On July 5 2021 the world was shocked by the news of 84 year Jesuit priest and human rights activist Fr. Stan Swamy breathing his last in Mumbai in the course of his jail sentence. He had spent a lifetime defending rights of tribal communities and other weaker sections. Arrested in October July 2020, all through the nine months of his imprisonment there were pleas from all over the country and the world for his release, but to no avail.
Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, said that the news of Swamy’s death was devastating and that he had been arrested on false charges. Eamon Gilmore, the EU Special Rapporteur on Human Rights said that Swamy was a defender of indigenous people’s rights and the European Union had been repeatedly raising the issue of his arrest with the authorities.
Swamy had incurred the wrath of the authorities for legally appealing for the release of several social activists fighting for land and forest rights. The number of activists and scholars, even lawyers being arrested for such reasons, using draconian, undemocratic laws has been going up. Under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, for example, 1948 persons were arrested in 2019, up 72% from 2015. This includes academics, journalists, students and activists. Many of them spend years in jail without bail.
Deeply troubling as it is, the increasing assault on civil liberties has been just one of several aspects of the decline of key democratic norms in the world’s largest democracy since the right-wing NDA-BJP government first assumed charge of the Central government in 2014, getting re-elected again in 2019.
This is not to say that the opposition has been entirely stifled. In fact opposition parties still sometimes manage to win state-level elections. Social movements too have maintained a reasonably strong position. The peaceful farmers’ movement could even win a major democratic struggle in 2021. These are a few signs of India’s continuing tryst with a vibrant democracy, but at the same time glaring strains have undoubtedly appeared in Indian democracy which stood at a much higher pedestal just a decade back.
Take increasing criminalization of politics. The first stage was that of politicians seeking the help of local gangsters to grab votes. After some time the gangsters thought why not grab votes for our own sake. So they started contesting elections themselves, often after winning the favor of some senior leader. This trend has increased further after 2014.
In 2014 and 2019 general elections, the percentage of elected Members of Parliament with serious criminal cases against them grew from 21% to 29%. (Section 8 of the Representation of People Act bans convicted politicians, but those facing trial even on serious charges are free to contest).
A study by the Association of Democratic Rights titled ‘Red Alert’ defines a red alert constituency as one in which three or more of the contesting candidates have a criminal case against them, and data for several recent elections show that on average almost half the constituencies fall in this category. To be fair, however, some of the charges may not be serious ones and may relate only to political mobilization activities. Nevertheless, the situation is serious.
The system of election bonds established in 2017 using widely criticized methods enables the ruling party to amass huge funds in a completely non-transparent way in which neither the name of donor nor the amount given appears on record. Thus to win favor with the ruling regime the richest can contribute huge amounts in a completely secretive yet strangely legalized way, paving the way for systemic corruption. These enormous funds are then used to gain a very unfair advantage in elections, and even post-election to secure defections from other political parties. The large and one of the most politically influential state of Madhya Pradesh was won for the BJP in this way, unseating the elected Congress government.
Growing concern with malpractices in elections led several eminent citizens to constitute the Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE) in March 2020, chaired by Justice Madan Lokur, former Supreme Court judge. Among other things, the CCE has pointed out that the voting system based on electronic voting machines (EVMs) “does not provide provable guarantees against hacking, tampering and spurious vote injections” and “does not comply with the essential requirements of Democracy Principles—that a voter has the knowledge and capacity to verify that vote is cast-as-intended, recorded-as-cast and counted-as-recorded.”
The CCE has objected to the highly partisan role of the Election Commission of India in conducting recent elections. Serious irregularities when pointed out at the time of the general elections in 2019 were mostly neglected.
According to a recent report by the Varieties of Democracy Institute, Sweden, India’s democracy is ‘on a path of steep decline’ turning it into an ‘electoral autocracy’.
Another increasing weakness of Indian democracy, one which has perhaps caused the most distress and worry, relates to decreasing protection for minorities. They feel much less secure now. Troubling, and clearly avoidable, controversies have been raised repeatedly regarding their food, dress, livelihoods and places of worship.
These trends, together with increasing economic problems and marginalization of a large number of people, say the bottom 50% or so, in the middle of increasing inequalities, which are reported to be returning close to pre-colonial levels, as well as the increasing closeness of policy to billionaires and crony capitalists, have led to a serious crisis of democracy in India.
Clearly it is time for all democratic forces in India to assert themselves, with more mutual cooperation and unity, more courageously and with greater continuity to defend key democratic precepts, practices and institutions.
Bharat Dogra is Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Navjeevan, Planet in Peril and Man over Machine.