Review: To Kill a Democracy by Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane
Confronting India’s broken health care system, extreme poverty, and the criminalization of politics, among other horrors
The issues could not be more basic, or more important. “In Noida, a city adjoining Delhi, an eight-month-pregnant woman died in an ambulance in the course of a frantic, 13 hour search for a hospital bed. She was refused admission in eight hospitals… A Delhi grandee of the Congress party took to Twitter after his family’s harrowing ordeal trying to get his wife tested in the national capital: ‘Despite growing up on a hospital campus & knowing every medical professional of consequence, I had to move heaven and earth just to get her tested. Delhi’s health systems are broken.’ For lesser beings in lesser cities, it was infinitely more hellish.”
Starvation is up next. “On New Year’s Eve in 2018, Budhni Brijiyan, Sanchi’s mother-in-law, died after four days without food. Sanchi had run out of rice and neighbours weren’t able to come to the rescue with offers of extra rice. Budhni caught a cold, and her broken body couldn’t fight back”. On the Global Hunger Index 2020, India ranked 94th, along with Sudan, faring worse than countries such as Congo and Nepal and miles behind China and Brazil, which are among 17 countries that have low levels of hunger and hence go unranked. “The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 190 million Indians – nearly three times the population of France – are undernourished”, the authors remind us.
There’s water scarcity: 600 million Indians, according to the government’s own reckoning, face high to extreme levels of water stress. The water they do get is often so polluted that it makes them very sick. The issue, like others, is given a human face through the case study of Nandlal Baiga in a place called Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh, part of an industrial belt on the state’s border with Uttar Pradesh that supplies 15 percent of India’s coal-based electricity – at great suffering to the area’s original inhabitants, who have lost their farm lands, and even clean water, in the bargain.
To Kill a Democracy by journalist Debasish Roy Chowdhury and academician John Keane, holds up these and more examples backed by case studies and statistics of the failures of India to provide even the barest necessities of life to hundreds of millions of its people. The quality of what it does provide is abysmal as well. Take jobs, for example. Roy Chowdhury and Keane say much of it is a new form of slavery. “Slavery is forced hysterectomy to increase productivity, no toilet breaks, 15 hour work shifts, whole families in wageless work, and sexual predation by masters,” they say. They contrast this with nearly three-quarters of the national wealth generated every year going to the richest one percent, who already own four times the combined wealth of the bottom 70 percent.
The authors connect these multiple social failures with democracy failures, manifest, for example, in the open criminalisation of its politics. “Crumbling social foundations and the Indian state’s failure to deliver basic services create conditions in which voters have little hope of accessing justice or public goods in a rule-based manner,” they say. “A candidate’s disregard for the law and the ability to get away with it is a sign of their ability to get things done… Politics becomes a protection racket. Election campaigns resemble street fights… Democratic failures and despotic rule flourish in the subsoil of a crumbling society”.
Readers are given a brief tour of the capture of institutions such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate, the failures of the justice system, and the transformation of the Indian media into a Public Relations wing of the party in power, which put together leaves little doubt that India is now firmly in the grip of politicians they call “poligarchs”, a very useful word meaning “political oligarch”. These are people who leverage political power to enrich themselves in a system where political parties work like mafias with each party being headed by a despotic party boss who is akin to a mafia boss – a supreme leader whose supremacy within the party cannot be questioned by their underlings.
The final question is what awaits a degenerate democracy in the grip of a government intent on reshaping institutions with the help of big business friends, compliant courts, police violence and elections victories dominated by dark money, media manipulation and muscle power. The answer that the authors give is that, apart from the old ways of military coups and revolutions, there’s now a new possibility: despotism, a killing of democracy in the name of democracy – the sort of thing attempted with varying degrees of success by leaders such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Donald Trump in America.
To Kill a Democracy is a frightening reality check even for those of us who have been watching this reality unfold for decades. There’s nothing to debate here; it doesn’t say anything we didn’t already know – every Indian is aware one way or another of the hellish health care system, the existence of extreme poverty, the water shortages and water and air pollution in many areas, and the exploitation of penurious workers who are barely better off than slaves. We know about the criminalization of our politics, the misuse of investigative agencies, the crumbling institutions, the sold-out media, the rise of regional and national populist despots. The thing is, we somehow seem to believe that this is all fine. We have learned to look away. The whole situation has been normalised.
What To Kill a Democracy does, with its humanising case studies and its academic rigour, is open our jaded eyes to the horror, the horror of it all.
Samrat Choudhury is an author and journalist. His most recent book is The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra