which is "very dangerous" for children, could herald a "third wave" in India. Thus we must stop all flights with Singapore.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry had to call him out for making false claims without checking the facts. The strain prevalent in many of the Covid-19 cases in recent weeks is the B.1.617.2 variant, which was first detected in India. Singapore had threatened to invoke Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) against Kejriwal.

Opposition parties, irrespective of who is in opposition, oppose almost everything that the government does, even if the reforms are beneficial for the country—be it the opposition to Goods and Services Tax (GST) or the Land Acquisition Bill or the Farm Bills.

Our political discourse is noisy and while it is indeed the responsibility of our leaders to communicate and educate, understanding of issues within the electorate leaves much to be asked.

India has a population of 1.3 billion, and getting a few lakh individuals on the street across the country is not difficult.

The ongoing farmer's protests is a case in point. The fact that the farmers have been allowed to carry on their protests for almost six months now shows that India is very much a democracy in letter, where people's voices are not stifled, even though they may be in minority.

However, the key question remains is this the kind of inefficient democracy that we aspire to be? In a country with a farmer population of over around 150 million, the protestors, mainly from only two states of Punjab and Haryana, maybe less than one lakh sitting at Singhu and Tikri at the Delhi border, have been able to stall what most experts call a long-pending reform implemented by a duly elected government. In spirit, it resembles mobocracy where a small group can hold back the reforms meant for everyone.

Farmers, particularly in the state of Punjab and Haryana, are protesting as they fear that government will step back from MSP-based procurement, despite the central government having assured that the MSP system will continue. Traders (Arhatiyas) risk being disintermediated.

Opposition parties have protested these bills. The Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) are an important part of the political system of influence and they risk losing their eminence. State governments earn revenue from the tax at APMC (taxes vary between 2 per cent and 8 per cent).

Any substantive reform will invariably hurt some vested groups, who will then resort to mobocracy.

Discussions are considered the cornerstone of any democracy – in India, the demand for discussions is used to delay and defer. With some or the other state election around the corner driving the agenda and calendar for government, how will any government in India truly plan ahead while upholding democracy?

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