Deb Chowdhry is a journalist who has published in Time, South China Morning Post, and Washington Times. John Keane is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. They are the authors of the recent book To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism.
You treat votes as equal. My vote is equal to your vote. But the state treats our bodies as unequal. That logically makes no sense and it is farcical to call it a democracy in the first place. Forget what implications this will have for democracy in the long-term, but to be called a democracy and to have your bodies treated differently is a farce in itself.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
- Who is Mamata Banerjee?
- How does political violence undermine democracy?
- How does the failure to tackle social problems affect democracy?
- Why is Indian democracy in decline?
- What does India’s experience teach other democracies?
Today we return to a familiar question about democracy. Is it possible to preserve political equality without economic or social equality? It’s a difficult question for me, because it implies a democracy must deliver public goods such as a social welfare state to its citizens. But this requirement means the question to deliver those public goods is no longer part of democratic deliberation.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane make a forceful case that the failure to deliver public goods erodes the foundations of a democracy over time. They use India as an example where democracy faces threats, because it failed to tackle important social problems. However, I don’t think this is an Indian story. Many other nations face similar challenges including the United States.
Deb Chowdhry is a journalist who has written extensively on Indian politics. John Keane is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. They are the authors of the recent book To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism. Our conversation explores Indian politics, but touches on many larger themes about democracy. We talk a little about Modi, but the conversation is really about longer structural problems in India’s democracy and like I said these are not problems unique to India. You’ll find many similarities to other democracies facing similar challenges.
Like always there is a full transcript available at democracyparadox.com. If you like this podcast, please consider supporting the work at Patreon where you can get early access to new episodes and exclusive updates about the podcast. But for now… this is my conversation with Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane…
Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
Oh, hi Justin. Thank you for having us. Thanks for this opportunity.
Hello, Justin, democratic greetings from Sydney.
All right. Thank you both. So, a lot of my conversations on India have really centered around Narendra Modi. So, I was really excited because your book had a whole cast of characters from throughout India. And so, I’d like to begin with one of its subnational leaders, because I feel that that’s really where a lot of politics takes place in India. You described the chief minister of West Bengal in great detail. So, can you offer us a bit of a portrait of Mamata Banerjee and how the politics of West Bengal are really representative of some broader issues throughout the country?
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
That’s a really good question, Justin. Books on democracy, typically end up writing mostly about federal politics. And what we have consciously done throughout this book is that we have tried to integrate the regional politics as well. Because I think this is, where as you say, most of the politics is happening. As you know, Modi himself was a regional leader before he rose to national power. Mamata Banerjee incidentally is being touted as a possible contender for power and a challenger to Narendra Modi. So, who is Mamata Banerjee? Mamata Banerjee is the Chief Minister of the province of West Bengal which is one of the biggest states in India. She heads the regional party, which she formed after breaking away from the Congress party in the late 1990s. She led her party to victory in 2011 ousting, the Communists who ruled the state for 34 years.
She’s very charismatic. She’s a fire brand leader known for her rabble routing skills. And she’s your typical Indian leader actually. In India political parties are mostly run like mom-and-pop shops. And she is the undisputed leader of her shop. All power is centralized. There is no internal democracy or internal election, but the same goes for the state government. It’s all her all the way. And she’s also your standard populist demagogue who doesn’t entertain peaceful dissent as a political right. Neither is she averse to suppressing dissent with a strong hand and we mentioned Mamata Banerjee in the context of political violence and in Bengal politics has traditionally been violent and Mamata Banerjee has kept up that tradition.
The high level of unemployment and underemployment means that there is always enough for hard muscle and party work and to keep rivals in check just as in the rest of India. In past local elections actually in Bengal many opposition candidates simply were not allowed to contest or they could not even register their names for the election. So, she mixes out this strong men rule or should I say strong woman rule with the welfare SOPs like financial allowances for women and girls, students, subsidized rice, et cetera as is also common in the rest of India.
What this means is that welfare entitlements are very poorly instituted in India. Had they not been so, politicians wouldn’t have been able to prey on the privatizations of the people with the crumbs of patronage. But in India they can, because we do not have a proper welfare state. So, in a lot of ways Mamata Banerjee and the politics of West Bengal are representative of a wider problem for India.
