Across the Aisle: Slow death of liberal democracy

By: |
November 1, 2020 7:30 AM

After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump wasted no time in naming Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court and pushed through the nomination process in an unprecedented short time of 30 days.

Protesters hold a banner depicting French President Emmanuel Macron during a protest against Macron's comments considered insulting Muslims, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (REUTERS Image)Protesters hold a banner depicting French President Emmanuel Macron during a protest against Macron's comments considered insulting Muslims, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (REUTERS Image)

The Constitution of India has a Preamble. Not many people read the Preamble or understand its significance. Even those familiar with select provisions like ‘Fundamental Rights’, ‘Article 32’ or ‘Emergency’ may not be familiar with the words of the Preamble.

On the day it was adopted by the Constituent Assembly, the Preamble declared that “We, the People of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Democratic Republic”. (The words, ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’ were added in January 1977 to further define our nation.) The Preamble went further and declared that we resolved to “secure to all its citizens:

  • JUSTICE…..
  • LIBERTY……
  • EQUALITY…..and to promote among them all
  • FRATERNITY…..”

It is these words that define who we are as a nation and what will be the Indian Republic — a liberal democracy.

These words are forever
These words echo the battle cry of the French Revolution (1789): ‘Liberte, egalite, fraternite, ou la mort’ (Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death’). President Emmanuel Macron is being pilloried by some countries for reminding the people of France — and all those who wish to live within its borders — that these are the words that will define, forever, the French Republic and the French people. After a teacher, Samuel Paty, was killed by an Islamist terrorist, Mr Macron said “We accept all differences in a spirit of peace. We will never accept hate speech and we defend reasonable debate. We will continue. We hold ourselves always on the side of human dignity and universal values.”

Many countries have adopted the three words, in one form or other, in their Constitutions. They claim to be liberal democracies, as India does. Increasingly, however, such claims sound hollow in many countries, India included. Many countries fail even the first test of ‘democracy’, not to speak of the next test of whether that democracy is ‘liberal’.

Falling into shadow
A recent issue of Time magazine featured ‘The 100 Most Influential People’ of the world. I counted 6 heads of state/government: Mr Narendra Modi, Mr Xi Jinping, Ms Angela Merkel, Mr Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Mr Donald Trump and Ms Tsai Ing-Wen (Taiwan). Of the six, no one will claim that two are heading democracies. Mr Modi and Mr Trump are indeed leaders of electoral democracies, but even they will reject the label ‘liberal’. Only Ms Merkel and Ms Tsai are heads of truly liberal democracies. If you add some other heads of large and powerful countries to the list, the picture will be worse. In Central Asia, Africa, Latin America and our own neighbourhood, we have many examples of autocracies and electoral democracies but not truly liberal democracies.

This is what Time had to say about Mr Modi: “….the Dalai Lama has lauded (India) as an ‘example of harmony and stability.’ Narendra Modi has brought all that into doubt…..his Party rejected not only elitism but also pluralism ……The crucible of the pandemic became a pretense for stifling dissent. And the world’s most vibrant democracy fell deeper into shadow.”

Other countries too are fighting the slide into shadow. After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump wasted no time in naming Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court and pushed through the nomination process in an unprecedented short time of 30 days. Liberal America, especially women, apprehend that major liberal gains such as school integration, Right to Abortion, Affordable Care Act and non-discriminatory immigration rules may be reversed.
Who are we?

Democracy is not equal to a liberal country. A democracy can turn illiberal in a short span of time, as it is happening in India. Citizenship of millions is thrown in doubt, free speech is curtailed, the media is tamed, protests are banned or severely restricted, political defections are encouraged, the State patronizes one religion or one language, majoritarianism is passed off as culture, minority and discriminated communities live in fear, the police obey their political masters and not the law, the military speaks on political issues, tax and law enforcement agencies become instruments of oppression, courts are weak, institutions are captured or debilitated, and the rule of law breaks down. The sad part is few ‘see’ what is happening. And of the few who ‘see’, many are content to remain silent.

When laws are passed in Parliament without a vote; when political leaders are detained without a charge for several months; when charges of sedition are slapped against writers, poets, professors, students and social activists; when no one is pronounced guilty in a case where a centuries-old mosque is demolished in broad daylight; when an FIR is not registered and no one is arrested for days despite the dying declaration of a girl who was raped and brutally assaulted; when the word ‘encounter’ enters the police’s vocabulary; when titular governors obstruct elected governments; and when crucial institutions are left headless or with multiple vacancies, the country falls one step ‘deeper into shadow’.

In November 2019, a gunman killed 51 persons and injured dozens at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, “They are us. The person who perpetrated this violence against us is not.”

Mr Macron and Ms Ardern are among the few leaders who speak in the voice that we want to hear. Even as we witness the slow death of liberal democracy, we must ask ourselves ‘who are we?’

Website: pchidambaram.in
Twitter @Pchidambaram_IN

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