An ‘Illiberal Democracy’

It is rare that we find liberal democracies in the developing world. Most post-world war II and post-decolonisation experiments with liberal democracies in the then ‘third world’ have failed and led eventually to either authoritarian dictatorships or autocracies. India is supposed to be an exception to the rule. Unlike most of its African and Latin American counterparts, India has survived as a formal liberal democracy till now. This is a remarkable achievement in itself.

However, the recent trends are not reassuring on this count. If the present trends continue, we may soon join the league of failed liberal democratic experiments in the world. This is owing to at least three fundamental factors: increasing economic inequality; increasing social and political intolerance; increasing demands on the State, which is failing to deliver. These are inter-connected. 

Firstly, liberal democracies, in principle, are always criticised for allowing right to property, thereby unlimited accumulation of wealth in a few hands and poverty and squalor for the majority. Therefore, democracies of the liberal type are called ‘formal democracies’ that do not deliver substantive justice or rights in terms of equality of distribution. Liberal democracies fail at distributive justice, leading to authoritarian political regimes. The Indian record in this dimension is not very sanguine.

Noted political economist Pranab Bardhan once observed that the inequality in contemporary India is in the range of that in Latin American countries. And that adds substantive strength to the argument that liberal democracies may fail owing to increasing economic inequalities. If reasoned cautions are not listened to, we may well find ourselves in the list of failed democracies.

Liberal democracies are also premised on social and political tolerance. That is why liberalism is as much an attitude, a temperament and an approach to life as we live every day. We had retained this to some extent thus far. However, current trends in society and polity show that we are singing the swansong to that. Historians such as Stanley Wolpert say that India always stood for a liberal spirit of ‘live and let live’.

We are nowadays busy proving historians wrong. From religion to gender, in national affairs to personal matters involving gender, Indians seem to have lost the spirit of ‘live and let live’. We witness increasing violence on minorities, women and Dalits every day. From a liberal democracy, we are increasingly becoming an ‘illiberal democracy’.

Historians also tell us that it was the inherently religious impulse that allowed Indians to have the tolerant social attitude of living and letting others live.

Wolpert even suggests that statecraft in India since ancient times was often conducted in the spirit of letting different communities resolve their issues within themselves, without imposing straightjacketed solutions on any one community from outside. In today’s India, neither that religion remains the same nor that tolerant spirit nor that statecraft. We are busy failing our own past record on this.

Rise of ‘mobocracy’

Thirdly, there are also increasing demands on the State to deliver. People are today more connected, more aware and more demanding of the State. On the other hand, the Indian State itself, through its multifarious promises, creates aspirations among the people, which it is increasingly failing to deliver. The result of this is increasing frustration among the masses, which takes a violent turn on every conceivable occasion.

When masses are frustrated, liberal democracy becomes illiberal ‘mobocracy’, to be ignited by every demagogic politician. With the emergence of such mobs everywhere, combined by the inability of the State to rein them in, what we have is a perfect combination of factors for the emergence of a ‘totalitarian democracy’ or, to put it mildly, an ‘illiberal democracy’ — the result of what political scientist Atul Kohli called the ‘governability crisis’.

Finally, the combination of factors of growing economic inequality in the country and increasing social and political intolerance and the failure of the State to address this situation is a perfect combination of factors to lead to a democracy that can join the ranks of failed ones. Democracies are not just run by the prescribed rules of the game or even amending them in letter. Democracies survive only when those running the State are themselves tolerant of diversity and plurality and are paying attention to the glaring inequality in society.

What we are witnessing today are early-warning symptoms. If the trend is not checked by addressing the root causes, we may graduate from an ‘illiberal democracy’ to a full-fledged case of ‘failed democracy’.  The developing world and our neighbourhood in South Asia are sufficiently littered with such instances.

As I said in the beginning, the survival of democracy cannot be taken for granted. Democracy, that too a liberal one, needs to be maintained from above, cultivated by its people and be constantly evaluated for the direction it is taking.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Institutions, Governance and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru)

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An ‘Illiberal Democracy’

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