So, Deb, I feel like there’s so much to unpack in the example of Mamata Banerjee. For instance, we could talk about how Narendra Modi is not the only illiberal leader within India. That there’s illiberalism throughout India and not just within the BJP. We could talk about the way that the failure of state capacity within India limits the ability for democracy to truly actualize itself.
And then finally, though, the idea of political violence is something that really struck a chord with me, because as somebody from the west, somebody from the United States, when I think of illiberalism, when I think of threats to democracy, it always begins from the top down. It’s a question of the state against the people. But in the case of political violence, it’s almost more of a bottom-up threat to democracy where people themselves become some of the threats even when they’re not actually part of the state. And that’s such a bizarre scenario to kind of grasp. It’s a weird dynamic. In the book you write, “People kill and die for their parties, because politics has become a matter of survival.” John, how does public violence undermine democracy?
Well, most obviously, Justin, violence at an ethical level, the taking of a life willfully of another or interfering with their bodies is in open contradiction with the democratic principle that life is sacrosanct. That all beings on our planet are entitled to well-being, to Liberty with equality and patterns of solidarity. There is a clear ethical contradiction between the two. But in the book, we say that that minimalist understanding of violence is not enough. That there are other forms of violence and principally running through the book is a catalog of examples of indignities that are inflicted on people’s lives in various parts of the country at various points in the social hierarchy.
And in this respect, indignity is a form of social violence. And this too is destructive of the principle that democracy is a way of life that values the dignity that esteems individuals and groups. There’s one other thing, I think, to say, Justin, about the problem of public violence and democracy. When violence of the kind that we’re witnessing in India at local levels today, when violence begins to take hold, it actually prepares parts of the population for the normalization of violence. Getting them used to violence is part of the process of the destruction of democracy. Carlos Fuentes, the great Mexican writer, said that, ‘Despots like to cultivate people who kiss up and kick down.’
Well, violence is a form of kicking down against people. And to the extent that it takes hold on a society, to the extent that a civil society becomes uncivil, then the foundations of democracy are undermined. That is a basic idea that runs through our book. Democracies don’t just die in darkness. They don’t just die in coup d’états. Democracies are also killed when the social foundations of dignity, of self-esteem are destroyed. And violence is one way in which that effectively happens.
John just mentioned about how there are lots of social indignities within India and in the book, you describe six specific social emergencies that really exist today. And many of them even date back to the origin of India’s democracy. But before we touch on those, I want to come back to this idea of violence. I want to make sure that listeners don’t think that this is some kind of metaphor that we’re trying to stress. Deb, can you just confirm for me, in the past election, when we talk about political violence, we’re really talking about actual violence in the election between partisans of the BJP and partisans of Mamata Banerjee’s party? Am I understanding that correctly?
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
Yes. Yes. We’re actually talking about actual physical violence and this has been a tradition in Bengal particularly forever. Every election comes between the Communists and the Congress and between the Communists and Mamata Banerjee’s party. So, vast reaches of the countryside turn into like battle zones almost. Villages are evacuated and there are gang wars and it is like full on political violence. But here is something that I would like to add to what John said is that I have explained why the politics in Bengal is representative of the vital problems throughout India.
But there is one aspect in which Bengal has been different from most parts of India. And it’s largely because of the history of peasant movements and land reforms which happened in Bengal. As a result of which rather than big landlords and caste or religious ties, the party became the strongest social institution in rural Bengal. Also, the party would be the only institution through which political patronage would be dispensed whoever is in power. So, on the one hand, you have poorly instituted social welfare, like the rest of India. On the other hand, you have an economically backward state. So, your survival, if you are part of the vulnerable section of the society, your survival depends heavily on political patronage, which in turn depends on your party alignment.
This is what we meant when we said that people kill and die for their parties because politics has become a matter of survival, because, you know, elections are like joyous moments in nations like in your country or in John’s country. Probably once in five years, people gathered and they have debates and they have campaigns and then they go back to their lives. But here you see people killing each other, because the stakes are so high. Because the survival depends on that patronage which is why they do what they do.
