Oxford Debate: 'India Fails The Test To Be A Democracy Every Day'
Motion: India's Democracy Is Under Severe Threat
ZURICH, MAY 4, 2022 - India is seen as the world’s largest democracy, with over a billion people voting in national and state elections every five years. Yet questions surrounding the state of India’s democracy grow louder. Last year, both Freedom House and the V-Dem Institute downgraded the country’s status from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ and from ‘electoral democracy’ to ‘electoral autocracy’.
In this Oxford Debate, Debasish Roy Chowdhury, Christophe Jaffrelot, Tripurdaman Singh, and Vidya Venkat debated whether India’s democracy is inevitably dwindling, or if this assessment is overblown and the slide in rankings is merely a phase.
India's democracy is under severe threat.
The Key Arguments:
- Democracies are not only about elections, but also about what happens in between them. And for India, the situation is dire, argued Christophe Jaffrelot. The ruling BJP of prime minister Narendra Modi is far richer than opposition parties, media coverage favors the prime minister, and opposition leaders face intimidation and jailing. The Indian parliament has lost significance as laws are often passed without debate. Judges are blackmailed, or not appointed at all if they refuse to be influenced, meaning the once independent judiciary now mostly rules in favor of the government. Universities, too, are losing their independence, because the government puts its men in charge of them. Stricter financing laws have led to the disappearance of two-thirds of India’s NGOs over the past seven years.
- Vidya Venkat has faith that India’s people, not its ruling party, still control the levers of power. She pointed at multiple losses of the ruling party in state-level elections in recent years. These prove that the same people who vote a Hindu-majority BJP into power, are also able to vote them out of power. Civil society is still able to correct the government. For example, farmer’s protests forced Modi to repeal the controversial Farm Bills in 2021, that would have led to the end of government guaranteed prices for crops. The effectiveness of popular protest is proof India is not an authoritarian society, but a nation where democracy is still intact.
- A country where you can win elections with hordes of cash and control over a private army, media, and other institutions is far from a democracy, countered Debasish Roy Chowdhury. Growing inequality is a severe threat to democracy as well, just like Modi’s unique commitment to waging a culture war against minorities, who face state-supported intimidation, lynching, and bulldozing of their homes and shops. Meanwhile, institutions like the judiciary, that are to act as a check on executive power, are too weak to push back. If a democracy is measured by an equal treatment of its citizens, then India fails the test every day.
- Indian democracy is of a type of its own and has never been comparable to the systems of the West, Tripurdaman Singh stressed. The Indian constitution allows for a very powerful executive and the judiciary has always had an executive-favoring bend. The only years since independence during which India has had a coalition government with little concentration of power, from 1989 to 2014, are an anomaly. Most freedom indexes were created in those years, explaining why they now downgrade India’s democracy. The BJP has never sought to bring power beyond parliament. Democratic legitimacy is crucial to the party. Its ethno-majoritarian impulses threaten liberalism, but not democracy. If Indians again vote to have more than one party in power, you will see the concentration of power disappear. As long as this continues to function, you cannot say Indian democracy is under threat.
Arguing in favour of the motion:
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is an Indian journalist, writer and editor based in Hong Kong. Before, he lived and worked in Calcutta, Sao Paulo, Hua Hin, Bangkok, and Beijing. He is a Jefferson Fellow, and a recipient of Human Rights Press Awards, Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) awards and Hong Kong News Awards. He co-authored the book To Kill A Democracy: India's Passage to Despotism (2021).
Christophe Jaffrelot is a Senior Research Fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS; Professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King's College London; and President of the French Political Science Association. He is also a Non Resident Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Permanent Consultant at the Centre for Policy Planning Staff of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 2008 and columnist in The Indian Express since 2013. Among his recent publications are, as a co-editor with A. Chatterji and T.B. Hansen, The Majoritarian State. How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India (2019), as co-author with Pratinav Anil, India’s First Dictatorship. The Emergency, 1975-77 (2020), and as sole author Modi’s India. Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy (2021).
Arguing against the motion:
Tripurdaman Singh is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He has held visiting fellowships at the International Institute of Asian Studies, Leiden; Fondation Maison des Sciences de L’Homme, Paris and the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi. He is the author of three acclaimed books: Imperial Sovereignty and Local Politics: The Bhadauria Rajputs and the Transition from Mughal to British India, 1600-1900 (2019), Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story of the First Amendment to the Constitution of India (2020) and Nehru: The Debates that Defined India (2021).
Vidya Venkat is a doctoral researcher in the Department of Anthropology at SOAS University of London. She has worked in India for over a decade as a journalist and communications expert. She is the recipient of prestigious academic awards (SOAS Research Studentship, Fred Lightfoot Scholarship, Felix scholarship) and international fellowships, and her writings have been widely published in Indian and international publications. She blogs at www.vidya-venkat.com.
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About Oxford Debates
The Oxford Debates at Asia Society Switzerland are a format to address ‘big’ questions that have no one answer or solution but are inviting many conflicting views. Four renowned experts in the field form teams of two, one team arguing for the motion, the other against it.
The Oxford-style format is broken down into four sections: opening remarks, rebuttals, a moderated question-and-answer session, and closing remarks. Before and after the debate the audience is polled whether they agree with the motion or not. The voting breakdown is not shared publicly until the end of the debate. The greater percentage change between the first and second votes determines the debate’s winning team.
Disclaimer: Positions presented in the debate do not necessarily represent the speakers’ views.