Herald View: Is the ‘democratic backsliding’ reversible?
At long last, it looks like the Opposition can see the need to stick together, to fight together, to find ways to make common cause. If they don’t even now, democracy might just curl up and die
The week of India’s 76th Independence Day anniversary featured the same old celebrations, including a regrettable, forgettable speech by a modern-day monarch from the ramparts of a fort in Delhi, built by a Mughal emperor in the 17th century.
There was a considerable outpouring of angst as well—perhaps also now routine—about the alarming retreat of citizen freedoms, the ‘othering’ of Muslims (on which this paper too carried a few disturbingly moving personal testimonies) and the persistence of unfreedom— which these Independence Day celebrations seem to mock—in the lives of large swathes of the citizenry.
In the midst of all this, a young professor in a private university, made a heartening declaration of independence. Chances are you’ve heard of the row over an (unpublished) academic paper, titled ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’, authored by Sabyasachi Das, (formerly) of Ashoka University.
Das’s paper argues that the BJP won a disproportionate share of closely contested parliamentary seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, especially in states where it was the ruling party at the time. The research was published on the Social Science Research Network on 25 July.
Das’s tweet about his paper created a social media backlash; BJP parliamentarian Nishikant Dubey demanded to know how the University could allow such “half-baked research” that can “discredit India’s vibrant poll process”; the Ashoka University administration evidently felt the heat, and quickly sought to distance itself to limit damage.
A tweet from the university’s official handle on 1 August reads: ‘Social media activity or public activism by Ashoka faculty, students or staff in their individual capacity does not reflect the stand of the University.’
It also said: ‘To the best of our knowledge, the paper in question has not yet completed a critical review process and has not been published in an academic journal.’
Those caveats, even if accurate and to that extent perhaps even defensible, are also a betrayal and a dead giveaway of the University administration’s priorities.
Das resigned in protest. Small consolation for him and those ranged against the current onslaught against citizen/ academic/ intellectual freedoms that Das has found support among the faculty.
In an open letter on 16 August, his colleagues in the economics department have criticised the ‘governing body’s interference’ and demanded that the University offer him back his position.
However, the ‘democratic backsliding’ Das tries to illustrate in his paper— through probabilistic analysis of how the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were possibly gamed—has been staring us in the face anyway and for very long.
The recently concluded monsoon session of Parliament also offered compelling evidence. It took a hundred days and a no-confidence motion for the Prime Minister to break his silence on the situation in Manipur. When he finally did, he devoted all of 30 seconds on cursory assurances, in a speech that went on for two hours and 13 minutes!
No prizes for guessing what took precedence in the speech, when he finally showed up in the House just that once in 23 days of this session of Parliament. The two MPs from Manipur were not allowed to speak and when an MP from Mizoram stood up to have his say, he was silenced and his microphone switched off.
As many as 22 Bills were passed in the Lok Sabha and 25 in the Rajya Sabha, some with far reaching consequences for our teetering democracy, with next to no discussion. This, when the Lok Sabha functioned for barely 43 per cent of its scheduled time, according to PRS Legislative Research.
What’s left for us to feel hopeful about, what straws can we clutch at to believe that democracy might yet survive in India, that the ‘backsliding’ is not irreversible?
For once, after seemingly forever, it looks like the Opposition can see the need to stick together, to fight together, to find ways to make common cause. If they don’t even now, democracy might just curl up and die.