Mumbai: On its website, Oxford University Press (OUP) said about its 2021 title To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage To Despotism, “Shows why democracies everywhere must fear what is happening to India.” By September 2021, however, OUP India decided not to publish an Indian edition. The publishing house’s sales team was reportedly uncomfortable with the book’s “provocative content”.
Towards the end of the summer of 2021, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s mouthpiece Organiser had published an article on “ruthless propaganda” Prime Minister Narendra Modi was facing from “critics with vested interests”, naming among these critics Debasish Roy Chowdhury, a Hong Kong-based Indian journalist and one of the authors of To Kill A Democracy.
In a piece published in Time magazine, Chowdhury had criticised Modi’s vaccine policy, saying the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturing nation was going, “hat in hand”, in search of vaccine supply for Indians, after having played a “swaggering Vaccine Guru boasting about saving the world”.
The Organiser article said Chowdhury’s book was actually written with the “nefarious agenda of creating despotism in India”, a “deep-rooted conspiracy against BJP and Modi”.
Chowdhury, who has lived and worked in Calcutta, Sao Paulo, Bangkok and Beijing, is a Jefferson Fellow and a recipient of multiple journalism awards, including the Human Rights Press Award, the Society of Publishers in Asia award and the Hong Kong News Award.
John Keane, the book’s co-author, is a professor of politics at the University of Sydney and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin, with over 20 books to his credit, including The Life and Death of Democracy (Simon & Schuster, 2009) and The New Despotism (Harvard University Press, 2020). In the mid 1980s, he edited Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel’s first book in English, The Power of the Powerless.
Around the time of the European revolutions of 1989, Keane came to be known for his defence of ‘civil society’ and his writings on democracy. His scholarly writing during that period was published under the pen name Erica Blair, a choice he said was a doff of the hat to George Orwell’s original name, Eric Blair.
Founder-director of the Sydney Democracy Network, Keane tweeted in September that his book co-authored with Chowdhury appeared to have been “still-born” in India.
In its Indian edition eventually published in December 2021 by Pan Macmillan India, the book carries as an introduction an allegorical tale of a country ruled by “a king grown fat on the fineries of power”, a land where the mouths of troublemakers were sealed with hot wax, its ancient library sacked, “its treasured books and priceless manuscripts were thrown into a nearby river that for a time its waters ran black with ink”, but a land where writers and scholars stood their ground.
Chowdhury and Keane told Article 14 that their book actually rejects the idea that India’s current struggles are alone responsible for the erosion of its democratic institutions. It focuses instead, they said, on the deeper roots of present-day assaults on civil liberties. Edited excerpts from the interview:
The Indian edition of your book warning us about our decaying democratic institutions arrives just when the farmers’ movement appeared to win back an important right, to speak back to the government. Can we begin 2022 with a sense of hope in our democracy, derived from the farmers’ victory?
DRC: I feel a great sense of hope in the farmers’ movement and, before that, in the popular protests across India against the CAA and NRC. But let us be clear that the rollback of the farm laws was a strategic move ahead of elections. Had the Uttar Pradesh elections not been scheduled for early 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not have repealed the three laws. It is a strategic retreat because there is a bigger war to be won for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
JK: Despite all the degradation of social life and governing institutions that we describe in our book, the spirit of democracy has taken root in India. What is democracy? It’s the conviction of people that they are equally entitled to dignity – that bossing and bullying are simply not acceptable. When it grips millions of people, the spirit of democracy encourages people to think and to believe in their hearts that things aren’t set in stone, that they can be changed, that misfortunes aren’t their fate. That’s the really deep significance of this and other civil society resistance. Democracy is by no means dead in India.
You write that revolutionary overthrow, civil war and foreign military intervention are no longer necessary historical milestones as a democracy turns dysfunctional. You say ‘killing of democracy, in the name of democracy’ is possible by despots and despotic politics. How is that unfolding in India?
