The BJP and Indian democracy
Since its victory in May 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has set about vigorously enacting long-articulated Hindu nationalist policies. This development has led to the charge that the BJP is “undermining” India’s democracy. The allegation raises an important question: How can it be “undemocratic” for a democratically- elected government to fulfil the promises in its manifesto?
A political system is democratic when the government is chosen by, and its policies broadly reflect, the will of the majority (or at least the plurality) of voters. Since governments can act inconsiderately, democracies advisedly establish checks and balances. Countervailing power is found in civil society where interest groups, including media organisations, scrutinise government policy and shape public opinion. Because public opinion can be ambiguous or factionalised, political power is also constrained through institutional design. Thus, the separation of powers introduces judicial review, which compels decision-makers to attend to legal procedures and precedents. At the same time, federalism disperses political power thematically and geographically, obliging decision-makers to secure backing across broad swathes of the country.
A democratic system of the kind outlined above is intended to frustrate radical change. But it is not meant to prevent change altogether. Checks and balances are designed to counter “temporary delusions” — that is, decisions that are hasty or lack deep and wide support. Checks and balances are not, however, meant to thwart the sustained will of the voters. How could they when popular sovereignty demands that citizens be the final arbiter? Thus, the threshold may be high, but once a sizable number have set their mind to something, there is nothing that they cannot eventually and lawfully obtain. Through advocacy, elections, appointments, and laws, citizens can gradually make political institutions abide by their will. Not even the courts can hold out indefinitely, because judges who reason differently from their predecessors will conclude differently. This is why in the United States, for example, abortion rights expand and contract as rival ideologies mobilise and enter high office.
Now consider what happens when this slow-motion revolution unfolds. As the old order is eased out by the new — by amendment rather than by gunfire — the scene grows increasingly unpleasant. As institutions adopt new stances, the cry goes out that the “pillars of democracy” are being “subverted”. Denunciations are plentiful. The Press is “bought”, the courts are “cowed”, the police and military are ‘politicised’, the people are “misled”, business people are “servile”, universities are “decimated”, civil servants are “lackeys”, regulators are “corrupted”, and so on. All is woe, apparently.
In these disorienting circumstances, there are two criteria by which observers can ascertain whether the government is acting democratically or not.
The first is whether the government continues to receive electoral support. A democratic system is founded on elections because this procedure draws a line under substantive disagreements that would otherwise stretch on interminably. A single election result may be ambiguous, but broad trajectories are unmistakable. To the case in point: It takes a leap of imagination to believe that those who vote for the BJP, a number that has grown steadily over the past three decades, are unaware of or even opposed to its manifesto. Conversely, there is reason to doubt that political formations that perform poorly at the ballot box are “true” representatives of the people.
A constitutional democracy is about more than elections, however. Norms matter greatly, especially the notion of fair play. Thus, for example, selective enforcement of the law, which sees rioters but not vigilantes punished, is objectionable. The still graver danger is that, frustrated by opponents willing to use every trick in the book to prevent it from carrying out its mandate, the government uses threatening language and the coercive power at its disposal to intimidate those who refuse it due quarter. Such heavy-handedness makes it easier for opponents to claim that force is being used because the government’s policies do not actually enjoy widespread support.
Thus, whether the BJP’s Hindu nationalist policies are an expression of democracy or a threat to it, hinges on the methods it employs to see them through. It would do well to remember that patience is the virtue that sees democratic revolutions though. The ballot box defeats critics in the way that legal notices cannot.
Democracy does not mean, however, that the BJP is obliged to follow the diktats of its defeated rivals. A duly- elected government behaves democratically when it acts through and under the law. The BJP’s critics might examine their own credentials on this count, seeing as the Preamble they proudly recite was amended during the Emergency.
What has been said so far will be countered in two ways. One complaint will be that the BJP’s policies are undemocratic because its parliamentary majority is based on a plurality of rather than a majority of voters. It is interesting that this “grave flaw” in India’s electoral system never troubled Left-Liberals when the Congress was in office. Perhaps it should be addressed by requiring political parties to obtain a minimum percentage of votes in two or more states before they can compete in national elections. This would make the “national will” clearer.
The more sombre complaint is that abiding by constitutional procedures will not make Hindu nationalist policies democratic: Hindu nationalism is intrinsically undemocratic because its content is exclusionary and inegalitarian. Whether this claim is correct will be the subject of a subsequent essay.