Suhas Palshikar’s “Understanding the Downslide of India’s Democracy” (7 May 2021) is an attempt to understand what is wrong with India’s democracy and offer suggestions about what can be done to improve it.
In setting the terms of the debate, Palshikar gives “two contrasting views” about democracy, which, according to him, “constitute the edges of public debate in India today”. One view holds that “ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled government led by Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, democracy has been jeopardised”. The other view says democracy became stronger in 2014 because Narendra Modi’s “ascension symbolised the defeat of family-based power and entrenched elites”, making democracy “more secure” and “people-centered”. He also mentions a third view, which argues that democracy was always missing in India, but he says it is outside the field altogether. We can call this the “untouchable” view as it is not allowed in the mainstream of public debate but consigned to its margins. I am calling this so because all marginalisation in India follows the template set by the marginalisation of the so-called “untouchables”.
The argument made by people who say India was never a democracy is based on two things—the presence of Hindu rule and colonisation. Dalits and Muslims argue that the state and economy in India have been captured by a communal majority of Hindus who have systematically oppressed, exploited, and excluded them. On the other hand, people with separate territories—the Kashmiris, the Adivasis, the tribes of the Brahmaputra basin—argue that they have been colonised by India and have been demanding independence from the very beginning. They either say the Constitution has been captured and subverted by Hindus or reject it altogether as an alien and colonial imposition.
Yet, the only thing Palshikar says about this view is that, according to it, India “was only a façade with a bourgeois constitution” and “in actual practice the deprived communities were often oppressed by the state”. Deprived communities were indeed often oppressed by the state, but they blamed the Hindus for it, not some abstract bourgeois. It never was a class conflict in India as much as it was a caste conflict and an anti-colonial conflict. Dalits do not say the bourgeois is oppressing them, they very clearly say that it is the caste Hindus. Kashmiris and the Northeast do not say it is the bourgeois oppressing them, they very clearly say it is the Indian state. They are talking about caste rule and colonial rule.
The left, which is called Hindu by Dalits and Indian by Kashmiris, says the government protects bourgeois rule. Palshikar makes the left a representative of the argument that democracy is missing in India and demolishes it. Palshikar substitutes the argument that democracy has always been missing in India with one that says that class rule is wrongly understood as democracy. Palshikar then lumps the class rule argument with the Hindu argument that democracy should be adjudged differently in India and dismisses them both, calling them “simplistic and clichéd”. He is right that a critique of democracy as class rule is simplistic and clichéd. It has been rejected even in the West. The problem is that the people saying democracy was always missing in India are not making that argument.
Not engaging with the “untouchable” view and giving room to the liberal Hindu vs orthodox Hindu debate, enables Palshikar to claim that everything was fine with Indian democracy till a decade or two ago. We had the inauguration of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), in the 1950s, massive anti-Muslim riots in the 1960s, the Emergency in the 1970s, the pogrom against Sikhs in the 1980s, Palshikar calls these undemocratic events aberrations and asks us to put them aside instead of seeing a continuity, or an essential characteristic, in the way the Indian state has always functioned.
Palshikar exhorts us to find ways of dealing with the “sudden” downturn in democracy, but his diagnosis is wrong. Democracy has only declined unexpectedly for liberals. For “untouchables” there has neither been a decline nor any suddenness. As BR Ambedkar said, democracy and Hinduism just do not go together. It is impossible to understand the downslide of India’s democracy if you ignore those for whom it never worked.
It is strange that democracy in India can be talked about without referring to the issues of caste domination or colonisation; they are relegated to the extremes. This is the same strategy the Congress nationalists employed when they said they would discuss no “social” issues that affected the masses but only the British vs India problem. This stopped the masses from addressing the issues that actually affected them and continued the oppression that they were fighting against.
Once you remove actual problems by calling them extreme or aberrant, it becomes obvious what those like Palshikar mean by the problems of democracy in India. The Congress or the liberals have lost power and the BJP or the orthodox Hindus have ascended. The liberals are smarting under this loss. Suddenly, they are discovering that the state machinery they were calling democratic merely because they were in power is not so democratic when they are not in power. They are even blaming the BJP for making undemocratic use of the state machinery instead of realising that they always did so from the perspective of the colonised and the oppressed.