May I also add something, I actually think that putting the problem of demagogues in a democracy in terms of illiberalism is misleading. I think that there is a very clear pattern in the history of democracy going back to ancient Greece where there is a demotic in democracy. What is that demotic? What is that devilish part of democracy that’s intrinsic to democracy. It’s that when the people or parts of the people become disgruntled, when they feel disesteemed, when they feel that their dignity is being destroyed, they build up what is called ressentiment. They have envy of those who are wealthy, of those who live more comfortably. They grow annoyed and they’re prone to inflict their contempt on others.
And into that dynamic, steps the demagogue. It’s not only Banerjee. it’s not only Modi. It’s not only Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh. There are others. It’s a chronic pattern in democracies. And what we say in the book is that that disesteeming of people matched with a demagogue who act as a redeemer, you know, who raises hopes and who makes promises of patronage and so on. That dynamic is toxic. And it is a way in which democracies can be destroyed by democratic means.
Now, we’re kind of dancing around the idea right now that there are some real social issues within India. You described them as social emergencies. Can you paint a picture on some of these problems that exist such as, you describe hunger, you describe poor education? Just paint a picture of what we describe as these indignities that exist in India that set the stage for these demagogues to arise.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
So, we have a situation in India where my vote is equal to your vote once in five years. But the rest of the time, our lives are so vastly different that we might as well belong to different planets. And any self-government, any idea of self-government based on the notion that our lives are actually equal in some way just because our votes are equal is almost farcical. And this is manifested in the total lack of access or the difference of access to the most basic ingredients of life starting from water and air to healthcare to school, food, everything. And we think there is a big disconnect between political equality and social equality to the point that it makes the idea of democracy almost an elaborate farse in India.
Well, let’s paint a picture on one of those topics. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. So, all of the listeners, no matter what country that they live in are going to have experience with the challenges of dealing with healthcare during the pandemic. One of the key social emergencies that you refer to is the healthcare in India. Now, as an American, we don’t have any form of socialized healthcare. We’re one of the very few that don’t have that. India nominally does. But you note in the book that their form of healthcare has so little infrastructure behind it that it’s effectively a private system as well. Can you give us some background on that and how that’s affected Indians during the pandemic?
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
What we have in India is a kind of caste system in which there are like three tiers of healthcare. One is for the absolute bottom who are people who have to depend on free healthcare provided by the government. These are dilapidated hospitals with very little staff, doctors and this is where the poorest go for free healthcare. At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum is the corporate high-end hospitals where the rich go and even people from other countries come for health tourism in India. These are corporate run. These are comparable to the very best in the world.
And in between you have these clones of these corporate hospitals, but which are much scaled down versions of the high-end hospitals that you have in India. So, these are like small nursing homes and clinics which are privately run, but they give you sort of decent healthcare compared to the absolute bottom tier. And this has happened because the state refuses to spend enough money on healthcare. Lancet did a study which found out that 122 out of a hundred thousand Indians die of poor-quality health care, not just because of lack of access, but because of poor quality health care. And this is much higher than their peer nations. Indians also live with more years with illness and disability than many other countries.
So, there are like an estimated 1 million poor doctors, for example, in India. In Delhi alone, there are 50,000 poor doctors because these are your only hope when you’re in trouble and all of this even before the pandemic hit. So, obviously as you can imagine what we saw in the pandemic was hardly a surprise. I’ll give you a couple of more numbers. 2.4 million people die of treatable conditions every year in India, treatable conditions, 2.4 million. Twice as many die of poor quality of healthcare than the lack of access to it. So, 1.6 million people in India die because of poor quality of healthcare and about 900,000 people die because of lack of access. That’s in just one year I’m talking about and that is without the pandemic.
That’s so tragic. I remember during the beginning of the pandemic, The New York Times had a story where a man was trying to take his wife to a hospital to give birth to their child. And they actually had to go to eight different hospitals. And she was having complications from her pregnancy and in the end, she ended up dying. And it completely broke my heart, especially as somebody who’s a father myself, to think of how tragic that event was and how unnecessary it really was in the end. And so, when you wrote about the problems in the healthcare system in India, I could kind of already understand. I’d kind of had a little bit of a window into it, but it definitely opened my eyes as to some of the issues that exist.
And that’s just one of many issues that exist in terms of their social infrastructure, if we will, within that country. John, when we think about the social infrastructure, these failures to address some of these longstanding problems within India, have these problems destroyed democracy in their own right or have they simply laid the foundation for the challenges of democracy in India today?
