John Keane | To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism
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To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism

To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism

Authors: Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane
Publisher: Oxford University Press (August 2021)
Language: English
ISBN: 9780198848608

By Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane

India is heralded as the world’s largest democracy. Yet, there is now growing alarm about its democratic health. To Kill a Democracy gets to the heart of the matter.

Combining poignant life stories with sharp scholarly insight, it rejects the belief that India was once a beacon of democracy but is now being ruined by the destructive forces of Modi-style populism. The book details the much deeper historical roots of the present-day assaults on civil liberties and democratic institutions. Democracy, the authors also argue, is much more than elections and the separation of powers. It is a whole way of life lived in dignity, and that is why they pay special attention to the decaying social foundations of Indian democracy. In compelling fashion, the book describes daily struggles for survival and explains how lived social injustices and unfreedoms rob Indian elections of their meaning, while at the same time feeding the decadence and iron-fisted rule of its governing institutions. Much more than a book about India, To Kill A Democracy argues that what is happening in the country is globally important, and not just because every third person living in a democracy is an Indian. It shows that when democracies rack and ruin their social foundations, they don’t just kill off the spirit and substance of democracy. They lay the foundations for despotism.

 

The Making of a Cover: To Kill a Democracy

Phantom Democracy

When democratically elected governments cease to be held accountable by a society weakened by poor health, low morale and joblessness, demagogues are prone to blindness and ineptitude

HOW DO DEMOCRACIES die?
The old question has a new urgency because global surveys are everywhere reporting dipping confidence in democracy and marked jumps in citizens’ frustrations with government corruption and incompetence. Young people are the least satisfied with democracy — much more disaffected than previous generations at the same age. Most worrying are the survey findings for India, which is fast developing a reputation as the world’s largest failing democracy. In its Democracy Report 2020, Sweden’s V-Dem Institute noted that India “has almost lost its status as a democracy”. It ranked India below Sierra Leone, Guatemala and Hungary.

Things are serious. Not since the 1920s and 1930s has democracy faced so much trouble. That period saw the destruction of most parliamentary democracies. Only 11 survived. Since then, political scientists have pointed out, democracies have wilted in two connected ways. Some have suffered sudden death, in puffs of smoke and rat-a-tat gunfire. But death by cuts is more common.

Democide is usually a slow-motion and messy process. Wild rumours and talk of conspiracies flourish. Street protests and outbreaks of uncontrolled violence happen. Fears of civil unrest spread. The armed forces grow agitated. Emergency rule is declared but things eventually come to the boil. As the government totters, the army moves from its barracks onto the streets to quell unrest and take control. Democracy is finally buried in a grave it slowly dug for itself.

During the past generation, around three- quarters of democracies met their end in these ways. The military coup d’états against the elected governments of Egypt (2013), Thailand (2014), Myanmar and Tunisia (2021) are obvious examples.

Less obvious is the way democracies are destroyed by social emergencies. Think of things this way: Democracy is much more than pressing a button or marking a box on a ballot paper. It goes beyond the mathematical certitude of election results and majority rule. It’s not reducible to lawful rule through independent courts or attending local public meetings and watching breaking news stories scrawled across a screen. Democracy is a whole way of life.

It is freedom from hunger, humiliation and violence. Democracy is public disgust for callous employers who mistreat workers paid a pittance for unblocking stinking sewers and scraping s**t from latrines. Democracy is saying no to every form of human and non-human indignity. It is respect for women, tenderness with children, and access to jobs that bring satisfaction and sufficient reward to live comfortably.

In a healthy democracy, citizens are not forced to travel in buses and trains like livestock, wade through dirty water from overrunning sewers, or breathe poisonous air. Democracy is public and private respect for different ways of living. It is humility: The willingness to admit that impermanence renders all life vulnerable, that in the end nobody is invincible, and that ordinary lives are never ordinary. Democracy is equal access to decent medical care and sympathy for those who have fallen behind. It’s the rejection of the dogma that things can’t be changed because they’re “naturally” fixed in stone. Democracy is thus insubordination: The refusal to put up with everyday forms of snobbery and toad-eating, idolatry and lying, bulls**t and bullying.

Fine principles, you may say, but what hap- pens to a democracy when successive governments allow their social footings to be damaged, or destroyed? The shortest answer: Democracy suffers a slow-motion social death.

Especially when a constitution promises its citizens justice, liberty and equality, the splintering and shattering of social life induce a sense of legal powerlessness among citizens. The judiciary becomes vulnerable to cynicism, political meddling and state capture. Massive imbalances of wealth, chronic violence, famine and unevenly distributed life chances also make a mockery of the ethical principle that in a democracy people can live as citizen partners of equal social worth. If democracy is the self- government of social equals who freely choose their representatives, then large-scale social suffering renders the democratic principle utterly utopian. Or it turns into a grotesque farce.

