Democratic Decay in India

Here are four recent pieces I have written on constitutional backsliding and democratic decay in India. For more global/comparative perspectives, readers may be interested in these recent articles by Kim Lane Scheppele and Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, and this recent book by Ziblatt and Levitsky.

1. In this piece in the Indian Express I argue, using V-Dem’s systemic data on health of democracies, that India’s democratic indicators today are the lowest since 1953, barring the Indira years, and that all indicators dip sharply since 2014. I identify a new form of incremental authoritarianism sweeping India and many other countries around the world:

Instead of challenging democratic constitutionalism outright, the latter day autocrats appropriate its vocabulary even as they undermine it. Rather than an all-out assault, they chip away at constitutional institutions. Each covert micro-assault keeps just on the right side of legality and, when isolated from the broader context, appears relatively unthreatening. Checking institutions, mindful of choosing their battles carefully, often tolerate these micro-assaults, until they are eventually captured by party loyalists. The war is lost even before the big battle worth-fighting-for materialises. Creeping authoritarianism destroys democratic constitutions not with a full-frontal assault, but with a thousand paper cuts.

2. Three other columns, in the Hindu, the ICONnect blog (with Rohit De) and the IACL blog focus on the crisis facing the Supreme Court in particular, and the threat to its role as the main constitutional watchdog. In the Hindu, I argue:

First, in returning the collegium’s recommendation to elevate Justice K.M. Joseph to the Supreme Court, the government has so far complied with a minimal threshold of legality, but its failure to accept a reiterated recommendation will be illegal. Second, while segregating a recommended name from an empanelled list is not illegal, it breaches a constitutional convention. Third, the government seems to have acted in bad faith.

On ICONnect, I say:

it is the extra-legal constraints embodied in constitutional customs and conventions, that rely on a sense of decency, decorum and shame for their observance, that are being especially disregarded. Signs of this subtle form of authoritarianism include the fact that there is no official  leader of opposition in the lower house of Parliament, that Lt Governors (appointed by the central government) have made it nearly impossible for elected local governments to function, that cases previously dealt with by one set of judges have been increasingly reassigned to other judges, that former judges and army commanders have been given politically sensitive posts, that non-financial matters have been inserted into money bills to override the upper legislative chamber’s veto, that legislatures—especially in the states—are in session for ever fewer days every year, that important bills are pushed through without scrutiny by parliamentary committees, that vacancies in watchdog institutions like the Information Commission, High Courts and the Lokpal (the anti-corruption watchdog) remain unfilled, and that court decisions—even like the one ordered by the Supreme Court making a universal biometric identity card non-mandatory—have been circumvented.

On the IACL blog, I wrote:

While shielding itself from political influence, the [Supreme] Court asserted judicial independence without putting any mechanism to ensure judicial accountability. Enormous power and little transparency are fertile grounds for institutional corruption—today, if there is any truth in the allegations, politicians are using the threat of a corruption investigation to get the judges to do their bidding. The absence of accountability mechanisms might ultimately destroy judicial independence in India.

Written by
Tarunabh Khaitan
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