We’re heading into ‘electoral authoritarianism’
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We’re heading into ‘electoral authoritarianism’

By Deccanherald calender  28-Jul-2019

We’re heading into ‘electoral authoritarianism’

Since the Lok Sabha election verdict came out, and in fact, even before that, I have been arguing that we may be headed towards what can only be described as ‘electoral authoritarianism.’ Elections will continue to take place – and on time, too but in between two elections, our democracy will begin to resemble authoritarian systems. If you look at what’s happening in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, etc., we get a glimpse of where we are beginning to march towards – it would have the appearance of a democracy, but it would certainly not be a constitutional democracy, because at the heart of constitutional democracy is the idea that an elected government is a limited government. It is limited by the constitution, it is limited by the presence of many institutions and procedures, and it is limited by a certain ethos – of taking everyone along. Not that we have been a great example of a constitutional democracy in the last 70 years and we have had attempts to sabotage it, most famously during the Emergency. But we are definitely moving away from whatever we had achieved as a democracy. 

It is important to look at the overall architecture of what is being done and what may be done over the next 3-4 years. On the one hand, we are witnessing a dilution, a downgrading and undermining of all those institutions that could pose a challenge to the regime, to the executive. On the other hand, we have the strengthening of State power in dealing with any kind of dissent. We have strengthening of the national security, apparently, and also dilution of the federal division of powe...

Now, all these change the character of the Constitution, of our democracy, although much of it need not come through any constitutional amendment. I imagine it will not require any constitutional amendment at all. It is likely to be brought in through some legal changes, but more than legal changes through a radical divergence or shift in governance practices and abandoning of conventions. By governance practices, I mean executive orders. We would be amazed to see how much can be through executive orders. 

But we must not forget that some of this will be achieved through winks and nods -- between institutions, between central and state governments, from executive to judiciary, from higher ups to lower functionaries, as it used to happen during the Emergency. So much of what happened during the Emergency was never put on paper. There were no orders, they just happened. Winks and nods. So, this is the overall architecture that is evolving. If we look at any single piece, it can look innocuous, almost benevolent, or merely accidental. But once you put all the pieces together, you can see what’s happening. 

The Signals
Take RTI, for instance. On the face of it, you could say that the changes are not drastic. After all, the amendment is about emoluments and tenure. But these are critical signalling devices. This is a way to convey a message, it is basically to downgrade this institution. It is to say (to officers down the line), “Look, it is just another department of the Government of India, don't take it too seriously.” Very often, these signalling devices are for more important than the letter of the law itself. Once everyone in the country knows that the CIC does not matter much, then from the next day, the way IAS officers respond to requests for information from the CIC would change.  
RTI has been one of the few institutional innovations for deepening of democracy in our country. From day one, politicians and bureaucrats have found it a pain in the neck and have been looking for ways to get past it. It nearly happened during UPA. Now, finally, we are witnessing a definite downgrading of the entire RTI regime. It is not merely about the salary and tenure of the Chief Information Commissioner, it is about the downgrading of the RTI regime, and downgrading of RTI as a (citizen’s) right. 

 

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