The Indian elite and the erosion of democracy

Instead of lamenting BJP's electoral win, the Indian elite should examine its own role in undermining Indian democracy.

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    Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party celebrate at the party headquarters in New Delhi after initial poll results were released on May 23, 2019 [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]
    Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party celebrate at the party headquarters in New Delhi after initial poll results were released on May 23, 2019 [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

    On May 23, the weeks-long elections of the world's largest democracy delivered a stupendous victory for the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A second term for a party which is pursuing a Hindu majoritarian agenda defying India's secular constitutional order is bound to have repercussions on India's sociocultural fabric and institutional framework.

    It is early to say what these elections might portend but they are already fuelling anxieties among the social and economic elites about an impending transformation of the country. Much of the public discourse is blaming the opposition parties for failing to stem Modi's meteoric rise, public institutions and mainstream media for allegedly being partial towards the ruling dispensation, and voters for not knowing better than to vote in a government that will upend the Indian democracy and constitution.

    The blind spot in the torrential outrage is the liberal elite's own contribution towards this moment in history. Indian democracy is not under threat merely because majoritarian forces are gaining ground. Majoritarian forces have gained ground because democracy has been under threat. And the Indian elite, whose members have had disproportionate access to education, resources, and opportunities in India, have let that happen.

    The BJP and its supporters are undoubtedly propagating an aggressive and grotesque brand of nationalism designed to consolidate a fragmented Hindu identity by othering and demonising minorities. But it is a stretch to claim that India had been robustly secular until Modi became prime minister in 2014. The BJP has deepened not created fault lines which the Indian elites had done very little to mend.

    India has the world's second-largest population of Muslims who have remained grossly underrepresented in political life and in private and public institutions. They have lagged behind nearly all other disenfranchised communities on economic and educational indicators and remained vulnerable to patriarchal and sectarian prejudices. For decades, the majority of political parties have exploited the Muslim minority as a vote bank without addressing the wider, more urgent needs of ordinary Muslims.

    The liberal elite, including the relatively small part of it that is Muslim, has largely remained apathetic to the predicament of minorities for decades. They have failed not only to follow in the footsteps of India's founding fathers and articulate an idea of Indian secularism that would take root, but also to counter the rampant bigotry in their own circles.

    This inaction on part of the liberal elite has paved the way for hate speech to dominate the political discourse today and fuel attacks against minorities. Upper-class liberals have responded to the proliferation of hate crime by adopting slogans like "Not In My Name" and directing their disapproval solely towards the ruling dispensation. The rot, however, runs deeper. 

    Modi and the BJP are accused of undermining various state institutions but the truth is this process had started long before they took power.

    Today, human life in India is cheap because the criminal justice system is broken and the rule of law is far from firm. For decades on end the liberal elite, who has had privileged access to justice, has thought little to push for necessary reforms that might have mended a broken system preying on its own people and inoculated the country against social division and upheaval.

    They have turned a blind eye to endemic delays in the delivery of justice and judicial manipulation. As a result, perpetrators of crimes of various scale have not only enjoyed impunity but have also been able to infiltrate the political system.

    Some 43 percent of the newly-elected members to the lower house of Parliament face criminal charges, up from 34 percent in 2014. They hail from all major political parties and have among their ranks prominent names like terror suspect Pragya Singh Thakur from BJP and Dean Kuriakose from the Congress party who stands accused in some 200 different criminal cases.

    The criminal justice system is by no means the only institution to fail the masses. There has long been a deep disconnect between public institutions and the ordinary Indian; structural vulnerabilities have made the former susceptible to political pressure over time.

    The liberal elite has of late been raising the alarm on infringements on the central bank, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the constitutional court of the country and the election commission. The latter came under the spotlight when it was accused of favouring the BJP in the recently concluded elections. Yet those who have followed Indian electoral politics closely would know that much-needed reforms that could have safeguarded its independence were ignored for years even before 2014. 

    But the commission's lapses are not the only issue with the electoral process. There are a number of ways in which the level playing field can and was distorted by the ruling dispensation - disproportionate access to money tops the list. Campaign finance is the ageing elephant in the room and no political party has been inclined to bring about reforms that encourage transparency and regulation in this context. The elites have largely ignored the problem, as they themselves have benefitted from the status quo.

    The role of the media as a watchdog of democracy in India has also been eroded. BJP's victory was a victory of consent manufactured through propaganda by pliable mainstream media and fake news. It was aided by journalistic complacency and failure to push for self-regulation and come up with technological and regulatory solutions to defeat lies.

    This complacency is the direct result of the elites' dominance over the media sector which has reflected almost exclusively their world view, keeping the voices of the subaltern out. Dalits and tribals have been particularly underrepresented in this media dominated by upper castes.

    Ignoring all these red flags, the liberal elite has used its privilege to ensconce itself in an ivory tower that resembles feebly the aspirational first world in terms of material comforts, leaving the vast majority of Indians behind. In its imagination, the poor deserve food and shelter but not aspiration.

    The liberal elite's misdirected rage towards the electorate is symptomatic of its shallow commitment towards democracy and its total disconnect from the general population. It has failed to understand that voters who cast their ballots for the BJP did so for a variety of reasons, one of them likely being their admiration for Modi, who as a member of the lower classes managed to rise to prominence and snatch power from the self-serving elitist establishment.

    In order to counter toxic majoritarianism, the liberal elite needs to truly comprehend the mandate Modi has won and go beyond lamentation to educate, organise, agitate, and participate in democratic life.

    On the other hand, the emerging right-wing elite who has backed the BJP needs to tread carefully not to repeat the mistakes of the liberals and make excuses for a ruling party intent on deepening India's social and institutional crises.

    It is high time that those at the top of Indian society from across the ideological spectrum face the fact that, in the long run, a hollowed-out democracy is not in anyone's interest - especially in a country as multifarious as India, where a million negotiations and accommodations between diverse communities underpin social stability. 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 


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