Well, in a way, both. But let’s go back to what we mean by democracy. Our story in this book is that this is, of course, centrally a book about India. But it’s also about why India is important to the world of democracy. And the book is a warning about what happens when the kinds of neglect of the health and wellbeing of the population that Deb has just described, what the implications of that are for democracy. Democracy is about free and fair elections. Nothing less, but it’s about much more. It is about public accountability through a whole range of watchdog institutions, you know, courts, independent think tanks, of course civil service, bureaucracies, nongovernmental monitoring networks within civil society.
But democracy is something more than that. It is also a way of life. And that’s an idea that we tried to make run through our book. It’s an idea that in the American context, someone like John Dewey was famous for defending as part of the Progressive era. It is a view of democracy as a whole way of life of equality lived in dignity of citizens. It is a way of thinking about democracy that’s been in decline for the last 40 years or so. When I hear the phrase liberal democracy, I understand that it’s principally to do with political and legal institutions and free and fair elections. It doesn’t automatically raise alarm bells about what’s happening to the social foundations.
In this sense, you know, India is a warning to a democracy like the United States that if you allow growing gaps between rich and poor. If you allow a society to become one in which, as in Delhi, for instance, well over 90% of households fear that a woman or a girl-child goes out on their own at any time of day or night, they fear that there will be trouble and violence against them when that happens. Then democracy as a way of life is destroyed. That’s the big warning that runs through our book.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
And also, Justin, if you allow it, then it will eventually wreck and ruin the democratic foundations. But the logic of it that you treat votes as equal. My vote is equal to your vote. But the state treats our bodies as unequal. That logically makes no sense. And it is farcical to call it a democracy in the first place. Forget what implications this will have for democracy in the long-term. But to be called a democracy and to have your bodies treated differently is a farce in itself.
Well, a lot of these problems have existed in India since the beginning. The problem that you’re talking about, for instance, of women not being treated as true equals. I mean, that’s not new in India. Are you effectively saying that India’s never really raised itself to the level of what you would call a democracy?
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
All democracies are a work in progress. So is India. And the status of women in 1947 and the status of women now are vastly different. There has been a lot of progress. So, in education, for example, when the British left, 20% of the adult population was literate because the British invested so little in public education. So, you know, it is a work in progress, but the thing is how much progress? Are you anywhere close to the high bar you set for yourself? No, we haven’t, because the Indian constitution, India’s founding leaders, they set a very high bar for themselves and we have failed ourselves. But I would not say that India was never a democracy. There was always a proposition towards democracy.
May I add that our book tries to describe an attempted transition to democracy after empire. India was, in the 20th century, the world’s largest experiment in democratization after snapping the chains of empire. And not only as Deb has just said, has there been a really important democratization of everyday habits and lives and expectations unfinished. Democracy is not a recipe for utopia on earth. You never get there. You’re always chasing democracy around corners. But in addition, this experiment in trying to build a power sharing constitutional democracy, arguably it wasn’t intended to be a liberal democracy American style, had successes. The world’s largest free and fair election in the early fifties. More than 170 million citizens voted. A written constitution, ‘We the people of India,’ referring to a secular socialist democratic republic. Very important.
BR Ambedkar, one of the spirits who dwells within our book, was of course an important architect of that constitution. India did things to democracy. It attempted to build a model of secular democracy, very different than that in the United States or in Europe. Secular democracy meant that India should become a democracy where good government and good laws would protect the multiplicity of faiths. All of whom represented the bulk of the world’s faiths. To protect them non-violently and to improve their esteem and dignity, these were important achievements.
What we say in our book, however, is that it has been the failure, the long-term failure, to address the social question that has actually undermined, degraded and put democracy on an emergency list so that think tanks like V-DEM have now categorized India as no longer in the category of a democracy. That’s extremely alarming. It was, of course, BR Ambedkar who predicted that if India failed to build a welfare state, if it failed to nourish the social foundations of its post-imperial democracy, that it would fail. That’s the warning that he made. And it’s also a warning that runs through our book.
