Executive Aggrandisement and Democratic Backsliding in India: A Conceptual Analysis

In the starting of the year 2020, there was a headline that “India falls to 51st position in Democratic Index” by a survey done by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit. Further back in 2018, the Indian National Congress, the main opposition party in the Parliament, launched a campaign called “Save the Constitution”. There are many incidents and events wherein the People claim that democracy is dying. Is democracy really crumbling?

The Constitution of India is based on democratic principles and the very democracy has been jeopardised by the elected government in the past (as well). But now it is not like the 20th century when we saw Mrs Gandhi’s emergency of 1975 and military coup in Pakistan (coup d’état by Musharraf), which shattered the democracy and the democratic principles of India and her adjoining neighbour. But how is the situation in 2020 different from 1975?  What we are witnessing now is not ‘shattering’ of the democracy, it is more like a gradual erosion. A democratic decay.

The Indian Constitution has established three organs of the state: Judiciary, legislature and executive, each of them are assigned a definitive sphere of powers and functions. To check upon these institutions, we have the idea of “Constitutionalism”— which is, various sorts of accountability demand to keep a check on the powers of the organs of the state in the form of rights against the state, limiting the scope of the authority of the organs among various other checks. Herein, a question arises, despite all these checks then how is the democracy backsliding or decaying in India in 2020?

Executive Aggrandisement and democratic backsliding

Democratic backsliding, as Bermeo says, is “the state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy”, which basically means that when the state eliminates or dismantles the aforementioned “checks” on its powers to sustain themselves in power. Backsliding happens precisely where oppositions are already incapacitated by electoral failures and other internal divisions like lack of leadership. In parliamentary democracies, like India, the political executive is discerned as the “sole repository” of the democratic mandate, which is the Modi-led-Cabinet in India (as the Executive’s political party, i.e. the BJP is mostly in majority in the legislature). In the book, “Constitutional Democracy in Crisis?”, Elkins states that “most, if not all, of the concerns regarding constitutional democracy, has to do with an executive”. When this executive weakens the checks on executive power by a series of institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition (accountability seeking) forces to challenge executive preferences, this ‘kind of’ democratic backsliding is called “Executive Aggrandisement”. The values of constitutionalism and democracy are hampered by the aggrandisement of the executive; institutional accountability is the key and inseparable from the “efficient institutional design”. The change brought by the democratically elected executive in weakening the checks upon itself is often done by labelling independent checking institutions as “anti-establishment/anti-government” or by “packing them with the cadre of their political party”, as reflected by Professor Khaitan of Oxford University. When there is a crisis of executive accountability, we can witness gradual erosion of accountability-seeking mechanisms such as 1. Electoral accountability (there is always fear and probability of electoral fraud and tampering, see here and here); 2. Accountability by the judiciary (power of judicial review, see Article 13) and legislature (see Article 74 and read here); and 3. Accountability to civil societies, media and the academics (read here and here).

The accountability to the legislature is mostly done away it, as the majority party-led by the Executive always controls the House and there is a little scope for the opposition to come forward and create pressure on the executive. Furthermore, in India, accountability to the “upper house or the Rajya Sabha” is also overridden by introducing important bills as ‘money bills’ (see Aadhar Act). The judiciary is already restricted due to many reasons such as it gets to ‘review’ the orders of the executive ex-post facto, it may be inefficient or be overworked and surprisingly, the Apex Court has become an “Executive Court” in India already, as Bhatia calls it. Hence, the final check on the Executive must come from the electorate, media, civil societies and academics as they are neither appointed nor elected by the executive. These external checks are really necessary to occlude the executive from backsliding democracy. However, the executive tends to tempt the electorates by showing them (illusory) short term promises and ‘cheaper methods’ like caste and communal politics, reservation etc to coax the voters to vote for their political party.

How is ‘executive aggrandisement’ done?

