In the distant future when people look back at what happened in this century, they will find it difficult not to accord primacy to the emergence of democracy as the pre-eminently acceptable form of governance.

~ Amartya Sen: Democracy as a Universal Value. Journal of Democracy, 1999.

In 1950, India accepted democracy as a form of governance. Over the decades the Indian democracy has grown into a way of life and has become a unique example for many countries to emulate.

Sen and Dreze, in their book, “An Uncertain Glory”, while assessing how well democracy has worked in India, have stated that the basic norms of democracy have in general been followed with much success, and attempts at suspending democratic rights, as happened during the Emergency in the 1970s, have met with immediate rejection in electoral voting, with the rehabilitation of all the democratic rights that had been suspended.

Since Independence, barring sporadic communal violence, India, in spite of having a multi-religious population, has been able to maintain a secular image.

On the economic front, between 2000-1 and 2010-11, the country’s GDP was 7.6 and the per capita GDP was 6.0. Going by the average standard of the Indian economy as a whole, and accepting some periodic ups and downs in economic performance as inevitable, this can be regarded as a moderate achievement.

Samuel Huntington, the author of The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, has stated that open, free, and fair elections are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non. From that point of view, since Independence elections in India have become an integral part of the entire democratic system. Besides, the existence of a Parliament has become the hallmark of Indian democracy. The Constitution is federal in form and is marked by the traditional characteristics of a federal system ~ supremacy of the Constitution, division of power between the Union and the State governments.

This has further been taken to the grass-root level by the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution, which have empowered the panchayats and the urban local bodies both socially and economically An independent judiciary and a rigid procedure for the amendment of the Constitution are also the safeguards of our democracy.

So far so good. But of late, given a host of certain developments in the Indian polity, it appears that the inexorable progress of democracy is going to lose its momentum pushing the entire system to a vulnerable position for which we have very little concern. So far as the elections are concerned, are they “open,” “free” and “fair” enough in the true sense of the terms?

In order to conduct the elections, the deployment of paramilitary forces in various places becomes unavoidable; otherwise peaceful polling, ensuring people’s participation, may not be possible. The incidents of voters being bribed are not rare. In many of the polling booths the percentage of votes polled is either too low or abnormally high.

Where it is too low, it can be assumed that a large number of voters stayed away from exercising their voting right, either under threat or they did not want to give much importance to their democratic right, protected by the Constitution. Where the percentage of votes polled is too high, there is reason to believe that a large number of false votes were cast.

In areas that are difficult to reach, the percentage of votes polled is very poor. This apart, the musclemen, engaged by the political parties play a major role in the elections creating an atmosphere of violence all around. This prevents voters from spontaneously approaching the booths to cast their votes.

This attitude of the voters to stay away from voting, either under threat or because of their reluctance, drives one to the conclusion that in the first case the authorities, responsible for ensuring peaceful polling, have failed in their duty. In the second case, the citizens are not sufficiently educated to realise the importance of their voting right which is embodied in the Constitution. Therefore, to empower the people, not mere literacy, but universal quality education is an urgent need.

When religion becomes an issue in the campaign, it packs a punch. The governance hardly remains secular in nature, as a consequence of which, the progress of democracy gets stalled. In her thought-provoking book, The Public Intellectual in India, Professor Romila Thapar has aptly stated that we have drifted away from our initial concerns like establishing democratic functioning and respect for citizenship, ensuring human rights and social justice and protecting the underprivileged and those on and below the line of poverty. Today, the focus is shifting to the question of religious identity and assertions of those who form the majority community, deepening the demarcation between communities and weakening social justice and the institutions that sustain society.

Democracy without its complement of secular thinking falls short of being a democracy.

Amartya Sen has stated in his book, Collective Choice and Social Welfare that in terms of the public ballot, the ballot result is all that counts no matter how incomplete and marred by misleading advertisements and posters ~ sometimes even fanning racist sentiments ~ the public discussion preceding the voting might have been. Using posttruth, political parties now try to win elections. This only weakens the democratic system.

Democracy without an Opposition is an oxymoron. Recently it has become a fashion for some political parties, particularly those that are strong and powerful, to make India’s democracy Opposition-free. This agenda has an authoritarian tone. C. Rajagopalachari had very appropriately pointed out the importance of the Opposition in a democracy ~ “A strong Opposition,” he said, “is essential for the health of a democratic government. In a democracy based on universal suffrage, the government of the majority without an effective Opposition is like driving a donkey on whose back you put the whole load in one bundle.”

(To be concluded)

The writer is a retired civil servant.