So, what you’re saying is actually really interesting. The idea that without a social welfare state, without social infrastructure to be able to provide, if not economic equality, at least some form of social equality, that it’s impossible to truly have political equality. It runs very much counter to what the Indian economist, former Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has argued in the past, which is that if you give people political equality, that they’re going to solve some of the social problems along the way. It gives them the ability to solve them. He used the examples of famines to be able to discuss that. You’re very much arguing against that very concept. The fact that it’s not that political equality leads to social equality, but that the lack of social equality erodes, any semblance of political equality. Am I understanding that correctly?
I think that’s unfair to Amartya Sen. His capabilities approach which helped him win a Nobel Prize. I mean, its spirit runs through our book as well. The idea is that a democracy cannot be considered a viable, vibrant, resilient democracy, if it does not nurture the capacities of its citizens to enjoy wellbeing. There can be a brilliant written constitution. There can be a constant feverish, joyous, rough and tumble elections. There can be a measure of openness of media. There can be a great pluralism, a colorful pluralism. But if the capabilities of people are destroyed and millions of others’ capabilities are constrained and suffocated, then that democracy dies slowly. So, we are on the side of Amartya Sen on this point.
So, when we’re talking about Indian democracy, a lot of different think tanks, you’ve already hinted at V-Dem. We could talk about Freedom House as well. A lot of people are talking about India’s democracy in decline at this historical moment. But if we think of things as India has never resolved the social problems, it implies that maybe India’s democracy was never as complete as we previously believed. Is there really a moment where India’s democracy began to decline or has it always been fragile and in a sense of decline?
One of the striking features, Justin, that we talk about in the opening part of the book about India’s experiment with democracy is that the belief that India is the world’s largest democracy, it’s looking pretty frayed around the edges at the moment. But that belief, part of what we call the India story, was reinforced in the middle seventies by a period called The Emergency where Mrs. Gandhi for a whole lot of power grabbing reasons declared an emergency. It wasn’t a coup d’état, but it was certainly a severe crackdown of opposition. And she was persuaded to consolidate that power grab by going to the country in a general election. And well, one of the basic features of democracy historically is that it sometimes delivers great surprises and she was defeated.
And that defeat of Mrs. Gandhi, that humbling of her power grabbing, subsequently nurtured the view that Indian democracy was insulated against democide. Well, our thesis is that there’s another kind of emergency that has gripped the country from the beginning. It grows worse. It is a social emergency. And again, the idea here, the big idea is that a democracy, a power sharing, constitutional democracy, can actually destroy itself if it doesn’t address these social emergencies that we’ve been speaking about.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
Yeah. So, one thing that you are asking is whether it has always been fragile. As John said, that for democracy to advance proper social welfare, like universal education and healthcare, should have been the priority from day one in a country which has been historically unequal. So, that did not happen. So, also there was an element of fragility from the very beginning. Also, if I may add is that our governing institutions were heavily borrowed from the British. Many of them were not changed much because of the civil war situation in which the handover of power took place. So, India was partitioned. Indian-Muslim riots consumed the subcontinent and the founding leaders opted for a strong centralized state somewhat like the British had in place. So, there was neither much time nor much room to experiment with radically different forms of administration.
So, in a sense the process of decolonization was not completed with independence. So, in many ways our democratic institutions were vulnerable to capture, because they are centralized in their character. And in the early years after independence, we had politicians who still largely came from the generation of freedom fighters. So, they had an inherent respect for the institutions they had fought for. So, the probity of the people who willed and executed power in the early years prevented outright abuse of institutions, but as time went by and degradation set in and in the hands of politicians removed from those early ideals, these institutions came to be slowly hollowed out. And that’s what we have been witnessing in India.
May I add that our book was nearly a victim of an atmosphere that is bound up with legislation like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. It has colonial roots. In 2019 around 2000 people were prosecuted under this act. There’s a big jump going on in threats and prosecutions. We had a publisher of an Indian edition who grew scared. Who chickened out. Who decided not to publish a local edition of the book. Luckily, we have found a publisher. The book is now published thanks to their courage and support.
But it is an example of what Deb was just speaking about. You know, that the break with empire wasn’t entirely a clean rupture. There were lots of overlaps, overhangs, continuities. And one of them is a set of laws and governing practices to do with sedition, to do with the exercise of sovereign power that is currently being mobilized by the Modi government against its opponents.
So, we started to introduce Narendra Modi and when we think about the decline of democracy in India, Narendra Modi is obviously the larger than life character. Like when we think about the declinine of democracy in the United States, Donald Trump becomes the larger than life character. It doesn’t mean Narendra Modi is the only reason why we’re seeing a decline, but he’s definitely the lead actor. If you will, can you help us understand what makes him different from some of India’s past leaders or rather why is he so central to understanding India’s struggles with democracy at this historical moment?
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
So, in a lot of ways, Modi is the standard textbook demagogue, not totally different from some others in India operating at the state level. In fact, Modi was himself a demagogue at the state level before he graduated to become a demagogue at the federal level. So, his sense of theater, his style of mass seduction, propaganda techniques these are very demagoguish and also very similar to some of the others. But he’s also strikingly different from the rest in the sense that he presents a particular ideology that commits itself to a culture war which is what we are witnessing now in India. The Hindu nationalist agenda of remaking India’s secular democracy into a Hindu state gives their capture of institutions completely new damage that hasn’t been seen in India before.
And it’s not just about winning the next election, but it’s also about restoring a lost mythical Hindu golden rule in the land of the Hindus and establishing the supremacy of Hindus over everyone else which means that in a sense, knocking out the equality of people that the Indian constitution mandates. So, the threat that Modi poses to democracy has a whole different dimension.
One of the things that strikes me about the state of Indian democracy at this moment is the way civil society has eroded in different ways. And one of the most obvious involves the state of the press and the idea of press freedom within India. I don’t know enough about the Indian press. I read a lot from third hand sources, in my opinion. Can you help me understand, does an opposition press really still exist in India or is it generally just a mouthpiece for the BJP at this point?
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
India has a huge… and I think it’s one of the biggest media markets in the world. Millions of media houses and literally millions, not just thousands all over the country, in multiple languages, in multiple platforms. But as the book describes that the mainstream media is in a way in a hock to the government for advertisements and other business favors. And most importantly access, because for journalists, access is the main thing. So, at the provincial level this is in fact more pronounced than at the federal level. The media houses are completely in debt to the government for ads which form a substantial chunk of the revenues of media houses at the federal level.
Yes, the mainstream media has largely become an echo chamber of Modi and his party, especially Hindi and English language television channels. But the opposition press is not entirely dead. And even in the mainstream media, in newspapers, sometimes you do see flashes of that old, independence coming through even now. So, it’s not all dead yet.
This manipulation of media which we describe in the book, the attack on what Modi likes to call prestitutes, is part of a bigger trend in which the taming, colonization of media combined with neutralization of a judiciary, combined with the destruction of parliamentary scrutiny, allies with the civil service. Those kinds of trends are all at work in India. And we describe them in great detail in the book. They are trends that we’ve witnessed unfold in Russia during the Putin period, that have happened in the course of a decade in Hungary under the Orbán government, they are going on in Turkey and numerous other countries.
We describe this trend as a pathway to despotism. Concentrated top-down state power in which you use elections in the name of the people to tame and neutralize and mobilize these flanking institutions that basically destroys accountability or monitory democracy. That is the great danger and that’s why the fate of journalism in India is of such great consequence.
John, thank you so much for bringing up the fact that this is not just a book about India. When we think about a title such as To Kill a Democracy. It’s something that affects so many countries from around the world right now. So, I’m going to ask you both a question that applies not just to India, but really any country that is suffering real challenges to its democracy and may find that the fate of its democracy is that it really does unravel and fall apart.
in the book you write, “The death of democracy is never a foregone conclusion. Democide happens, because it is chosen by political actors in political circumstances not of their choosing.” Death. It really refers to a finale. So, when we think of it that way, is it possible though to resurrect democracy after a democide or do we have to completely start from scratch to be able to create new democracies after the death of an old one?
Well, here we shouldn’t mix everything together. I think, Justin, in the 20th century there were cases, Italy, Germany, Japan, where after the experience of totalitarianism, the problem was how do you build power sharing democracy with free and fair elections, rule of law, public monitoring of power, and a social welfare state. That’s one dynamic and one set of challenges. India, I think, is to be understood in a different category. It is as we’ve talked about already in this program. It is a case of an attempt to, build democracy after empire. And here the picture is mixed, as we’ve tried to say, India did things to democracy there were numerous breakthroughs. And there are numerous decadent trends. There are pathologies that are alive and well and flourishing inside Indian democracy.
