India has had a long history of taking pride in being the largest democracy in the world and upholding ideals like ‘unity in diversity’.
However, over the last five years, there has been a lot of debate in the country about the breach of democratic values and the declining favour for democratic governance.
Many liberal voices have blamed the Modi-led BJP government for crushing voices of dissent, promoting the violation of fundamental rights of citizens, endangering minority rights and not upholding the democratic character of various government institutions.
This section of people, however, continues to be small and is often labelled as “elitist” and “anti-national,” as Modi continues to remain popular amongst the masses.
Even historically, breaches of democracy, such as the imposition of Emergency in the 1970s by the Congress party, did not stir a sharp decline in the popularity of the party in power. While it cannot be denied that political leadership does play a role in influencing the narrative of the governed populace; can they be solely held responsible for the overall “shift in attitudes” – the general socio-political zeitgeist of the time?
Social and political systems of governance always derive their power from the allegiance of the people being governed.
Our external realities are a direct reflection and an extension of our internal values and character as individuals and a collective.
The important question to then ask is if we as citizens hold any responsibility for the declining health of our democracy?
India is factually the largest democracy in the world, but is Indian society and citizenship, which carry the burden and responsibility of making this democracy successful, democratic in its values and character?
In our society, obedience, uniformity, and hierarchy are rewarded.
Let’s consider each family as an individual self-governing unit and observe the governance model operating within. In most Indian households, there is a clearly established hierarchy, and on this hierarchy depends the distribution of power amongst the members of the household.
Unquestioned respect and obedience to authority in the household are encouraged and rewarded; the decision-making or the problem-solving process generally being the domain of the highest in the hierarchy, instead of being a collaborative democratic process.
The same model can be applied to most of our schools, where students don’t get the taste of any individual responsibility in running the system that they are a part of. The rules are made by authority figures and the students are to follow them to avoid punishment.
In our homes and schools, we don’t consider children or women – those on the lower echelons of the hierarchy – capable enough of self-governing or taking decisions, whereas we never question the capability of those higher up on the hierarchical ladder to impose their decisions.
There isn’t a full representation of voices in these institutions, and children grow up with a lack of practice in decision-making, moral reasoning, responsibility in self-governance, as well as ignorance towards the value of their voices.
This power struggle and attitude can then be applied to Indian society at large, where your position in the social hierarchy determines the power of your voice or your obedience to another’s voice.
Our preference for well-behaved, authority-fearing and obedient children instead of free-thinking, self-governing, and curious children shows our personal leaning towards quasi-authoritarianism.
Ironically, we all read about our democratic rights and responsibilities in our Civics books while inhabiting highly undemocratic spaces. It is said that children do as they see instead of doing as they are told. Is teaching about democracy from a textbook enough then, while curbing opportunities for its practice and development simultaneously?
The greatest challenge that our democracy faces today is not a particular government, but the very citizens that constitute it.
The state of our democracy is a direct projection of the state of the democratic character of each citizen of this country.
We don’t value the ideals that our Constitution upholds, because those ideals are in direct contradiction to our personal values.
This is a time to stop pointing the finger and look within.
Do we value and allow freedom of speech in our personal spaces? Do we uphold the rights of the people around us? Do we practice equality in our families? Are we communal and divisive in our drawing rooms? Do we still use casteist slurs to communicate? Are we asking the right question to the right people? Are we doing the work where it is required? Do we even recognise our responsibility? Do we as a people value or even know democracy beyond its definition in the dictionary and textbooks?
Maybe we don’t, and maybe we’re just getting the “leadership we deserve”.
Simran Arora is a freelance writer and teacher. She completed her master’s in International Relations from King’s College London last year.
Featured image credit: Reuters