An uphill battle for protecting the essence of liberal democracy

In the book The Political Economy of Development in India, I had referred to the 19th-century British example of the industrial bourgeoisie allowing an extension of franchise to the working classes, not necessarily out of love or fear of the latter, but more to checkmate their elite rival in the landed aristocracy. (Roughly similar, episodic, cases have been cited by political scientists in the history of Denmark, Greece, Spain and France in the 19th century, and of Argentina and Portugal in the early part of the 20th). In Federalist Paper no. 10, James Madison looked upon a great number of what he called “factions” (the most important example of factions in his mind was the different type of interest groups) and their diversity as the safeguard against tyranny — he pointed to “the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties (that is, “factions”), against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest”.

One, of course, needs more institutional structure for sustenance of civil rights. If elite fragmentation is such that each fragment is suspicious that some other fragment may get too powerful to endanger its civil rights, each fragment may then have a stake in a social contract that ensures some minimum framework of civil rights for everybody. (This is somewhat akin to the Rawlsian theory of justice under a kind of “veil of ignorance”, applied here to procedural rights). Mukand and Rodrik have a somewhat similar case in the special situation when there is no permanent majority or minority in society, and if coalitions keep shifting.

To make such a social contract binding the elite fragments may then be interested in constitutions or other such founding documents that limit over-reach on the part of anybody through built-in arrangements like separation of powers and checks and balances. In particular, the institutions like judiciary within the governmental set-up, and the media, universities, and other civil society organisations outside can become watchdogs against abuse of power, particularly in oppressing minorities. In India, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Brazil, and elsewhere popularly elected governments are now systematically using their majoritarian muscles to weaken and intimidate these institutions that safeguard minority rights. In the United States these institutions, for all their faults, have been somewhat stronger all along, and are offering a bit stiffer resistance so far against a marauding President and his subservient party legislators, but even there, the judiciary seems to be in the process of being captured by partisan political appointments, and the media torn by sectarian polarisation.

Yet on the lines of Madison’s thinking it is the diversity of interest groups, regions and identities and their collective action ability that may be the main source of lingering hope in extremely diverse countries like India. The Hindu nationalists currently enjoy a great deal of advantages in their onward march: a massive cadre-based disciplined, though thoroughly bigoted, organisation (RSS) attempting to forge cultural homogenisation among the Hindus, a charismatic political leader not averse to spreading misleading half-truths, lies and disinformation, access to a disproportionately large amount of corporate donations for election funds, and an infernal ability to use the arms of a pre-existing over-extended state to harass and persecute dissidents and intimidate the rest (through ample use of investigative and tax-raiding agencies, and misuse of colonial-era sedition laws against critics of the government, threats of withdrawal of public advertisements from critical media outlets, allowing impunity for the partisan lynch-mobs or police against minorities, and so on). The atmosphere of fear and intimidation has immobilised many civil society groups. Labour unions as a possible centre of organised opposition have been in a kind of structural decline. Sadly, even the judiciary seems to have been compromised, and often timid or erratic.

Nevertheless in the long run the odds are against such drastic homogenisation and cramming of the manifold diversities of Hindu society into the Procrustean bed of an invented, artificial, poisonous, religious nationalism —against which Gandhi, the father of the nation, fought all his life. Hinduism has never been an organised or standardised religion and in a country of extreme linguistic, cultural and other diversities and powerful centrifugal forces, the project of suppression of the civil rights of the world’s largest minority population in any one country (nearly 200 million Muslims, apart from other dissidents) is unlikely to be viable over a long period, at least not without giving up all semblance of democracy. Social movements for group and regional autonomy and political movements for more decentralisation and devolution of power are likely to grow in reaction. Already the military lockdown of Kashmir and particularly the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens for the whole country have provoked widespread unrest, often led by women. It has been an invigorating sight in recent times in the streets of different parts of India where diverse crowds of young people have gathered in thousands chanting the preamble to the liberal-pluralistic Constitution of India, while a repressive government has continued to use violence and intimidation against protesters. In the near future civil disobedience movements and regional resistance against arbitrary laws that seem to violate the spirit, if not always the letter, of the Constitution are likely to grow and provide formidable opposition.

Of course, this opposition needs to be organised in all fronts, in the legislatures, in the media and in the streets, and by the state governments that are still controlled by opposition parties. 
For far too long, even the opposition states have allowed the central government to usurp powers arbitrarily, to assault the basic structure of the Constitution in many ways, reorganise and overhaul some states, violate the spirit of federalism in not involving or consulting the state governments while ramming through crucial legislations on policing, law and order and social welfare services (all of which constitutionally are state subjects), in changing the terms of reference of the constitutional body of Finance Commission that allocates resources between the central and state governments, in introducing questionable forms of election funding, and so on. Even when the central government actions are technically legal, one can follow Gandhi who had taught Indians to organise mass civil disobedience when the laws are not socially legitimate. Such movements even when started by refreshing bursts of spontaneity and the vigour and authenticity of decentralised leaderlessness, for gathering steam and ultimate sustenance over the medium to long run they’ll need some coordination and direction, particularly from some degree of association with mass organisations, with minimum common agenda for diverse groups and youthful leaders.

This is an uphill battle for protecting the essence of liberal democracy that liberals all over the world should keep a vigilant eye on. It is vitally important particularly at a time when the Achilles Heel of liberal democracy everywhere looks grievously exposed.

This is the concluding part of a two-part series. Read part one here.

The article was first published on 3 Quarks Daily. The writer is professor of Graduate School at University of California


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