By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, September 18, 2021: The world commemorated the International Day of Democracy on Wednesday. It is needless to say that democracy is under threat like never before. Democratic erosion is largely due to structural problems troubling most democracies, even threatening the future of civilisation.

Democracy is built on individual freedom, freedom of expression, social inclusion, and equal treatment. People’s participation can only safeguard the edifices of a fundamental building block for peace, sustainable development and human rights. True or real democracy is a two-way street firmly built on constant dialogue among all stake holders. Civic participation and social dialogue only ensure good governance.

In recent years, countries continue defiling core democratic values and rights with impunity. Let us look at India and United States of America billed as two large and stable democracies and their ratings by the Freedom in the World 2021. Freedom House rates people’s access to political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries and territories through its annual Freedom in the World report. Individual freedoms—ranging from the right to vote to freedom of expression and equality before the law—can be affected by state or nonstate actors.

India, the world’s most populous democracy, dropped from Free to Partly Free status in Freedom in the World 2021. The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its state-level allies continued to crack down on critics during the year, and their response to COVID-19 included a ham-handed lockdown that resulted in the dodgy and unplanned displacement of millions of migrant workers.

A lot has been written on India’s successful experiment of democracy in a country which was driven by challenges of its times. Unlike many newly liberated countries, where military dictatorships or theocratic bent regimes had taken over, Indian democracy allowed the parliamentary democracy with multi-party system to prevail.

Even as India continues to be driven by parochial caste, race and religious identities, dominance of feudal values, the constitution had laid a ‘vision’ of a futuristic India. The preamble of the Constitution laid this futuristic vision. It did represent an aspiration to move towards ‘Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic, Republic’ and providing its citizens with ‘Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’.

Time and again, the country faced challenges from time to time. It witnessed instances where civil liberties were curtailed, emergency was clamped, and black laws were brought in. The country witnessed instances where the ‘identity’ and ‘influence’ of subaltern groups was merely reduced to ‘one vote’ with limited influence in shaping progressive policies in the country. Yet, these never threatened the Indian Republic.

However, now Indian Democracy is once again under threat. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been accused of scapegoating of Muslims, who were unreasonably blamed for the spread of the virus and faced attacks by vigilante mobs. The present regime alos pays lip services to champion democratic practices. Instead of emerging as a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, the Narendra Modi led right wing party is sadly driving India itself toward authoritarianism.

Attacks on democratic institutions are spreading faster than ever in this country and banding together into a challenge to democracy itself. Democracy is built on foundations of autonomous institutions. However, when the autonomy of institutions are ‘destroyed’ and made to become the extensions of the political regime, the institutional efficiency in strengthening democracy only declines.

The past few years have seen an attempt at destroying the autonomy of institutions. These could be that of Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI), Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Election Commission, Central Information Commission, Central Vigilance Commission etc. The regime has also interfered with judicial appointments, appointments to academic bodies, Vice chancellors of Universities etc.

The present government is willing to compromise on democratic principles for partisan goals, even willing to resort to violence to help their side win. Extreme dislike for the other side has grown significantly in recent decades, and may also erode commitments to democratic principles. The Transparency International (TI) has contended that 51% of Indians have little or no trust in the government. Even the worst critic of Indian democracy would agree that it has stood the test of time.

Now let us turn to USA – the world’s most influential democracy. About 56% Americans feel democracy is under attack in this country, according to a new CNN Poll and 51% said it is likely that elected officials in the US will successfully overturn the results of a future election because their party did not win. Besides, record wealth inequality, voter suppression, and legislative stalemates, to outright corruption and threats to the rule of law clearly point needle at the faltering US democracy.

A look back at the events early this year can tell us quite a lot about the parlous state of American democracy today. A rioter mob, egged on by the words of outgoing president Donald Trump and his refusal to admit defeat in the November election, stormed the Capitol building and temporarily disrupted Congress’s final certification of the vote.

With democracy under threat in India and USA, one can vary well impagine the state of demcocracy in other countries. Nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country that faced deterioration last year, according to the Freedom in the World report. “With India’s decline to Partly Free, less than 20 percent of the world’s population now lives in a Free country, the smallest proportion since 1995. As repression intensifies in already unfree environments, greater damage is done to their institutions and societies, making it increasingly difficult to fulfill public demands for freedom and prosperity under any future government”, the Report says.

Active citizenship is our last hope to make democracies endure at this critical juncture.

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