But here an idea of Tocqueville, you know, the Frenchman who came to America in the first quarter of the 19th century, is really pertinent. Tocqueville pointed out that democracy does something to the spirit of people unlike monarchy or tyranny or oligarchy or aristocracy. It spreads the belief that people can remake their lives that power relations are not natural. Tocqueville predicted that America could not live with slaves. That the belief among Christians, for example, in 19th century America that slavery was God given. That it was natural. It could not survive the democratic revolution. Something would have to give. And he also pointed out that the belief that women were naturally unequal compared with men would be challenged by the democratic ethic.
It’s an abstract point that applies really with a vengeance to India is that democracy encourages people when it takes root to feel that they can change the world. That the power relations that they’re currently caught up in are not necessary. That things in future can be different than they are now. So, we end our book, believe it or not, on a hopeful note. And we say that when democracy takes root. Hope kicks in. What is hope? Hope is not blind dreaming. It’s not wishful thinking. Hope is the conviction that things can be changed. That things can be better in the near future compared with how they are now. The spirit of democracy, the spirit of the contingency of the power relations that currently exist is striking. And there are manifestations of this. Democracy is not yet dead. It is not yet transformed into a despotism.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
As John said, there is this spirit of hope which democracy inculcates in people. And if you talked to the man on the street in India, you will find there is a healthy disregard for politicians. There is defiance. There is questioning and also democratic instinct has been sharpened by 75 years of movements, so democracy is definitely not dead. The spirit is definitely not dead yet. And Indian democracy, if I may add, did recover after Indira Gandhi’s 21-month emergency between 75 and 77 when she basically suspended fundamental rights and democracy completely. The coalition government that took over power after her quickly repaired some of the institutions that she had destroyed. So, India’s own experience shows that it is possible to resurrect democracy after a democide. And I will add here that there’s a new element this time.
So, there is hope, yes, but this time there’s a new element of slow poisoning of the Hindu mind and the capture of institutions in the name of Hindu rejuvenation that has been set in motion. And while institutions can be repaired, we don’t know if this can be reversed and if it cannot be reversed, what it means for Indian politics. That is an unknown at this point.
The very title of our book has connotations, of course, to a classic book by Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird. And what we say in our book is that there are plenty of Indian Atticus Finches. You know, those who warned that killing a mockingbird is evil. That the mockingbird, we could say democracy, you know, promises gifts to people. It promises better lives together as equals and just as Harper Lee’s 1960 Gothic novel, great classic of American literature, sounded the alarm about threats to democracy. So, in a much more modest way in our book we try to under the title of To Kill a Democracy, we warn about the consequences of allowing these decadent trends to continue to take hold. And we ask readers to ponder what would be lost if democracy was destroyed in India.
You know, it’s interesting because early democratic theory posited that you needed to have a certain level of economic development to become a democracy.
Number of fridges and automobiles per capita. Yes.
Yeah. And so, India was always this exception that existed that didn’t quite fit the rule. And so, when Indira Gandhi declared The State of Emergency, a lot of political scientists thought, ‘Oh, it’s finally happening. This is what we all expected to happen.’ Nobody believed Indian democracy could succeed. But after 21 months, the Indian people did bring back democracy. They rejected Indira Gandhi and so, all I’m saying is is that political scientists, a lot of people out there that doubted the ability of the Indian people to be able to resurrect their democracy in the past have been proven wrong before. And I think it bodes well to have faith in the Indian people.
And we’ll see where things go during this period under Modi and maybe the Indian people will surprise the world yet again by re-establishing their commitment to democracy and take things in a direction that demonstrates how they’re able to reinterpret the idea of democracy for themselves. Well, thank you so much for joining me guys. It’s a really impressive book that, that goes through so much information, while at the same time, really having an idea behind it that transcends just India. So, I was incredibly impressed. Thank you so much for writing the book.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
Thank you very much for your kind words. Thank you.
Great pleasure, Justin.
To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism by Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane
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Democracy Paradox Podcast
Bilal Baloch on Indira Gandhi, India’s Emergency, and the Importance of Ideas in Politics
Christophe Jaffrelot on Narendra Modi and Hindu Nationalism
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