The interplay between Kashmir and India’s democratic project | Analysis

The decision-making process reflects both centralisation of power and unilateralism
The current dispensation has consistently followed the philosophy of the ends justifying the means(PTI)
The current dispensation has consistently followed the philosophy of the ends justifying the means(PTI)
Updated on Sep 14, 2019 07:35 AM IST
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By Neelanjan Sircar

India’s democracy is not well. If the centralisation of political power envisioned in the presidential orders on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), endorsed by Parliament, withstand legal challenges, the extent of power arrayed to the central leadership will severely impair the democratic functioning of India. This centralisation of power will allow the government to weaken or completely stifle much of its political opposition.

Understanding the relationship between the decision on J&K and India’s democracy is not straightforward. While many concerns have been raised — from weakening of federalism to human rights abuses — none of these issues, in and of themselves, constitute a breakdown of democracy. Federalism is not a core component of democracy, as many democracies like France and United Kingdom do not practice federalism. Furthermore, civil and human rights standards have changed over the years, and many early democracies do not have a great record on this count.

The litmus test for a democracy is not whether policy decisions have popular support.It is whether the policy decisions themselves are made through democratic procedure.

Robert Dahl, the great democracy theorist of the past century, laid down a simple set of processes to characterise genuine democracy, chief among them inclusiveness and public contestation. Inclusiveness means that every citizen should have full access to all information, freedom of expression, and equal voting rights. Public contestation means that all political organisations and parties should be able to compete in elections and express their opinions on equal footing.

In Dahl’s conception, the proximate threat to a democracy was the centralisation of political power in a single party or a few individuals. A political leader with strong central powers could subvert political opposition by using government resources to intimidate opponents and frame laws for personal advantage. Alfred Stepan and his co-authors have argued that the persistence of Indian democracy stems from its federal structure, which respects and allows compromise between multiple ethnic and religious identities. This prevents the centralisation of power that constitutes democratic breakdown.

Naturally, this democratic procedure of generating agreement among various stakeholders and competing interests can be frustratingly slow and requires painful compromises. Indeed, Samuel Huntington presciently understood that, after the end of the Cold War, economic or ideological conflict would eventually give way to “cultural” conflict across the world — that a single, national identity would come into conflict with ideas of “multiculturalism.”

His arguments find resonance in the rise of Hindi-speaking Hindu nationalism in India. It is exactly this cultural axis of conflict that explains jibes at “minority appeasement” or a deracinated “Khan Market liberal.” In India, this cultural conflict has the taken the form of defining a Hindi-speaking Hindu nationalist identity at the expense of other regional, linguistic, or religious identities within its own borders. This obliges those supporting this form of nationalism to centralise power in a leader or the military which can effectively stifle opposition from these competing identities.

Using the World Values Survey, charts 1 and 2 show the support for rule by the army and a strong leader, respectively, in India, Spain and the United States since the 1990s. Preferences for these forms of political rule are straightforwardly related to centralisation of political power and democratic breakdown.



As the figures show, India has by far the highest level of support for a strong central leader — increasing in the most recent survey to 56%. The results for military rule are more worrying. Support for military rule in India has spiked to 38% (almost 2 out of every 5 respondents) in the most recent survey in 2015, again the highest among the countries and the highest ever observed in India. Does that mean Indians are increasingly displaying anti-democratic preferences?

The decisions on J&K exhibit two highly centralising features. It used the governor, a central appointee, to express the will of the people in a state without paying heed to regional political actors. And it has unilaterally demoted an existing state to a Union Territory, with a promise to restore statehood if it “behaved properly.” (This is to say nothing of the explicitly anti-democratic detention of all key political leaders and snapping of all modes of communication in Kashmir.)

These are anti-democratic moves not because they have subverted federal structure — but because the central leadership has arrayed to itself the power to intimidate and stifle regional opposition.

The fact that the majority of Indians likely support these is of little consequence.If the majority can dispossess a minority of the right to politically express themselves in the future against the ideals of inclusiveness and public contestation, the outcome of this process cannot be said to uphold democracy. (In fact, this was Dahl’s very response to the majoritarian claim.)

Some will say that such draconian measures were necessary in Kashmir, and that the government will show restraint in other cases. But that isn’t a certainty. The current dispensation has consistently followed the philosophy of the ends justifying the means, be it in taking over the legislatures of Goa and Karnataka, or doing away with Article 370. If its current moves on Kashmir withstand legal challenges, there’s nothing to say that the same thing will not be applied in Odisha, Tamil Nadu, or West Bengal.

When populations start exhibiting anti-democratic preferences, and when courts abdicate their constitutional responsibilities to block centralisation, democracies break down.

Neelanjan Sircar is an assistant professor, Ashoka University, and visiting senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal
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Monday, October 25, 2021