JK: Our book is of course about India, but it’s also a contribution to understanding how democracies die. How are they killed off? How do they commit democide? Until quite recently, the standard view was that democracy is principally killed off through a military coup d'etat born of disorder and dramatic political events. Military coups are still happening, for instance in Myanmar, and in Bolivia in 2019. But that’s only one way of killing a democracy.
What’s unfolding in India shows there’s another way of destroying democracy, in the name of democracy. A power grab to restructure government institutions – taming courts, neutering parliaments, destroying independent journalism – can be done by parties who win elections in the name of a fictional ‘people’.
If you think this is just a theoretical possibility, think again. In Russia, Putinism has triumphed by restructuring the Russian state into a new kind of despotism: top-down, strong-armed rule laced with lots of talk of the people and democracy, and shaped by practising elections without democracy. This ‘democratic’ way of killing democracy is happening elsewhere – in Turkey, and in Hungary, where Viktor Orban showed how in just a decade a democracy can be turned into a despotism. There are attempts to do the same in Poland, a member state of great significance inside the European Union.
We see India as an advanced case of this same dynamic where, in the name of the people, a party with a redeemer-leader, a demagogue who claims to be the purifier of the nation and who claims to speak on behalf of the real people – minus those who are said not to belong - repeatedly wins elections. Election victories increase the temptation to neuter the parliament, tame the judiciary, politicise the civil service and ensure that the police and army don't interfere with the power grabbing dynamic. Killing democracy in this way of course requires taming and intimidating journalism and denouncing free-minded journalists as ‘presstitutes’.
You speak of Hungary, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Russia, but many in India would baulk at putting India in that basket, on account of our history of having overcome anti-democratic processes in the past and based on our plural tradition.
DRC: That's why we end the book on a note of hope, because India’s diversity is a hedge against the kind of despotism that we are witnessing in Hungary or Turkey. In Hungary or in Turkey, none of these people when they came to power actually said that they're going to capture and restructure the state. But it happened, within only a few years. And so also in India, it is happening. From when we started the book and when we completed the manuscript, so much has changed even within that time-frame. The dynamics are clear that it's going in that direction; whether they will succeed or not is a different matter.
JK: Yes, there is a lot of democratic decay happening in India, said to be the world’s largest democracy, as there is in the United States, still the most powerful democracy on our planet. Plenty of other democracies are awash in the anti-democratic trends we describe in our book. We say India is fast becoming the world’s largest failing democracy.
It is why we revive an old 19th century warning famously articulated by Alexis de Tocqueville, the French author who travelled to America in the early 1830s and later wrote his classic Democracy in America. Democracies should watch out for despotism, he said. Citizens, elected representatives, businesses, journalists and others should fear the possibility that, in the name of ‘the people’ and ‘democracy’, democracy can slowly be destroyed by governments bent on restructuring power, strengthening the state’s rule over people, lulling them into complacency and encouraging them to do nothing, along the way winning millions of hearts and minds.
India is a 21st century version of this trend. So is the United States. American democracy is in deep trouble. With due respect to the many important differences, the Trump dynamic from 2016 to 2020 very much paralleled what is today going on in India. A party with no great love of democracy won an election. It had at its helm a Great Man who thought of himself as the Redeemer. He vowed to make the country great again, in the process attacking journalists, judges, civil servants and various other enemies. There is a whiff of violence about it all. And the Redeemer named certain groups as not belonging to the people, denouncing them as scum, filthy impurities who must be removed from the polity. That dynamic isn’t over in the United States. It’s in fact flourishing in a number of states, and its hand will grow stronger in the build-up to the 2024 election.
What is especially disappointing for us is that India’s great significance in matters of democracy is being ruined. Indians not only managed to throw off imperial rule but in the post-colonial period the country avoided dictatorship and embarked on a remarkable democratisation experiment featuring a fine written Constitution, universal suffrage, free and fair elections, freedom of the press and secularism. Those historic achievements are now being unpicked. The social foundations of Indian democracy are decaying. Millions of children are malnourished. Bigotry is flourishing. Women feel unsafe. The environment is poisoned. And then along comes a party led by a demagogue who promises renewal and redemption. Indian citizens and their representatives should be alarmed. So should the rest of the world.
