The 45e the anniversary of the Emergency Taxation should not be wasted on bashing the dead bad guys or silly nostalgia. The experience of the Indian past with authoritarianism must be used to reflect on the death of democracies.
Urgency is both an energizing and misleading prism for thinking about the state and the fate of our democracy. It is energizing as the fight against the authoritarianism of Indira Gandhis evokes powerful memories.
Memories of resistance
I remember the dark face of my father while listening to the radio Indira Gandhis broadcast on the morning of June 26, 1975 in our villageSaharans in Rewari, Haryana). I was barely 12 years old at the time, more agitated at the idea that Gavaskar scored 36 points in 60 overs at the first World Cup than about Indira Gandhis insult to Jayaprakash Narayan. The next 19 months were going to be a period of political education for me, as my moderate, law-abiding father would find non-heroic ways to protest the emergency, much to the horror of everyone around us.
We listened every night to the BBC Hindi to learn the truth about our country. In my small town, Sriganganagar (Rajasthan), I gave a passionate speech against the emergency under the guise of a debate contest. When the elections were announced in 1977, the whole family contributed to the Janata party campaign. I was not even 14 years old at the time of my first electoral rally! I will never forget the counting of votes when I found myself in the midst of an electrifying crowd celebrating the defeat of Indira Gandhi. It was the beginning of my interest in elections and my participation in politics.
Millions of these little stories have been woven with a handful of heroic stories of resistance against the emergency to forge a collective memory that people have rejected authoritarianism. It was perhaps a myth, because the real resistance was very weak, nothing compared to the resistance offered by the pro-democracy movements in Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. However, it remains a source of inspiration.
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At the same time, Emergency is a misleading prism for us today. It invites us to ask the wrong questions: are we likely to see a repeat of the emergency? Are we already in an “undeclared emergency”? Will the current government opt for an emergency suspension of fundamental rights, media censorship and the imprisonment of opposition leaders?
Thinking about the disappearance of democracy through the Emergency experience lets us believe that the suspension of democracy must take the same form each time. Undeclared Emergency weaves a softer and invisible replay image from the same experience. This is of course not true. Under the government of Narendra Modi, we do not relive the experience of 1975-1977. Our times may seem better, but this may be worse than the emergency. The danger is not that we may face another emergency but that we are in the middle of a capture of democracy.
Emergency was an exception to a standard; what we have now is a different standard. The emergency needed a formal legal declaration. Capturing democracy does not. The emergency had a beginning and must, at least on paper, have an end. The new system we are living in today has a beginning, but nobody knows if it has an end. The challenge of democracy does not await us in the distant future. We live there. When looking for an emergency in our time, we forget to notice that the first Republic inaugurated with the Constitution of India is already over.
I call it the capture of democracy, rather than the authoritarian capture of democracy or the crisis of democracy. This sentence reminds us that democracy is both the object and the subject of this capture. The apparatus seized is democracy. And the means deployed for this capture are also democratic, at least in appearance. This reminds us that the formal procedures of democracy were used to overturn the substance of democracy.
Also read: We the people must save the software of Indian democracy beyond the discovery of the BJP-Congress
How democracies die
This is the message of the book How democracies die: what history reveals about our future. Published in 2018 by two Harvard political science professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, this bestseller chronicles the democratic breakdowns of our time. This reminds us that democracies most often die of an unspectacular, slow and barely visible death, mainly at the hands of democratically elected leaders, often through legal instruments. The tragic paradox of the electoral path to authoritarianism is that the assassins of democracies gradually, subtly and even legally use the very institutions of democracy to kill it.
Instead of a military overthrow or a constitutional coup like emergency, authoritarian leaders generally kill democracies by daily subversion of the political game. This takes three forms: capturing the referees, sidelining the players and rewriting the rules. The book draws examples from Peru under Alberto Fujimori, Russia under Vladimir Putin, Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, Hungary under Viktor Orban and, of course, the United States under Donald Trump to document how democracies die at our time.
The book does not mention India, but it is difficult not to see parallels between these countries and the India of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. If anything, capture arbitrators investigating agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), monitoring institutions such as the Central Information Commission (CIC) and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), and, of course, the supreme judicial system has been more fluid and complete in Modis India. The government has not had to exhaust the entire arsenal of purges, packaging, threats, bribes, hijacking or even dissolution of these institutions to ensure their more or less assured compliance.
Also read: Increased authoritarian streak among Indians and difficult help to BJP
Likewise, the techniques used by the Modi government to ward off opposition players, the media, cultural icons and business leaders are not very different from those used by authoritarian leaders in countries where democracy has been killed. It is particularly instructive to see how these leaders captured the media without official censorship. Fujimoris henchman Vladimiro Montesinos was caught saying this about the Peruvian media: all, all aligned. Every day I have a meeting at 12:30 p.m. and we schedule the evening news. Sounds familiar?
The only thing that the Modi government has not done rather, has not had to do so far, is a major change in the constitutional rules of the game. So far, the election rules have not have not been changed and the elections have not been postponed. Its popularity with voters and its success with the media, the Election Commission and the judiciary make this unnecessary. But don’t rule it out. As the authors say: One of the great ironies of the death of democracies is that the very defense of democracy serves as a pretext for its subversion. So-called autocrats often use economic crises, natural disasters and above all security threats, wars, armed insurrections or terrorist attacks to justify undemocratic measures.
Did you think it was written for India on June 26, 2020?
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. The views are personal.
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