Democracy: 'Freedom is in peril' like never before

Why the free world must ponder the import of those words: ‘Indian democracy is a global public good’

Democracy: 'Freedom is in peril' like never before

Avay Shukla

In my house in a village above Shimla, I am treated to an orchestral performance every evening when it rains. The musicians are a myriad of cicadas who have taken up residence in the lush greenery all around. It is a very choreographed show: first the lead cicada starts clicking his tymbals, a rasping sound, which is then taken up by a select few, then a few dozens, and soon there is a continuous buzzing hum like a thousand castanets clicking in unison. It drowns out all other ambient sounds and is quite hypnotic.

But here’s the amazing thing— these days I can hear the same sound right here in Delhi, emanating from our Parliament, where the rampaging Ashokan lions have had to take a back seat to the members of the ruling party doing their own cicada act.

They generally burst into angry song whenever Rahul Gandhi says something; the lead tenor or baritone are either Smriti Irani or Piyush Goyal, depending on who is the ‘sillier soul’ of the moment. And then the others take up the tune and click buzz the same refrain—“apologise, apologise, apologise”. It drowns out all debate in Parliament. The reference, I learn, is to some talks the Gandhi scion delivered in London on the state of democratic values in India.

If only the BJP orchestra would stop and ponder over what Gandhi said, they would realise that no wiser words have been spoken by any Indian leader in a long time, with or without a teleprompter.

Notwithstanding the fact that I am almost brain-dead after 35 years of service in the government, I can recognise insight and perception when I see it. And see it I did, in a phrase used by Rahul Gandhi at a talk in London recently, whose import has largely been missed by most commentators.

Speaking about the gradual erosion of democracy in India under Mr. Modi, he emphasised that “Indian democracy is a global public good”, and that it must be protected in the interest of the world at large. I have not heard more astute or meaningful words in a long time, for it puts the state of our nation, and its proud democratic history, in a context where it cannot, and should not, be ignored by the mercenary Western powers.

Consider the import of this sentence, break it up into its constituent words. A public good is a commodity or service that is both essential and benefits everyone, it is non-rivalrous and non-excludable, and it is the responsibility of the state to provide it.

The concept of ‘public good’ is an economic one, and by lifting it and placing it in a political space, Rahul Gandhi has broken new ground and given all world leaders (excluding our own tribe, of course) something to think of. He is forcing them to think outside of their own silos (or ghettos) and to consider the possibility that the whole is indeed the sum of its parts, that there cannot be a whole without its parts.

Especially a part as big as India— it occupies almost 3 per cent of the planet’s land area, but even more important, it comprises 17.5 per cent of the world population, is the fifth largest economy, is one of just nine nuclear powers, has the world’s second largest army (after China) and is the third largest importer of military hardware. (In pure corporate terms, this would give it total control of any company except, of course, Mr. Adani’s!).

It should be self-evident, therefore, that the health of such an important stakeholder is bound to impinge on the health of the whole world order, and that other countries cannot turn a blind eye to it; or perhaps they can, but only at their own peril.

According to the World Forum on Democracies, 58 per cent of the world’s population live in liberal/ electoral democracies, and if India were to exit this group (as it is well on its way to doing) this figure would plummet to 41 per cent. That would be terrible news for the free world, where democracy is already on the retreat.

The 2022 report of Freedom House states that with India’s downgrading to a ‘Partly Free Democracy’, only 20 per cent of the world’s population now lives in ‘free’ democracies. The year 2021 marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in democracy, with 73 countries having regressed on this parameter.

It does not really require an institute in Sweden or the USA to tell us all this about India: any objective-minded person living here would be able to predict that we are well on our way to joining the dishonourable club of 54 ‘Not Free’ countries. Every relevant index is screaming the truth from the rooftops—Press Freedom Index, Human Freedom Index, Democracy Index, Human Development Index, Hunger Index, Inequality Index, Internet shutdown index…

Democracy: 'Freedom is in peril' like never before

The erosion of the rule of law, the undermining of institutions, the daily attacks on the higher judiciary, the misuse of police, the atrocities on minorities, the hounding of liberals and activists, the deliberate suborning of elected state governments, the defenestration of Parliament—all these are visible signs of the dismantling of the democratic structure of India. If things continue in the current mode, it will take just one more general election to topple our 75-year-old democratic edifice, perhaps for ever.

Rahul Gandhi was spot on in stressing that the responsible and freedom-loving elements of the global community should not be silent or opportunistic spectators to the authoritarian takeover of India. For our nation has been an exemplar of freedom throughout its independent history—as a beacon of anti-colonialism, leader of the non-aligned and as an honest broker during the cold war.

If India goes under, the whole of Asia is lost to the free world, the vital counterbalance to China is removed, smaller Asian democracies will find it harder to survive, the nuclear fuse will be lit at the tri-junction of China, Pakistan and India, and a new genocidal epoch will become a distinct possibility. The world will not only become less equitable, it will be a more dangerous place. Democracies in the West/ developed world will find it harder to survive as such.

Indian democracy is indeed a priceless global public good, and leaders of the free world (or what remains of it) should ensure that it is not appropriated by any latter-day Caesar. For, as Shakespeare said: Arms and laws do not flourish together.

AVAY SHUKLA is a retired IAS officer. Views are personal

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