Of fake democracies and real ones

What makes a country a real democracy? Hint: India has it all on paper, and yet...

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi with then US president Donald Trump ahead of kicking off the 'Howdy Modi' rally in Houston, Texas, in 2019 (photo: National Herald archives)
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi with then US president Donald Trump ahead of kicking off the 'Howdy Modi' rally in Houston, Texas, in 2019 (photo: National Herald archives)
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Avay Shukla

Amidst the ongoing cacophony of news and deep fake news, claims and counterclaims, dissemination and dissembling, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between fake and genuine democracies.

What makes a country a real democracy?

Is it a 'progressive and liberal' Constitution? An 'independent' judiciary? A 'fearless' press and media? An 'elected' government? An 'independent' civil service?

On paper, yes.

But in reality, these attributes are not sufficient, not enough in themselves to ensure a democratic government or a free society. This is being demonstrated to us on a daily basis, right here at home.

For the sake of appearances—and press releases—India has all the attributes mentioned above. But the reality is a different kettle of fish altogether.

There is little point in listing out what has gone wrong with our Constitution, judiciary, press and civil services in recent years, for they are all well-documented and known to those who care about such matters.

For instance, retired Justice of the Supreme Court Rohinton Fali Nariman has listed out the four developments this year which have disturbed him most:

The Supreme Court has yet to give any judgment of any consequence where it has spoken against the government at the centre.

The Election Commission has become some kind of philosopher's stone which can turn the ruling party's dross into the gold of victories.

Parliament has become a vestigial appendage, like the appendix in the human body, which has long outlived its utility and has to be cast aside.

The civil services (and the defence forces) have either become camp followers of the ruling dispensation, or have hunkered down in their well-cushioned burrows like the marmots in the More plains of Ladakh.

The media is giving some serious competition to the oldest profession in the world.

All these have become what Pratap Bhanu Mehta has termed a "pseudo-constitutional facade" of parliamentary democracy. For the fact is that we are an eroding democracy and an uncaring society, and this can be best understood by a comparison with some other, more genuine, democracies.

Comparisons are odious, but they are sometimes necessary to recognise our hidden ugliness. Just a couple of examples should suffice to make the point.


Take our government's and society's response to the Israel–Palestine conflict.

Any criticism of Israel is not allowed: lectures are not permitted, protests are banned, police cases are filed against those who dare to put up posts on social media. The media will not show both sides of the story, while celebrities and influencers are conspicuously silent, all in thrall of the government's support for the settler-colonial policy of Israel and its allies in the developed world.

But in the same developed world, and indeed within Israel itself, there are fewer restrictions on the expression of the widespread anger against Israel.

Biden is being condemned in the US media daily for supporting the slaughter in Gaza. Even his state department officials are staging a kind of mini revolt, expressing their dissent through the "dissent line" created for feedback. Public opinion is turning against him.

In November, journalists with the BBC protested against their own management for being selective in its coverage of the war, dehumanising Palestinians and failing to show the Israeli atrocities.

Universities are pushing back against their pro-Israel funders who want to rein in the anti-Zionist sentiments on campuses, and at least one president has resigned.

Public protests are being staged in the UK, France, Germany, Australia and Canada, demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. None of these governments can even consider suppressing these protests, and sooner or later, these will have their effect on the policies of these countries.

This is how genuine democracies give voice to their citizens' concerns against their own governments turning rogue.

The London Metropolitan police recently provided another example of how real democracies work.

Various organisations had planned a massive march in support of Palestine on Armistice Day last month. The home secretary and the government of Uncle Tom (brazenly pro-Israel) wanted the police to deny permission for it. The police commissioner refused, on the grounds that there was no threat to law and order and he could not legally ban the march.

Braverman went public on the issue, accusing the London Police of partisanship and selective favouritism. The commissioner stood his ground, the march went ahead peacefully and the only arrests were of some right-wing elements who attempted to disrupt it.

The London protest march for Palestine near the BBC office, captured from the roof of the building (photo courtesy @usmi_sargodhian/X)
The London protest march for Palestine near the BBC office, captured from the roof of the building (photo courtesy @usmi_sargodhian/X)
@usmi_sargodhian/X

And guess what? There was so much anger and outrage against Braverman that a couple of days later, Sunak had to sack the home secretary.

This is how democracies work—not like our own police, who have become like private militia of any ruling party, whether at the Centre or in the states.


Meanwhile, our defence chiefs are looking increasingly like men of straw, notwithstanding their impressively resplendent uniforms, with more stars than in the Milky Way. They have been silent even as the political executive has run roughshod over their decades-old culture and ethos, changing their regimental traditions, ranks, uniforms, mode of recruitment, perhaps even interfering in operational and tactical matters.

And now, we are told, some of these retired worthies may even be attending the inauguration of the Ram Mandir, a politico-religious event, further eroding the apolitical and religion-neutral ethos of our armed forces.

Compare this with the stance adopted by General Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who resisted every move by Trump to use the military to stay on in power. He made his reservations clear to the White House and almost resigned in June 2020, but then told his staff: "If they want to court-martial me or put me in prison, have at it... I will fight from the inside." 

Real democracies, as opposed to fake ones:

  • respect their citizens' sentiments,

  • do not suppress them by the use of force, and

  • have robust institutions and civil societies that stand up and let themselves be counted at critical moments.

We are not yet a fake democracy, but we are getting there fast.

Democracies do not die at the hands of governments alone. When public conscience and opinion dies, so do democracies.

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Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer and author of The Deputy Commissioner’s Dog and Other Colleagues. He blogs at avayshukla.blogspot.com

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