We’re heading into ‘electoral authoritarianism’

(DH Photo)

Since the Lok Sabha election verdict came out, and in fact, even before that, I have been arguing that we may be headed towards what can only be described as ‘electoral authoritarianism.’ Elections will continue to take place – and on time, too -- but in between two elections, our democracy will begin to resemble authoritarian systems. If you look at what’s happening in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, etc., we get a glimpse of where we are beginning to march towards – it would have the appearance of a democracy, but it would certainly not be a constitutional democracy, because at the heart of constitutional democracy is the idea that an elected government is a limited government. It is limited by the constitution, it is limited by the presence of many institutions and procedures, and it is limited by a certain ethos – of taking everyone along. Not that we have been a great example of a constitutional democracy in the last 70 years and we have had attempts to sabotage it, most famously during the Emergency. But we are definitely moving away from whatever we had achieved as a democracy. 

It is important to look at the overall architecture of what is being done and what may be done over the next 3-4 years. On the one hand, we are witnessing a dilution, a downgrading and undermining of all those institutions that could pose a challenge to the regime, to the executive. On the other hand, we have the strengthening of State power in dealing with any kind of dissent. We have strengthening of the national security, apparently, and also dilution of the federal division of power. 

Now, all these change the character of the Constitution, of our democracy, although much of it need not come through any constitutional amendment. I imagine it will not require any constitutional amendment at all. It is likely to be brought in through some legal changes, but more than legal changes through a radical divergence or shift in governance practices and abandoning of conventions. By governance practices, I mean executive orders. We would be amazed to see how much can be achieved through executive orders. 

But we must not forget that some of this will be achieved through winks and nods -- between institutions, between central and state governments, from executive to judiciary, from higher ups to lower functionaries, as it used to happen during the Emergency. So much of what happened during the Emergency was never put on paper. There were no orders, they just happened. Winks and nods. So, this is the overall architecture that is evolving. If we look at any single piece, it can look innocuous, almost benevolent, or merely accidental. But once you put all the pieces together, you can see what’s happening. 

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The Signals

Take RTI, for instance. On the face of it, you could say that the changes are not drastic. After all, the amendment is about emoluments and tenure. But these are critical signalling devices. This is a way to convey a message, it is basically to downgrade this institution. It is to say (to officers down the line), “Look, it is just another department of the Government of India, don't take it too seriously.” Very often, these signalling devices are for more important than the letter of the law itself. Once everyone in the country knows that the CIC does not matter much, then from the next day, the way IAS officers respond to requests for information from the CIC would change.  

RTI has been one of the few institutional innovations for deepening of democracy in our country. From day one, politicians and bureaucrats have found it a pain in the neck and have been looking for ways to get past it. It nearly happened during UPA. Now, finally, we are witnessing a definite downgrading of the entire RTI regime. It is not merely about the salary and tenure of the Chief Information Commissioner, it is about the downgrading of the RTI regime, and downgrading of RTI as a (citizen’s) right. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a very keen political observer, and he may have observed UPA-2 very closely. Most of the scams that took place in UPA-1 came to light during UPA-2. This happened through the CAG, the Supreme Court, in some cases through RTI, and in the second half of the regime, through a very aggressive and hostile media, civil society organisations, the movement on the ground. Modi would have learnt some lessons from that, and he clearly would not want -- and in his case, “would not want” also would mean “would not allow” – UPA-2 to be repeated in Modi-2. Hence, information, oversight institutions, judiciary, the media, people's movements -- what we are witnessing is an elaborate architecture to keep all these potential troubles in check, some through the law, others through extra-legal mechanisms. So, when advocate Indira Jaising’s place is raided, it's a signal to every NGO in the country, “If she is not safe, who the hell do you think you are? You are small fry.” These are again signalling devices. 

The Controls

As for the judiciary, I am afraid a significant dilution of judicial independence began post-Justice Thakur. We have seen a significant stepping down of the confident assertion of institutional independence by the Supreme Court. The episode involving the charge of sexual harassment against the CJI -- irrespective of the merits of the case, which I have no business to go into -- the procedure adopted there and the manner in which the court went about handling it is extraordinary, to say the least. The impression that you get, and it cannot be anything more than an impression at this stage, is that the government is learning very rapidly and equipping itself with the tools and wherewithal to “manage” the judiciary. 

About the media, the less said the better. This is clearly one of the darkest hours of Indian media. You do not know which one is stronger -- the coercion or the surrender, the willing complicity. I don't think the government needs to do very much now to control the media. The few voices of dissent that are left in the mainstream media, and more of that in the digital media -- I am sure we will see something in the coming months and years to curb them as well. That's the only thing that needs to be done. The rest doesn't need to be curbed. After all, why prevent them from serving you so efficiently as they are doing? 

The problem is social movements, people’s movements. India still has a large and energetic sector of social movements. These are not all NGOs, a large number of them are not institutionally funded organisations. They are best called ‘movement groups’, rather than NGOs. They are vibrant, they attract some of the best talent of this country, they attract the youth. That is what might worry Modi. My sense is that the tightening of the national security apparatus -- the amendment of UAPA – is designed to achieve the silencing of those voices. Once again, what has happened to Sudha Bharadwaj, and six of them, would not be lost on any activist in the country. I would not be surprised if we were to see some other high-profile people join this group. So, the name of the game is, you don't need to go after every small organisation and individual -- you raid NDTV’s Prannoy Roy's house and journalists everywhere get the message; you attack Indira Jaising, and all the NGOs are put in line; you arrest Sudha Bharadwaj, and every activist gets the message. So, that really is what is being done under the UAPA amendment. There is nothing to indicate that the government has been constrained in taking any action against terrorism by a lack of laws, there is nothing to suggest that terrorism in this country is a bigger problem today than before, and there is nothing to suggest that our national security is more imperiled than it was 50 years ago. To my mind, this entire narrative is to make sure that the people's movement sector can be controlled. 

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But, having said all this, I also want to say one more thing -- that in politics, perfect designs tend to be fatal. You concentrate all powers -- what we are witnessing is the concentration of federal power into the central government, central government power into executive power, executive power into political power, and political power into the power of the leader. It is a multi-stage regression of power into one centre. But the very success of an enterprise like that is its undoing in the long run. When you succeed in doing something of this kind, when you succeed in doing away with all the intermediaries, with all checks and balances, then you actually create a regime where every problem lands at your door, where in your anxiety to take credit for everything, you also begin to be the person blamed for every small or big problem. And the sheer load of running such a large and complex society is something that this centralised political structure cannot simply take. We have not touched too much upon the economy but if we are looking at an economic slowdown and if the economy starts turning negative, then centralisation of political power can actually become a stone around the neck of those who designed this system so beautifully. 

(Yogendra Yadav is Founder, Swaraj India)

(As told to S Raghotham)

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