As I was reading the seminal book How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, one of its quotes deeply resonated with me: “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.”
How relevant is this profound observation, as well as the need to protect democracy that the book highlights, to the Indian context! I strongly believe political parties should become the gatekeepers of democratic conscience. Why do I say that?
The history of authoritarian rule has taught us one thing: it is easy to sway people to your diktats, as many authoritarian governments have done to win popular support. In the past, democracies were uprooted through military coups and blanket invasions. The new method is an innovative form of slow poisoning: twisting historical narratives by endorsing convenient versions of truth, building on the crude sentiments and emotions of the majority, and making baseless allegations against the voice of dissent.
Look at what is happening across the world. In the US, conservative beliefs are on the rise. In India, there are attempts to rewrite history to suit convenient narratives, and divide people on religious lines.
In medicine, we always say prevention is better than cure. This holds true for upholding democratic values. People should have the freedom to voice their opinions without fear of being penalised for them. A potpourri of diverse beliefs, and a deep-rooted culture of valuing dissent are essential to our socio-cultural and economic progress as a nation, a progress aimed at decreasing the rich-poor divide that pervades the country, where people at the bottom of the pyramid are yet largely deprived of even the most basic amenities, even after 75 years since independence.
When a constitution is designed along with a system of elections, the expectation is: We don’t want a king, we don’t want an autocrat, we want a people’s leader! But can we trust the will of the people to elect one? It is possible that those desirous of office can either play on the collective fear and ignorance of the people or lose their poise and purpose in the power they command. History is replete with examples: Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who rose to power supposedly for a larger cause and became demagogues of demonic proportions.
One of the fallacies of electing public representatives in the Indian political system is that they are nominated by their respective parties. Hence, they can’t act independently; they have no option but to toe the party’s line. In this fractured system, the authoritarian leader can easily nominate his own set of people (read sycophants) and damage the very fabric of a democratic society. We need a fine balance between the party’s ideology and the voter’s best interests. We need a screening system that can weed out the risk of a demagogue becoming a people’s representative. Political parties must take the initiative to institutionalise such a screening system.
The unabashed manner in which political and religious ideologies are today being thrust upon people is clearly a gradual but systematic dismantling of democracy in India. Political parties must come together to find ways of addressing this existential issue concerning our democracy. They must steer clear of mudslinging in the name of debate; they must practice issue-based, not personality-centric politics. If not, political parties will suffer from the ensuing chaos; their identities will be lost and buried in the debris of democratic disintegration.
(The writer is the executive chairman of a hospital chain)