“Democratic backsliding begins at the ballot box”, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
Political participation in authoritarian systems is controlled by a monolith state. Such a state not only exerts its authority through means of legitimate violence, it also does enforce limits on people’s cognitive competencies. While in totalitarian states, rulers never allow citizens to hold independent and alternative views, in authoritarian states the rulers are selective in allowing citizens to think, talk and behave independent of the state. Totalitarian state indoctrinates her citizens in infantile servitude; the authoritarian state, on the other hand, restricts people’s cognitive powers.
Democracy on the other hand is a plural system of governance. It is a political system that allows for multiple public opinions to exist in public sphere where citizens enjoy civil liberties of speech, association, choice and freedom of political equality. It was democracy that had allowed for the people to be considered foundational base of the body politic. In democracy, there are procedures or rules in place that guarantee that individuals have the capacity to pursue their individual values.
Democracy had exited in antiquity also; the word democracy itself is composite of two Greek words – demos meaning the people and kratia which means rule (in the sense of power). Democracy therefore means the people rule. Athenian democracy was exclusive; it excluded women, slaves, and metics (non Athenian born) but it was vibrant not only in its assembly but also at agora (the market place). The people enforced democratic principle of freedom to speak by voicing their opinions, criticising their devised policies, and debating the laws.
In the ancient text “The history of Peloponnesian Wars” by a historian who was also Athenian general, Thucydides, we read about debates that had taken place in Athenian assembly between ordinary citizens, demagogues, the nobles and army generals on what policies the state must adopt to thwart enemy aggression and what actions must be taken against disloyal allies and misadventure of adversaries?
The point is, in ancient conception of democracy debate was considered essential characteristic of the system, though the right to debate was exclusive and selectively extended to the few members of society. But these members had complete right to question, object and oppose domineering views. Of course, those who opposed majoritarian view were made fun of and even ostracised. The case of Socrates was an exception — he was totally opposed to the very foundation of Athenian democracy. Socrates believed the people were incapable of undertaking the noble craft of politics. Politics for Socrates, as we have come to know through his pupil Plato, was specialised occupation of those few who possess knowledge to question the mundane.
But that was the ancient version of democracy. The modern contemporary democracy is much more complex. In contemporary democracies, we do not have equality of speech that rendered Athenian democracy an exception. Now we have the institutional rules that determine the authenticity of democracy from any other exclusive political system.
These modern rules are the political institutions such as elections; executive; legislature; judiciary; specialised bureaucracy; law enforcement agencies such as police; the defense forces the military and paramilitary services. These institutions of the state are specialised domains where duties and tasks are performed in the service of the state.
The modern state, however, is not only the conglomeration of these specialised domains, but it also endures the presence of a civil society. Within the domain of civil society there are voluntary citizen associations, trade unions, academia, media — thus any organisation of citizens’ common interest. These organisations come together for protection of citizens’ civic (freedoms of speech, association) and political liberties (political equality) from the ever powerful state. The democratic state does not put limits on the citizens’ exertion of their civil and political liberties. In fact, the role of civil society in the modern democratic state is essential for the democratic order of the society.
However, the recent events from world’s largest democracy seem to have initiated a challenge to its democratic foundations. The so-called autonomy of India’s civil society — its print and electronic media; vibrancy of debate in the public sphere of narrative and counter-narratives; and sheer activism of citizens’ associations — stand subservient and vulnerable to state’s hegemonic discourse. Populous India prided itself on being a secular democracy transcending tyrannical recourse exhibited by its neighbouring democracies to an inclusive democratic order.
But was it really so?
In the past, India witnessed social and political upheavals but the enduring continuity of its political institutions and vibrancy of civil society had survived authoritarian tendencies of her ruling elite. For example, Indira Gandhi was populist leader and an elected dictator who effected emergency rule for two years from 1975-77. During that period democratic freedoms were restricted which brought India’s democracy to the brink. But at that time domestic issues of the state were not having their effect on India’s external policies and relations with her neighbours. Furthermore, even at the time of “emergency rule” the civil society functioned under severe authoritarian conditions — yet the civil society was not annihilated for the generation of counter narratives in the public sphere neither was it called treacherous. Continual interexchange of the narrative generated by the state apparatus was counteracted by multitude of counter narratives.
It was vibrancy of debate in the public sphere and failure of pro-poor policies that became the reason which eventually robbed Indira Gandhi of electoral win in the subsequent election. Her populist appeal earned in the aftermath of 1971 war with Pakistan had waned.
Presently, in India, democracy is in danger of being eroded of its democratic appeal. The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is consumed by domestic pressure of its imminent lackluster electoral performance. Thus, to counteract, BJP focuses its electioneering on generating war hysteria among the people. The recent attack in Pulwama against Indian security forces is seen in nationalist lens but it is not questioned that as to why the attacks have taken place? Why a local Kashmiri young man resorted to suicidal mission? What are the reasons that have pressured locals to disabuse the military of its security operation?
The issue is, as is witnessed through raging state narrative in India, that key questions on current nature of violence in Kashmir are not being raised? It is the dominant narrative that frames Indians as ‘us the magnanimous’ versus the ‘others the malicious’. The ‘others’ are pariah, the wretched of the earth that ought to be schooled in infantile submission through means of state violence.
In such a scenario, civil society could have played crucial role in raising questions on the state use of violent means of coercion. But a chief constituent of civil society, the media in India, seems not to have any autonomous character. Instead it is as much the partisan of state as any other political institution controlled by the incumbent BJP. The problem is, multiplicity of voices in civil society that are raised from societal actors such as academics, print, electronic media, nongovernment organisations, and public intellectuals have been superseded by the dominant discourse of the BJP.
In the past, the Indian democracy with all its blemishes and warts had survived but now it seems the dominant onslaught guised as nationalist populism by the BJP has initiated erosion of democratic foundation.