That the democracy of India is under pressure and is ceding ground to dictatorial forces is the popular narrative of opposition parties. Is it so? One, electoral politics is still intact and people are electing their representatives at various levels of governance by way of universal adult franchise. Two, institutions are functional- legislature, executive and judiciary- albeit with lapses that have long-prevailed and are deeply entrenched. Three, there has been no explicit attempt by the ruling party to subvert the basic structure of the Indian constitution. What is it then? All democratic elements appear to be in place but why aren’t they delivering expected outcomes including inclusive development and rule of law?
Let’s recall what Socrates once argued. The philosopher was a critic of universal suffrage- the right to vote to all adults irrespective of gender, faith, class, caste and race. He gave a convincing argument when he compared the society to a ship. Who should be in charge of the ship when we plan for a journey by sea? Socrates preferred a person having proper knowledge of seafaring over any other who could win the popular vote on the back of rhetoric and good oratory skills. In this sense, Socrates pointed out that voting in polls is a skill, not mere intuition.
The philosopher highlighted the difference between intellectual democracy and democracy by birthright. While the first can be criticized on various grounds, the latter is even more dangerous when it paves the way for demagoguery (appealing to common people’s desires and prejudices to garner political support).
That’s what is exactly happening in today’s India. Democracy by birthright is intact. In reality, the ruling party is persuading people to step out of their homes on polling day to ensure a clear mandate. How can then anyone justify that India’s democratic fabric is under threat? In fact, such diagnosis is not only unproductive, it is also counter-productive. The problem lies elsewhere. What we need to consider is how the two key pillars of any progressive society- democracy and secularism- are being pitched against one another, and how this is leading to the rise of dictatorial forces even as democracy underpins the entire arrangement.
Gandhi’s ideology and that of most nationalists of pre-independence India is facing a threat that Gandhi did perceive during his time- the threat of majoritarianism. The situation today is this- many members of the upper class are backing the ruling party as they have nothing to lose since their plates are full, and in fact, they hold a belief that maybe someday they can have the same old privileges of class and caste order. And for the poor and middle class, the ruling party and upper dominating class have partnered to give the former a false sense of devotion and security in the name of faith and chauvinism. ‘Don’t think about you or your family; think about Him and borders’. That’s the message which has excellently been passed on (read sold) to the mass.
That’s it, simply, that is it. Democracy by birthright is hurting us; the cure, however, is not abolition of democracy but furthering intellectual democracy without compromising the idea of universal suffrage. For this to happen, the opposition has to educate the mass on a large scale by borrowing from the tactics employed by the then nationalists against British Raj. Send out messengers, hold sessions at ground level, publish material in local languages and engage the youth.
If not done in due time, the ruling party will use democracy to bring in theocracy, for they have already achieved the demagoguery feat.