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Democracy is more than elections: Polls are galore, but citizens and voters are being denied constitutional rights


Nov. 06, 2019

Barely has one election been completed, before yet another election looms. The Election Commission has announced a five phase election for the relatively small state of Jharkhand in November and December. The poll pot will continue to boil into the new year, with the high prestige Delhi election scheduled for early February.
India has a plethora of elections, yet a question arises: do we have lots of elections but too little democracy? Democracy is supposed to empower the citizen at every level. But the expansionist state is bent on luring citizens into surrendering their sovereignty and turning citizens into clients or cronies. Citizens are enfeebled, politicians grow ever more powerful and scornful of norms. Is this democratic?
Take a look at outcomes in recently concluded assembly polls in Maharashtra and Haryana. The machinations of the political class show an acute disregard for the mandate the citizen has given. In Haryana, elections resulted in a hung assembly. The Dushyant Chautala-led Jannayak Janta Party, which campaigned against incumbent chief minister ML Khattar, however lost no time in lining up with the same Khattar it targeted during the campaign. Dushyant’s father Ajay Chautala was released from jail on a 14 day furlough after the alliance was formalised. How’s that for a brazen quid pro quo? Voters who voted for JJP on the anti-Khattar plank have been left high and dry.
In fact, political parties routinely betray voters. In Maharashtra, voters gave the largest number of seats to the BJP-Shiv Sena pre-poll alliance which fought the elections together. Yet after the results, Shiv Sena seems to be happy to explore all available options in the political marketplace. Citizens opted for the saffron alliance, not for endless intra-alliance bargaining over ministerial berths. Politicians’ fundamental disrespect for the voter is hardly new, yet the sheer impunity with which post-poll bargaining is now carried out as non-ideological power transactions could make future generations dangerously cynical about democracy.
Beyond elections, are democratic values and institutions keeping pace with the cycle of polling? Arguments have been mounted on the role of the apex court in preserving democratic values. Given the international attention on the situation in Kashmir, the Supreme Court has not been as expeditious as it could have been in hearing habeas corpus petitions from Kashmir and constitutional rights of political detainees continue to hang in the balance. Importantly, constitutional morality is being lost in the clamour of increasingly divisive politics.
Take for example the threats to extend the NRC process across the country, or the exclusionary manner in which the Citizenship Act is now sought to be amended. The NRC process and rhetoric deployed by top politicians are harking to group identities, once again taking away from the constitutional right of every Indian citizen to be regarded as a free individual, irrespective of religious faith.
As the Big State grows ever more powerful it becomes the perfect organ to tempt citizens through endless favours and patronage. The price that the state extracts to dispense these favours is silence and complicity. Many citizens willingly surrender their freedom for state largesse. That’s why members of civil society, intellectuals and thinkers should have been much more wary of being co-opted by the state. Liberals were born from the effort to resist state tyranny, but sadly many let the liberal cause down by allying with governments and bestowing their own legitimacy to the state. This has enabled the leviathan state to wage an unprecedented war on dissent, and weaken citizens’ self-reliant spirit.
Dissent is an inevitable casualty when democracy is constructed as majority rule; in order to perpetuate the myth of majoritarianism, dissent must be constantly attacked, delegitimised and curbed. Extremely troubling questions about citizens’ rights have emerged after revelations that phones of activists, human rights lawyers and journalists were placed under surveillance by hiring the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO. Who hired NSO? Which vested interests was looking for evidence against certain activists? These questions are vital for individual liberty of the Indian citizen.
Today civil rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, who has been honoured for her work by Harvard Law School, remains in jail as an undertrial. Charges against her have not yet been framed. Her lawyer says she’s been denied basic humane amenities such as reading material on her birthday. The other academics and rights activists arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon agitation are also still in jail. Yet among the citizenry at large, there is little pushback on the curbs being placed on liberty, on the fact that citizens’ fundamental right to question the government (of whichever political stripe) is now in serious danger.
Apart from rights of dissenters, there also seems to be a chilling disconnect between rulers and citizens’ issues. On air pollution, agrarian woes or water crises, netas choose to score political points through confrontation rather than addressing citizens’ needs through co-operation. No wonder voters look increasingly cynical as they line up at polling booths. Democracy is about competition of ideas and ideologies. Yet today most of the choices available in the political market appear unwholesome because emotive issues like rashtravaad are used to compensate for the lack of new and exciting ideas of governance.
The very fact that Jharkhand requires a five phase election because two decades after its creation three fourths of the state still remains under Maoist influence, shows that governance models have failed to deliver genuine welfare. Elected governments repeatedly fail the trust test as politicians ignore the fact that without the free, empowered citizen there can be no real democracy.
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