Domestic violence, rotten health care, widespread feelings of social unhappiness, and daily shortages of food and housing destroy people’s dignity. Indignity is a form of generalised social violence. It kills the spirit and substance of democracy. When famished children cry themselves to sleep at night, when millions of women feel unsafe and multitudes of migrant workers living on slave wages are forced to flee for their lives in a medical emergency, the victims are unlikely to believe themselves worthy of rights, or capable as citizens of fighting for their own entitlements, or for the rights of others. Ground down by social indignity, the powerless are robbed of self-esteem.

No doubt, citizens’ ability to strike back, to deliver millions of mutinies against the rich and powerful, is in principle never to be underestimated in a democracy. But the brute fact is social indignity undermines citizens’ capacity to take an active interest in public affairs, and to check and humble and wallop the powerful. Citizens are forced to put up with state and corporate restrictions on basic public freedoms. They must get used to big money, surveillance, baton charges, preventive detentions, and police killings.

But the scandal doesn’t end there. For when millions of citizens are daily victimised by social indignities, the powerful are granted a licence to rule arbitrarily. Millions of humiliated people become sitting targets. Some at the bottom and many in the middle and upper classes turn their backs on public affairs. They bellyache in unison against politicians and politics. But the disaffected do nothing. Complacency and cynical indifference breed voluntary servitude. Or the disgruntled begin to yearn for political redeemers and steel-fisted government. The powerless and the privileged join hands to wish for a messiah who promises to defend the poor, protect the rich, drive out the demons of corruption and disorder, and purify the soul of “the people”.

When this happens, demagoguery comes into season. Citizen disempowerment encourages boasting and bluster among powerful leaders who stop caring about the niceties of public integrity and power-sharing. They grow convinced they can turn lead into gold. But their hubris has costs. When democratically elected governments cease to be held accountable by a society weakened by poor health, low morale, and joblessness, demagogues are prone to blindness and ineptitude. They make careless, foolish, and incompetent decisions that rein- force social inequities. They license big market and government players — poligarchs — to decide things. Those who exercise power in government ministries, corporations, and public/private projects aren’t subject to democratic rules of public accountability. Like weeds in an untended garden, corruption flourishes. Almost everybody must pay bribes to ac- cess basic public services. The powerful stop caring about the niceties of public integrity. Institutional democracy failure happens.

Finally, in the absence of redistributive pub- lic welfare policies that guarantee sufficient food, shelter, security, education, and health care to the downtrodden, democracy morphs into a mere façade. Elections still happen and there’s abundant talk of “the people”. But democracy begins to resemble a fancy mask worn by wealthy political predators. Self-government is killed. Strong-armed rule by rich and powerful poligarchs in the name of “the people” follows. Cheer-led by lapdog media, phantom democracy becomes a reality. Society is subordinated to the state. People are expected to behave as loyal subjects, or else suffer the consequences. A thoroughly 21st century type of top-down rule called despotism triumphs.

Might this be how democracy dies in India?

 

The Ideas Page, The Indian Express, Saturday, July 31, 2021

 

August 26, 2021 | John Keane, ‘A Democracy is More Than Voting’

 

August 22, 2021 | Video posted by Manthan (Hyderabad)

 

July 20, 2021 | Video posted by Oxford Academic

Debasish Roy Chowdhury has written extensively on Indian politics and society and geopolitics. A journalist based in Hong Kong, he has lived and worked in Calcutta, Sao Paulo, Bangkok, and Beijing. He is a Jefferson Fellow and a recipient of multiple prizes, including the Human Rights Press Award, the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) award and the Hong Kong News Award.

John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and the WZB (Berlin). He is renowned globally for his creative thinking about democracy, and is the author of a number of distinguished books including The Life and Death of Democracy (Simon & Schuster, 2009) and The New Despotism (Harvard University Press, 2020).