DRC: Hunger in India has come back with even more ferocity, so has joblessness. I don't see a lot of positive changes in life-equalising opportunities by way of universal education or health care. As long as these underlying social foundations continue to be degraded, we have fertile ground for the despotic transfer of power, which is what we are witnessing. Whether systemically India will become a Hungary or not is a different matter, but the ground for that happening is pretty fertile.
Your book says some state leaders who are seen as future national level leaders are cut from the same cloth, whether it is K Chandrasekhar Rao or Mamata Banerjee. Will it be an age of demagoguery then?
DRC: So that is the journey to despotism, right? Democracy is about choice but if you have to choose between KCR and Modi, or between KCR and Mamata Banerjee, do you really have a choice? When I was growing up in India, the talking heads on TV on election day would explain that they were certain of some or other party’s win because ‘there is no alternative’, the TINA factor. And we are hearing that again about Modi. But if there is no alternative, why bother with an election? I mean, we have already transitioned to despotism then.
JK: On the subject of elections, our book has a different, rather unorthodox understanding of democracy. Democracy is surely about free and fair elections and a multi-party system—elections that are uncorrupted by money, by conniving or conspiracy, or by violence. But we say that democracy is in addition, and very importantly, about public restraints on the abuse of power. It is also a whole way of life. During the past 40 years, this point that democracy has everyday qualities, that it is a way of life among equals whose dignity is honoured, has often been forgotten. It is why for democrats no tyrant, no monarch, authoritarian, autocrat or despot is entitled to govern. All these forms of rule are offensive to the spirit of democracy.
But we come back here to the point Debasish emphasises: if there’s no clear governing alternative, if elections come to be corrupted by money, and if bully boys, thuggery and violence, manipulation, patronage and ‘resort politics’, that great Indian contribution to democracy, get the upper hand, then democracy is in trouble and what we call ‘elective despotism’ becomes probable.
A life-and-death political question facing India is whether there can be new democratic parties, or perhaps the rejuvenation of a major political party, that are capable of governing nationally, and doing so with a good measure of openness, honesty, a strong sense of social justice and a willingness to play by the rules of the democratic game. If there are no such alternatives then democracy becomes the potential victim of political predators.
The rising tide of violence against all kinds of minority groups in India has begun to appear to many of us as a sign of deepset resentment in the Indian Hindu majority, a kind of hidden bigotry. Would you agree with that view?
DRC: Of course, there is an element of hidden bigotry in the majority, but I think what is happening now, at least in the last couple of months, is largely driven by the coming election, which the BJP has to win. If they lose Uttar Pradesh, there is no way Modi will come back to power in 2024. So there will be more polarisation as the days go by, and we will see that continue to get worse.
A process of state-driven mass radicalisation is indeed taking place and opening new wounds by tapping into old resentments. But I also think we sometimes use terms like ‘Indians’ and ‘Hindu majority’ too loosely. Bear in mind that in 2014, BJP got just 31% of the vote; in 2019 it got 37%. And I don’t believe that everybody who voted for the BJP was driven by raging animosity towards Muslims. A lot of people voted for the BJP because it simply looked like the best possible party to govern India. And as we know 2019 saw special circumstances, there was a war cry and the entire election became a different thing altogether, sort of a referendum on national security. So, there is no reason to believe that everyone who votes for the BJP is driven by this motivation to establish a Hindu-first state. That is of course how the BJP wants to read the election result, but one could argue otherwise.
Much of the online noise against minorities is manufactured by paid trolls. Also, the mobs attacking minorities are not common people. These are vigilante groups, funded or otherwise empowered by the party. The historical resentments against Muslims that the party taps into are also not uniform across India. There is diversity of history, of memory, of the understanding of the Hindu religion itself. Tamil Nadu is not West Bengal, and neither of them is Uttar Pradesh. India does not lend itself to easy generalisations, and it is no different when it comes to attitudes towards religion and minorities, and how these attitudes intersect with politics.
