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Not the end of the road for democracy

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-05-2014 Salil Tripathi

Let us stop saying RIP Democracy in India. Since early this morning I have received messages suggesting just that—that somehow the resounding victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha elections somehow means the end of democracy in India. It isn’t.

Indeed, the victory is resounding and defies conventional predictions. No party has increased its vote share by such a proportion in successive elections, and it is the first time in 30 years that Indian voters appear to have given their mandate to a single party. Those who did not want this outcome could take solace from the fact that perhaps two out of three Indians did not vote for the BJP. But that is irrelevant; India’s electoral system runs on the first-past-the-post system, and not proportional representation, and you cannot demand a change in rules after the game is over.

But democracy hasn’t died in India. What we have seen is the outcome of what democracies can produce. Democracies are messy; the results are not always to everyone’s liking. For those who have taken the trouble of reading me over the years would know that the results are not to my liking either. Election outcomes aren’t always pleasant, and majorities can represent views that are reprehensible. We need strong institutions—like an opposition, the press, the judiciary, and other independent watchdogs—simply because the views of the majority do not represent the views of everybody, and those who do not have power, those who lack voice, who are vulnerable or marginalized, must be heard. Constitutions exist, and rights of everyone are safeguarded with strong provisions against discrimination precisely to guard against what those with power, and those with majority, can do.

Indeed, those who care for democracy to flourish and for liberties to be safeguarded in India have just discovered that they cannot assume that the strength of their views or the power of their beliefs is sufficient to convince everyone, particularly at a time when the outrage against the defeated United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is so total. Their fight has just got a lot harder.

But there is no point blaming either democracy or the voters. They chose what they did consciously; their anger has a reason. Surely the alternative is not to disenfranchise the 35% of Indians who voted for the BJP? The rest do and will accept the choice, as Indians have always done for the past 66 years, because India is not the nightmarish place Bertolt Brecht described in his poem, The Solution:

After the uprising of the 17 June

The Secretary of the Writer’s Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee

Stating that the people

Had forfeited the confidence of the government

And could win it back only

By redoubled efforts.

Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?

Peaceful transition of power is the hallmark of a democracy, and that is what we are witnessing; that is a moment to respect. But respecting the verdict does not mean everyone has to agree that the choice has been wise. Democracy will be under threat and freedom will be at danger when the right to dissent is ridiculed or disallowed. That’s when it will be possible for some of the deeply held ideas, beliefs, and instincts that many BJP followers support, and which its leaders believe in, are put into action: through censorship of ideas they don’t like; through a uniform civil code that reflects only the majoritarian view; through any hasty step in Kashmir that antagonizes an already sullen and estranged electorate; through strengthening laws that criminalize consensual acts of love between adults; through regulations that prevent women from going to pubs at night; through deciding for others what they can read, see, or talk about; through tacit encouragement of people who wish to clear their neighbourhoods of others who might eat differently, pray differently, or live differently. Those differences make India unique; the coexistence of contradictions makes India vibrant. The fight to preserve those liberties and the country’s inherent dignity and tolerance has just begun.

And think of the implication of Brecht’s satirical poem: when you lose, you don’t get to elect a new people.

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