 

August 25, 2021 | ‘searing and original’ James Crabtree, Financial Times
August 2021 | Curdled hopes – The Times Literary Supplement
August 2021 | Prateek’s review on Goodreads
May/June 2021 | Reviewed By Andrew J. Nathan from Foreign Affairs
July 1, 2021 | Kirkus Reviews
June 26, 2021 | An indictment of India’s descent towards despotism – The Irish Times
June 24, 2021 | Democracy in peril: The India Story – Asian Times

“A richly sourced and fast-paced directory of the unevenly distributed life chances of ordinary Indians.” — Sonia Faleiro, Times Literary Supplement

“An urgent survey of India’s democratic shortcomings… The book is a happy marriage of the authors’ skills and expertise. A thoroughgoing, finely grained awareness of Indian politics and society is blended with a rigorous understanding of how democracy works and what is needed for it to thrive. The book avoids academic jargon, with the result that it is clear, accessible and compelling… it will be a fascinating read for anyone who cares about the fate of the world’s biggest democracy.” — Abhinmanyu Arni, Literary Review

“Well-researched.” — Mihir Bose, Irish Times

“In marrying academic theories of democracy with eyewitness experiences, Chowdhury and Keane make a compelling argument for judging a democracy from a human-centric position and measuring its success on the resilience and nurturing of its social foundations.” — Amrit Swali, The World Today

“An important new book analyzes the deep-seated forces behind the long decline of the ‘world’s largest democracy’… Few will find nothing new to learn from this book. Practically every aspect of life in India, and not just elections or the other bare bones of democracy, is covered in detail.” — David Simmons, Asia Times

“In a hard-hitting, relentless chronicle of social and political ills, Chowdhury and Keane trace the decomposition of Indian democracy since the hopeful time of independence in August 1947… This book sounds an urgent alarm.” — Kirkus

“A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the challenges facing democracy in the modern world.” — Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, The Royal Society of Arts

“Debasish Chowdhury and John Keane’s nuanced portrayal of Indian democracy offers a sobering account of the ways in which inequality manifests itself in a democracy with tremendous potential and immense shortcomings. This book contains important observations for those who care about the future of India particularly in the realm of education reform, labour reform and electoral politics. We are living at a moment in time when illiberal democracies are successfully consolidating their power, creating a condition which the authors describe as elective despotism. While India is their focus, a reader in the United States, Europe or even Malaysia will find much to contemplate in his or her own national consideration of the pursuit of justice and fairness.” — Anwar Ibrahim , President, People’s Justice Party, Malaysia

“As democratic malaise gathers strength the world over, To Kill a Democracy spotlights the gradual erosion of norms and institutions in the world’s largest democracy, India. At once quick-paced and sober, this book addresses a key puzzle about modern politics: why do poor citizens in a poor democracy continue to be left behind?” — Milan Vaishnav, Director and Senior Fellow, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

 

“A richly sourced and fast-paced directory of the unevenly distributed life chances of ordinary Indians.” — Sonia Faleiro, Times Literary Supplement

“An urgent survey of India’s democratic shortcomings… The book is a happy marriage of the authors’ skills and expertise. A thoroughgoing, finely grained awareness of Indian politics and society is blended with a rigorous understanding of how democracy works and what is needed for it to thrive. The book avoids academic jargon, with the result that it is clear, accessible and compelling… it will be a fascinating read for anyone who cares about the fate of the world’s biggest democracy.” — Abhinmanyu Arni, Literary Review

“Well-researched.” — Mihir Bose, Irish Times

“In marrying academic theories of democracy with eyewitness experiences, Chowdhury and Keane make a compelling argument for judging a democracy from a human-centric position and measuring its success on the resilience and nurturing of its social foundations.” — Amrit Swali, The World Today

“An important new book analyzes the deep-seated forces behind the long decline of the ‘world’s largest democracy’… Few will find nothing new to learn from this book. Practically every aspect of life in India, and not just elections or the other bare bones of democracy, is covered in detail.” — David Simmons, Asia Times

“In a hard-hitting, relentless chronicle of social and political ills, Chowdhury and Keane trace the decomposition of Indian democracy since the hopeful time of independence in August 1947… This book sounds an urgent alarm.” — Kirkus

“A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the challenges facing democracy in the modern world.” — Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, The Royal Society of Arts

“Debasish Chowdhury and John Keane’s nuanced portrayal of Indian democracy offers a sobering account of the ways in which inequality manifests itself in a democracy with tremendous potential and immense shortcomings. This book contains important observations for those who care about the future of India particularly in the realm of education reform, labour reform and electoral politics. We are living at a moment in time when illiberal democracies are successfully consolidating their power, creating a condition which the authors describe as elective despotism. While India is their focus, a reader in the United States, Europe or even Malaysia will find much to contemplate in his or her own national consideration of the pursuit of justice and fairness.” — Anwar Ibrahim , President, People’s Justice Party, Malaysia

“As democratic malaise gathers strength the world over, To Kill a Democracy spotlights the gradual erosion of norms and institutions in the world’s largest democracy, India. At once quick-paced and sober, this book addresses a key puzzle about modern politics: why do poor citizens in a poor democracy continue to be left behind?” — Milan Vaishnav, Director and Senior Fellow, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace