• Tuesday, Jul 05, 2022
  • Last Update : 04:24 pm

Straight Talk: The world's greatest democracy lives

  • Published at 12:00 am May 4th, 2021
West Bengal polls TMC celebrates
Supporters of Trinamool Congress (TMC) party celebrate their party's lead in the West Bengal state legislative assembly elections during the ongoing counting process in Kolkata on Sunday, May 2, 2021 AFP

At the end of the day, for all its ills, the BJP chose to fight the election and not steal it

Indian democracy has always been a shining beacon for other developing and post-colonial nations.

Since Indian independence in 1947, the country has gone through many ups and downs, and although for decades it remained mired in poverty and under-development, the two things that India could boast of were its commitment to pluralism and the functioning of its democratic system.

India was a messy, poverty-stricken, raucous place, far from perfect. But it did its best to accommodate the different ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups within its midst and to make inclusivity a national goal.

If it often failed to live up to its heady promises, most notably in Kashmir and the north-east as well in its treatment of indigenous communities and those of low caste or no caste, at least the promise was there by which such failures could be measured against.

Indian supporters of the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) celebrate the party's lead during the ongoing counting process of the West Bengal legislative assembly election, in Siliguri on Sunday, May 2, 2021 |  AFP

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Even more remarkable was the country's continued dedication to democracy when all around it so many of the new nations of the 20th century in Asia and Africa fell under the iron rule of authoritarian dictatorships. While the elites of other developing countries, Bangladesh no exception, thought (incorrectly) that they could jump-start development by dispensing with the inefficiency and disorder of democracy, India never did (even the notorious emergency of the 1970s was short-lived and ended in elections which swept Indira Gandhi from power, something that could never happen in a true autocracy).

India was not immune to injustice, malgovernance, and corruption. In fact, its people suffered shocking levels of all three. But at the end of the day, they always had the option of voting out their government and replacing it with another. Elections in India worked. Indian democracy worked.

And what we learned from the recent results of the state assembly elections, most notably in neighbouring West Bengal, is that it still works.

One could be forgiven for feeling that in recent years, the foundational idea of India - that it was a secular democracy committed to pluralism and inclusivity - was under serious assault. Under the ruling BJP, "secular" has become a jibe, and the powers-that-be have made no secret of their Hindu nationalist project to wrench India away from its roots as a secular nation, with first, second, and third class citizens.

Also Read - 7 reasons why Mamata Banerjee crushed BJP in Bengal

Even more worryingly, the fabled institutions of India - the judiciary, the civil administration, the Election Commission - became politicized to an unprecedented and unthinkable degree, with credible allegations brought against their impartiality and fairness.

Furthermore, the national discourse in India has coarsened astonishingly in recent times, with insults and abuse largely replacing reasoned debate, and acrimony and intolerance the order of the day.

In short, both at the level of government as well as that of the citizenry, India's descent into proto-authoritarianism in recent years has been striking and deeply worrisome for those who used to look up to it as a beacon of democracy and especially for those of us here in Bangladesh, where India's shadow and influence loom large.

Bangladesh has been keeping a wary eye on the West Bengal assembly elections for a number of reasons. The first of these is that the BJP rhetoric - indeed their entire campaign, has been anti-Bangladesh, sometimes covert but often enough overt. The comprehensive rejection of this campaign has been reassuring for us this side of the border.

Furthermore, since his landslide victory in 2019, Indian Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu nationalist project for the remaking of India had appeared unstoppable. West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu were three of the last hold-outs to the juggernaut.

A paramilitary personnel stands guard as people wait to cast their votes at a polling station during the state legislative elections, at South 24 Parganas district, about 70km from Kolkata, West Bengal, India on  April 6, 2021 | AFP

Also Read - ‘Game over’: What media said about Mamata’s West Bengal win

While the BJP had little presence in Kerala and TN, it had made great inroads in West Bengal in 2019, and had the state fallen to the BJP in 2021, as many had predicted, it would have signalled a tectonic shift in the BJP's ability to appeal to voters outside its base and cement its position atop Indian politics as well-nigh unassailable.

This crushing loss has shown that the BJP and Prime Minister Modi himself remain fallible and that the battle to remake India in the party's image is far from over, nor is the final outcome inevitable.

But most importantly, given India's slide into authoritarianism in both word and deed in recent years, and the unprecedented devastation of its institutions, the election in West Bengal showed us that Indian democracy still works.

There were credible allegations of partiality and bias against the Election Commission, and the TMC were fighting on an uneven playing field. But at the end of the day, for all its ills, the BJP chose to fight the election and not steal it.

They met their rivals at the polling booth, content to allow the voters the final say over who should govern the state. They fought the election, and they lost. It is still possible for the BJP to place all of its resources and prestige on the line in an attempt to win an election and to then lose it. More importantly, for all our concerns as to the party's authoritarian tendencies, they were willing to allow themselves to lose an election.

In short, the world's greatest democracy, with an electorate of some 900 million, is alive and well. Indian elections are still the pride of the democratic world, and as long as this is the case, as long as Indians continue to be allowed to vote their consciences and as long as Indian elections remain free and fair, India will survive and the battle for its soul will continue.

Zafar Sobhan is Editor, Dhaka Tribune

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