The most visible democratic backsliding can be seen when there is an attempt to side-line the right to free speech and expression (such as filing FIRs against journalists and activists) and judicial autonomy (such as transfers of the constitutional court’s judges who pass orders ‘against’ the executive and further, the ‘micro-assaults’ of the executive cannot be assessed individually by the Judiciary). Other ways are also brought in force such as blocking websites (read here and here), discouraging dissent, and enactment of draconian laws (which are usually against the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’). Most bizarre and not-so-open way of democratic backsliding lies where when the ‘big media outlets’ are often owned (through holding companies) by those businesses which are dependent on government contracts. Hence, there rises a conundrum for the journalist between freedom of speech and expression (and) a job, basically a Hobbesian choice.

There are certainly other ways in which backsliding is done and the amusing thing about these particular ways is that these issues seem is to be ‘normal’, when seen individually, for any mass protests and any individual or collective dissent. Those who speak against the executive, either any former judge or any opposition party member, is framed as a person having “special interests” or in general anti-national, a common term in India. Those who work for the disadvantaged groups and question the executive for its actions are banned and booked under state-made draconian laws. Many times, there remains a lack of collective action towards the ‘ill-actions’ of the government and the majority of the population is lost in the trance (of government’s short-sighted actions like the building of various religious congregations).

Furthermore, the “democratically” elected executive tends to make laws (which are usually passed without debates and discussions) which goes against the very basic human rights of the individuals, but challenging such laws is “highly risky” as the person who challenges may face many barriers such as, first, she is called a ‘foreign element’ for challenging or raising the voice against the “law”, second, attributing ‘nefarious purpose’ to the law is often difficult (as the intention of the Parliament cannot be brought under Judicial scrutiny) and third, all the changes made by the law has some ambiguous justification ( as the “intention” is to deepen the democracy, instead of destroying it). The “rules” of law are a major setback for those who want to come together and raise their voices against the actions taken by the executive. The laws framed to govern and protect the individuals are used against those very individuals.

All this is worrisome because of the reason that these changes came into force by the democratically elected government with a strong majority in the Parliament and the popular support of the masses. In a Democracy, where the executive doesn’t have any check is more likely to erode the very principles of democracy by taking one piece at a time from the “collage of institutions”.

A way forward?

This aggrandisement happens due to lack of devout action plan, nor any consensus, within the opposition party, media, academia and the citizens, to impart cohesion. The separation of opinion amidst the checkers of the executive lead to the point where democracy stands alone in a lonely corner. There needs to be a collective voice against the actions of the executive to prevent backsliding. As Sunil Khilnani (The Idea of India) says fasts, silences, penances are just techniques of an eccentric parent but are not designed to nourish the accountability of a democratic institution. In the absence of any institutional challenges to the executive, we [as citizens] should take lessons from the pre-independence Congress party wherein the mass organisation of people became the key to establish the democratic constitution. It shall be successful, as we already have seen how mass mobilisation of The People have also helped in reversing the most erroneous decisions of the Supreme Court (For example Mathura Rape Case).

There must be a push for free media and ‘citizens as watchdogs’ to put the elected executives under strict scrutiny. Other institutions which are not tied to the executive through the umbilical cord (political party) can work efficiently to hold the executive accountable for its actions and they must inform citizens about the actions of the executive in an unbiased way. As professor Khaitan says the reason for informing citizens will help the voters, as “they [voters] cannot exercise their function of holding governments to account at the ballot box unless they are properly informed”.

There needs to be scrutiny and review of every action of the government as ‘the very rules of the game are being changed’ now. We the People of India need to come together to “retrieve and build constitutionalism without the courts”, as the Constitution is so much more than just the Courts (as we all see it as). To conclude, as said by professor Khaitan said,

“Democracy is being killed by a thousand cuts—incrementally to avoid the noise and mess of big guns—but systemically. These mortal cuts are being inflicted by democrats themselves, who are justifying their expediency in the name of democracy itself (as surgery, rather than assault)”

[Note: If would like to read more extensive on this topic, then kindly proceed to Constitution Database page (Under the heading: Constitutionalism)]