JK: Indian secularism is a major contribution to the history of democracy. Indian secularism called for the building of a democracy in which, by law, social entitlements and government policies, there would be state protection of all faiths and non-believers, even an active commitment to the equalisation of their life chances.
Indian secularism fundamentally changed the meaning of secularism as it is still understood in France, for instance. Läicité means the public quarantining of religious symbolism and belief, its privatisation. The American vision is different again: supposedly governments there do not intervene in religious life except, ironically, when American presidents say Christian things like ‘in God we trust’ or ‘God bless America’.
In the history of democracy, the Indian vision of secularism was a major breakthrough of global importance. It put an end to myths of national unity and religious unanimity. It redefined democracy as the respect for political, social and religious differences. Now that practically all democracies are multi-faith societies, the ideals of Indian secularism have a planetary relevance. But at home they’re in serious danger of being destroyed.
Deb is right that the talk of a Hindu majority that is bigoted in its heart needs to be qualified. The trends are nevertheless very worrying. That’s why our book urges Indians, and people of Hindu faith in particular, to ask themselves: do you really want what’s being called a Hindu state? If you do want a Hindu state, then our book shows that you will have to destroy democracy. The annihilation of the civil, political and social rights of hundreds of millions of fearful citizens deemed not to belong to ‘the people’ will have to happen.
The only way a Hindu state could be built, we say, is through a kind of Zionisation of Hinduism—the passage to a despotism that manipulates elections with money and violence, tames check-and-balance institutions like parliament and the judiciary and, of course, frightens and silences journalists.
DRC: The people in power believe that India’s secularism was imposed top-down, by men who had an obviously different vision of India. It was not negotiated ground-up. And on this journey towards despotism, one of the many institutions that have broken down is the opposition. We have opposition parties that are not really articulating a completely different vision of India.
Look at the temple visits Priyanka Gandhi is making before election rallies. Not too long ago, Rahul Gandhi was showing off his sacred thread. Mamata Banerjee recently said she's a Brahmin, she doesn't need any certificate from the BJP. What is that even supposed to mean? And how is this different from Modi’s performative religiosity? You could say the only difference between the BJP and the rest is that the other parties are not actively trying to harm minorities. But the politics of soft Hindutva is not a substantive counter to the BJP's majoritarian politics. The opposition is even afraid to strongly defend minority rights lest it loses the majority vote. So, the voter doesn't really have a choice, does she?
How complicit is corporate India in strengthening these forces through its silence on the breakdown of democratic institutions? How has this played out elsewhere in the world?
DRC: We have had a half-baked liberalisation policy, which means the state is still very much in control of the levers of power. And anybody who's doing business as we have explained in the book, whether it's a small contractor digging a pond in a village or a conglomerate, they have to depend on the government for a lot of things. They have always found the most suitable party for their interests and at the moment the BJP appears to them to be the most viable party, and gets the lion’s share of campaign funds. It was the same with the Congress when it was a monolithic party.
JK: But our book does discuss election bonds, an innovation that enables anonymous, large corporate donations to political parties, including governing parties. And we show why there is the worrying growth of what we call poligarchy—key decisions and non-decisions made by wealthy oligarchs who make and secure their wealth with the help of governing officials, who themselves become rich. Poligarchy is growing in many other democracies. The wheeling and dealing and cooperation of business and government has anti-democratic consequences.
A John Hopkins University economist called India one of the ‘rotten apples of Coronavirus data’, alongside Vietnam, Syria, Yemen and others. You write that India simply doesn't measure up to the idea of democracy as a nurse of good health. But does high tuberculosis mortality or infant mortality necessarily indicate a deteriorating quality of democracy?
DRC: When you have inequality in healthcare, you are essentially treating bodies differently, even while you are pretending that their votes are equal. That is a kind of contradiction that turns democracy into a gigantic farce. Apart from healthcare, we examine access to all basic ingredients of life, such as education, nutrition, decent work, transport, air, water, etc. The stark inequality in each of these hollows out democracy. It robs it of its substance and spirit.
JK: Our understanding of democracy as a form of self-government by people who treat each other as equals implies something special: the body of humans is sacrosanct. It means that in a democracy women’s bodies must not be violated by men in any way. Children, one third of whom in India are stunted, have the right not to suffer disability. They must not be forced to go to bed hungry at night, as many millions of children currently do in India.
The principle of the dignity of the body applies equally to the way elected governments handle pestilences. Democratic governments are duty-bound to protect the bodies of their citizens competently, and with a strong sense of justice. One person, one vote, all bodies are to be protected equally.
Time will tell how India measures up when considering the more general issue of what this Covid-19 pestilence is doing to our world’s democracies. This virus is turning out to be the most globally disruptive ever recorded. Given their roots in environmental degradation, more plagues are surely on their way. For the moment, in addition to mounting deaths, we know only that there may be some irreversible long-term effects of this virus. There’s a noticeable increase in surveillance and attempted everyday controls of populations which may turn out to be ‘sticky’, for instance. Doctored statistics blight the reputations of democratically elected governments. Their carelessness about marginal peoples and their suffering should also disturb us.
DRC: Mr Modi made several national addresses in the first phase of the pandemic. You would notice that he talked of things that one should do, such as wash your hands repeatedly. But who was he talking to? Most Indians don't have access to clean water.
I remember one appearance in which he said, ‘call your doctor’. Now how many Indians can actually pick up a phone and talk to a doctor? With this messaging, the government is already saying that there is a large number of Indians who do not exist, or the government does not need to speak to them.
You have front page advertisements of how the government looked after migrant workers, advertisements in English, because the government does not need to talk to those migrant labourers—they can be dealt with later, with crumbs of state patronage.
A vaccine is every Indian’s right, but the government has turned it into a gift. That is part of the UP election campaign, so it is not a right any more. So too everything else—freedom of information, freedom of speech, basic rights—are not rights any longer. You have them because the king allows you to have them, that is your passage to despotism right there.
Debasish, why does the Organiser dislike you?
DRC: OUP India suddenly got cold feet around the time the Organiser ran an article about me and the book. It was triggered by a piece in Time magazine in which I wrote that Modi had messed up the vaccine situation for the whole world by not ordering vaccines in time and then stopping exports when the second wave hit. That piece really raised their hackles.
But the book’s story is different. Both John and I felt there is more to the destruction of democracy in India than Narendra Modi, an idea we have tried to capture and explain. If anyone from the Organiser ever cares to read the book, that is a point they would actually relate to.
Your book very nearly did not get an Indian edition after your publisher backed out on grounds that the book is ‘provocative’. What was that experience like?
JK: It was hellish. Before the Berlin Wall crumbled, I'd had experience in central-eastern Europe of governments using my essays, interviews and other writings to threaten me and the people with whom I collaborated, including Vàclav Havel. It is why I wrote under the pen name of Erica Blair (Eric Blair was George Orwell). This experience of being censored by a reputable publisher in a democracy flung us into uncharted territory. It wasted a lot of our time. Indian readers were denied access to affordable copies of the book. The whole thing was frustrating and gut-wrenching, and complicated by the fact that we weren’t openly informed by India OUP that they had taken the decision, in effect, to kill the book. Imagine the surprise irony: a book entitled To Kill A Democracy killed in a democracy.
But we never at any point backed down. We weren’t prepared to drop our case for publication, and it’s important to say that we had strong support from our experienced Oxford-based OUP editor. We therefore looked for an alternative publisher and found an editor who was courageous and understood very well the risks of taking on our book.
We intend to carry on talking about To Kill A Democracy no matter what the risks are because the issues it raises aren’t party political. They are to do with matters of public good. The book raises life-and-death questions that apply not only to India but to the rest of the democratic world. For all these reasons we won’t be giving up.
(Kavitha Iyer is a senior editor with Article 14 and the author of ‘Landscapes of Loss’, a book on India’s farm crisis.)