Democracy at Stake! 

Photograph Source: Prime Minister’s Office – GODL-India

So, the world is not oblivious of the state of democracy in India. The issue is not the degree to which democracy is ingrained in India’s DNA but more pertinently the degree to which it is not allowed to be abused and is actually practiced. Irrespective of however “noble” democratic claims may be of respected politicians, office-holders in various capacities and others; the degree to which credibility of the same is believed and not questioned cannot be ignored. This is partly suggested by question posed at the press conference jointly addressed by President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi towards the end of latter’s visit. Indeed, both the leaders went over-board in asserting the importance of democratic DNA in both the countries. Of course, both are viewed as world’s most important democratic countries. Modi’s US visit has also been hailed in certain circles as meeting of two great democracies. Notwithstanding the importance accorded to democratic DNAs of both countries, this notion is a little difficult to accept. The question is not of the concept of DNA being illogically linked with democracy. There is no knowing if in coming days some religious “expert” does not try proving its “validity” on the basis of some manufactured “facts.” Yes, this also implies that however hard the so-called democratic giants try and convince the world of democratic significance of their meeting, one cannot ignore the hard reality of democracy facing risks.

It is not without reason that former President Barack Obama recently commented on risk of India pulling “apart” if rights of minorities are not upheld, during an exclusive interview to CNN. What needs attention, from the democratic angle, of his being apparently conscious of rights of minorities not being upheld in India. It may be recalled, he made similar comments during his visit to India in 2015. He was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade (January 26), the first US head of state to attend this. It was Modi’s first term in office as Prime Minister. Prior to concluding his trip, while addressing an audience of around 1,500 people Obama pointedly mentioned that India needed to combat human trafficking and slavery, elevate status of girls and women, promote religious tolerance and also fight climate change.

Paradoxically, the points made by Obama in 2015 figured again though at a different level during Modi’s recent US-visit. The second question posed before him during the press conference referred to climate change. Here, one may also take note of the importance accorded by White House to Biden-Modi press conference. It was described, reportedly, as a “big deal.” This is because India apparently reluctantly agreed to Modi’s participation in the press conference and that too virtually at the last minute. Certainly, Modi accords a great importance to media where boosting his image is concerned. But he is also known not to have addressed any press conference in India since assuming charge as the country’s prime minister. So, his having finally consented to address the joint press conference was viewed as a “big deal.” It may of course be deliberated, whether the press conference really proved to be big deal? Or should these words be interpreted satirically? It may hardly be viewed as a big deal but for usage of words “democratic DNA” by both the leaders and the question posed before Modi regarding religious minorities and free speech in India.

The preceding point can perhaps be best understood by those who may or may not accord some importance to the so-called democratic DNA, medically. That is another issue. However, linking DNA with democracy doesn’t really sound democratic. One was under the impression that irrespective of what is DNA of any individual, democratic ethics and values demand that she/be considered as equal as others. Debating on DNA- decided by hereditary material- would be going off-track. But yes, incidents of communal violence as well as abuse linked with religious, caste, class, tribal and other social and/or economic differences, still occur in India. Briefly, recent protests of farmers on not getting minimum support price regarding sunflower crop, of celebrated women wrestlers against sexual harassment, that of citizens as well as organizations demanding peace in a north-eastern Indian state (Manipur) reported to be “burning,” and communal incidents including targeting of Indian minorities- their religious places and houses, alleged curbs and pressure on various outlets of media, discrimination against sections viewed as “untouchables,” “social outcastes” and more are just a few examples reflecting the nature of Indian democracy at present. Discrimination and bias at various levels, including color, does prevail in the other democratic giant also- United States. At the same time, the fact that abuse of democracy is not silently accepted, nationally and globally, and there still prevails freedom as well as courage to question the same in both countries cannot be ignored. Certainly, democratic rhetoric voiced by power-holders in their comments- whether marked by guarded enthusiasm and/or reluctance – to a degree is suggestive of relevance still accorded to democracy and also a tacit acknowledgement of democracy being at stake!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. Her latest book is Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019). Others include:– Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).