ETV Bharat
Dr. NVR Jyoti Kumar

Declining Democratic Values

Today is the International Day of Democracy! Both the Houses in the Indian Parliament are geared up for five-day special session from September 18 to 22. The Union government said that amid Amrit Kaal it is looking forward to have fruitful discussions and debate in Parliament. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been reiterating on various occasions within and beyond the country that democracy is “in our spirit…and flows in our veins…”

He has been asserting that India is indeed the mother of democracy, and democracy refers not just to a structure but also the spirit of equality. At this juncture of the beginning of Amrit Kaal, this may be the right occasion for making an introspection about how genuine is India’s Parliamentary democratic system in practice. Are we really utilising our democratic institutions for the cause of “striving together for inclusive growth” (Sabka saath, sabka vikas) as frequently reiterated by our leaders?

Two Democratic Declines

Political and constitutional experts opine that India has witnessed two significant democratic declines since its Independence: First, during the 21-month period of Emergency from June 1975 to March 1977; and Second, a contemporary decline starting in NDA’s regime since 2014. The global democracy-watching organisations distinguish the informal democratic decline in contemporary India in glaring difference to the Emergency, when the Indira Gandhi formally abolished almost all democratic institutions – ban of elections, arresting opposition leaders, exenterating civil liberties, silencing independent media, and passing three constitutional amendments that weakened the power of the country’s courts.

India’s downgrading as “Electoral Autocracy”

The findings of evaluative studies of different democracy-watchdogs point out that today India resides somewhere in a lower position between full democracy and full autocracy. For instance, India has been downgraded as a “partly free” country in 2023 for the third year in a row in the annual report of Freedom House, a US government-funded non-profit organisation.

Its report has gone to the extent of elaborating the manner in which “the Hindu nationalist government and its allies presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population.” Clearly, the trend towards autocratisation in many parts of the world began intensifying in 2020. The V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden) report lists a record number of 42 countries as “autocratising” at the end of 2022. India is not an exception to this trend.

Infact, the 2023 V-Dem report referred to India not only as “electoral autocracy”, but also as “one of the worst autocratisers in the last 10 years.” Overall, 72% of the world’s population (5.7 billion people) lived in autocracies by the end of 2022, V-Dem report confirmed.

Similarly, in the latest 2020 Democracy Index global ranking, London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) displaced India into the “flawed democracy” category; and India also slipped to 53rd (out of 167 countries). How come India consistently has been declining itself in terms of democratic values? Is such a deplorable trend really reversible?

The democracy-watchdogs developed a set of reliable, comprehensive and universally relevant indicators for assessing several institutions of democracy in various countries across the globe. We will confine the discussion to India’s standing on four of such indicators: Quality of elections, Presence of genuine political competition, State of civil liberties, and the functioning of Parliamentary committees.

Fracturing the People’s Verdict

The first two indicators or institutions influence each other mostly. The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) Report 2023 parades the massive money power possessed by the elected representatives in India as per their own declaration. With regard to the financial status of 30 chief ministers of India, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy (YSRCP) tops the list of the richest chief ministers with total assets of Rs 510 crore, who is also among the top three when it comes to criminal cases.

He is followed by Prema Khandu (BJP) of Arunachal Pradesh with over Rs 163 crore, and Naveen Patnaik (BJD) of Odisha with over Rs 63 crore in financial assets. The Telangana Chief Minister is in the sixth position with over Rs 23 crore. The Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (AITC) was the only one who possessed less than one crore rupee worth of assets.

Overall, the average value of the assets officially declared by the chief ministers was almost Rs 34 crore. Along with this, 13 chief ministers declared criminal cases against themselves that include attempt to murder, murder, kidnapping and criminal intimidation. The three south Indian chief ministers are on the top of the List in terms of the number of criminal cases of serious nature registered against them.

In the current Rajya Sabha, often known as the House of Elders, about 27% of MPs from BJP, and 40% of MPs from Congress have declared criminal cases against themselves in their affidavits. With regard to the present Lok Sabha, nearly half of the elected Lok Sabha members have criminal charges against them, a 26% increase as compared to 2014.

Nearly 29% of the cases are related to rape, murder or crime against women which reflects the deplorable state of the Indian democracy. In addition to several ‘conventional’ manipulative electoral tactics which are in practice such as buying of votes, liquor distribution, and spreading hatred among different groups of people, there are news reports about the removal of names of eligible voters in large numbers from voters’ list and also the inclusion of a vast numbers of bogus voters in Andhra Pradesh. Such a systemic and organised electoral roll irregularities will not only furthering damage the level playing field in the political arena, but also puncture the people’s verdict.

Election Expenditure in India becomes the World’s Most Expensive

In the span of 20-years, involving six elections to Lok Sabha between 1998 and 2019, the election expenditure has gone up by around six times from Rs 9,000 crore to around Rs 55,000 crore ($8 billion) in India, according to the study reported by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS). The BJP alone spent almost half of it in 2019 Lok Sabha elections. No need to mention that such expenditures far exceeded the limits imposed by law. In fact, it was more than the expenditure in the U.S. presidential election of 2016 ($6.5 billion). ‘Purchase of votes’ directly from the voters was the second big expenditure head, next to the expenditure on campaigning and publicity in a poor country of India. While 12% of the voters in India acknowledged receiving cash directly, two-thirds of them had acknowledged that voters around them also received cash for their vote. Pitifully, the CMS confessed that this is only a fraction or a ‘tip of the iceberg’ of what actually would have been spent. It would be frightening to “imagine how deep and wide is this iceberg beneath, and how it can damage our democracy,” lamented PN Vasanti, Director General, CMS.

Sustained Erosion of Civil Liberties

India’s civic space continued to be rated as “repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor, an international organisation that tracks global civil liberties in 197 countries. The Indian government received sharp criticism for increasingly abusing two types of laws to silence its critics – colonial-era sedition laws and the anti-terror UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act). In 2022, the draconian UAPA and other laws continued to be misused to keep activists and journalists behind bars, as revealed by the CIVICUS.

In addition, India’s ranking in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index has slipped to 161 out of 180 countries, according to the latest report released by Paris-based global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). In comparison, Pakistan fared better when it comes to media freedom as it was placed at 150.

Diminishing Role of Parliamentary Committees

Parliamentary committees are panels consisting of MPs to delve deeper into matters of public concern and develop expert opinion. Thus, contrary to popular perception, looking into Bills is not the only purpose that committees serve. We need to understand their relevance in making Parliament a dynamic and functional institution. In the just-concluded

Monsoon session, the Lok Sabha functioned for only 43% of its scheduled time and the Rajya Sabha 55%, but ironically, legislative activity remained high with 23 Bills being passed implying the bare minimum discussion took place, as per data compiled by PRS Legislative Research.

Furthermore, the data show that the legislative scrutiny of executive action has been waning since 2014. The Parliamentary standing committees serve as a key check on the executive, closely examining and debating the merits of all Bills. Committees scrutinised 71% of Bills during 2009-14; but only 25% of Bills during 2014-19, and such scrutiny has declined sharply to 13% later on. The Parliament should consider a compulsory referral, for the Bills that are tabled on the floor, to the appropriate committees. Political considerations should not be allowed to hasten law-making.

Effective Laws for Level Playing Field

This is high time to heed to the advice offered by M. Venkaiah Naidu, as the Vice President of India in his tenure who called for enactment of effective laws of Parliament in quick time against huge election expenditure by parties and populist spending by governments. He underlined the need to address two glaring distortions in democratic polity by the political system with a sense of urgency and unity.

The first is the use of enormous money power – often unaccounted for and illegal – in politics and elections. The second is the increasing attempts to entice the voters by the governments with short term benefits at the cost of long term goals of ensuring basic amenities, infrastructure, quality education and healthcare, and job opportunities. He urged the political parties of the world’s largest democracy not to shy away from being financially accountable in the interest of

transparency of the country’s democratic polity through appropriate and actionable regulatory measures to make the financial accounts of political parties public (transparent). Several other countries of democracies have better systems in place under which finances of political parties are regularly audited. With the controversial electoral bonds system introduced by the Modi government in 2017, India is presently the most unregulated country with regards to electoral funding in comparison with other similar democracies.

The greater the absence of transparency in the system of political donations/funding, the greater the chances that public policy is tilted towards the interest of the super-rich, ignoring the interests of the majority, particularly the poor and the vulnerable.

Time has come to consider a suitable legislation on the lines of FRBM (Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act) that puts a cap on fiscal deficit. If such a cap is made mandatory on the proportion of budgetary resources that can be deployed for short term freebies by law, then perhaps, all political parties will have a level playing field and reckless and unsustainable populist measures can be kept under control.

Anti-defection law failed badly since its very inception in 1985 in achieving the noble cause to bring stability to governments. Over the years, parties have also misused it as part of a toolkit to weaken their opposition or topple a government. Now it is high time to revisit the law with a view to combat the menace of defections which denigrated our democracy. Will the unity among the political parties happen to bring about such effective laws in the Parliament that curb the mayhems against the spirit of Indian democracy as enshrined in the Constitution, instead of confining discussion to a narrow and impractical narrative of ‘One Nation – One Election?’

This article is written by Dr. NVR Jyoti Kumar (Professor, Department of Commerce, Mizoram Central University)

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