‘How Democracies Die’ – Lessons for India?

Ex-diplomat Ravi Joshi reviews ‘How Democracies Die’, and how guardrails of democracy have been breached in India. 

6 min read
Reviewing the book “How Democracy Dies” by Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt, Joshi says that the guardrails of democracy in India and US have been breached. 

The emergence of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the US in 2016 has provoked several books on the (sorry) state of American democracy and the crises it faces.

‘How Democracies Die’ is authored by two Political Scientists from Harvard, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, is perhaps the most relevant book not only for America but for democracies in general – and for India in particular.

Warning that “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box,” they state that successful functioning of a democracy depends on various institutional checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution, strictly adhered by political parties and overseen by a watchful judiciary.


The authors argue that political parties have to maintain ‘mutual toleration’ – or that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals – and ‘forbearance’ or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.

Put it simply, the ruling party should not bring down the full power of the state to destroy an opposition party nor should it view them as enemies of State.

One of the most important contributions of this book is a checklist of indices of an authoritarian leadership. We find, quite unsurprisingly, that Modi and the present BJP leadership tick all the boxes.

Four Key Signs of Authoritarian Behaviour

1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.

Do they reject the Constitution or express a willingness to violate it?

Remember Anant Kumar Hegde? Other senior leaders are not so blatant but have often expressed reservations on the ‘secular’ clause inserted in the Preamble.

Do they suggest a need for anti-democratic measures, such as canceling elections, violating or suspending the Constitution, banning certain organisations, or restricting basic civil or political rights?

Repeated calls for amending the Constitution in order to hold one-time National elections for both the Parliament and State Assemblies, thereby undermining the Federal nature of the Indian polity. Obstructing the functioning of a democratically elected government in the State of Delhi, because an Opposition party rules it.

Bending the Election Commission to postpone the date of polls in Gujarat till PM Modi inaugurated the Narmada Dam and announced more sops to the people of the state.

Do they seek to use (or endorse the use of) extra-constitutional means to change the government?

Use of money power to buy up MLAs where the BJP was in a minority to gain power as in the case of Goa, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Meghalaya is a classic case where the BJP with only two MLAs managed to stitch together a ruling coalition.

The Congress Party too in the past indulged in a similar game of thwarting popular mandate through money power, but the game has now reached a new order of magnitude.

Do they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example by refusing to accept credible electoral results?

No such attempt has been made, but several opposition parties questioned the use of EVMs to rig the ballot. This needs further proof.

2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
(Photo Courtesy: IANS)

Do they describe their rivals as subversive or opposed to the existing constitutional order? Do they claim that their rivals constitute an existential threat, either to national security or to the prevailing way of life?

Congress-mukt Bharat is a stated objective of PM Modi. The Opposition is often painted as anti-development and anti-progress. Repeated assertions that nothing good has been done to the country in the last 70 years and that the first PM Pandit Nehru is the root cause of all that is wrong in the country today.

Do they baselessly describe their partisan rivals as criminals, whose supposed violation of the law disqualifies them from full participation in the political arena?

All the corruption and evils of last 70 years blamed on one party – the Congress – which is therefore held unfit to rule. No serious attempt is made to investigate their corruption and penalise the guilty.

Do they baselessly suggest that their rivals are foreign agents, in that they are secretly working in alliance with a foreign government?

Sonia Gandhi, former President of Congress Party is often accused of being a foreign agent, because of her Italian birth, though she is a full -fledged Indian citizen.

3. Toleration or encouragement of violence.

Do they have any ties to armed gangs, para-military forces, militias or other organisations that engage in illicit violence?

Karni Sena holds protests against Padmavat. 
Karni Sena holds protests against Padmavat. 
(Photo: PTI)

Let’s take a look at the RSS, VHP, Rama Sene, Hindu Sene, Karni Sena etc.

Have they or their partisan allies sponsored or encouraged mob attacks on opponents?

Repeated attacks on minorities, Muslims and Dalits, by lynch mobs. Karni Sena’s attacks on the makers of the film Padmavati, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Deepika Padukone. 

This was supported by several ministers and leaders in about 6 BJP ruling States.

Have they endorsed violence by their supporters by refusing to unambiguously condemn it and punish it?

PM Modi’s long and deafening silence on lynch mobs, repeated refusal to condemn the killers of Gauri Lankesh; instead following on the Twitter a person who gloated over her killing. BJP leaders have often endorsed violence on Muslims by their lynch mobs either by underplaying it or by justifying it.

Have they praised (or refused to condemn) other significant acts of violence, either in the past or elsewhere in the world?

PM Modi’s refusal to condemn or regret the violence on Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and his more recent refusal to condemn the violence of Rohingya refugees in Myanmar in 2017. In both cases, the victims are Muslims.

4. Readiness to curb civil liberties of opponents, including media.

Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar from the University of Hyderabad,  hanged himself in a hostel room.
Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar from the University of Hyderabad, hanged himself in a hostel room.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Have they supported laws or policies that restrict civil liberties, such as expanded libel or defamation laws, or laws restricting protest, criticism of the government, or certain civic or political organisations?

Use of the most dreaded ‘Sedition Act’ on protest speeches by a few students of JNU, basing them on doctored CDs.

Dismissal of a Dalit Research scholar from the rolls of the Central University Hyderabad for demanding restoration of his scholarship grant, leading to his suicide.


Have they threatened to take legal or other punitive action against critics in rival parties, civil society or the media?

The arrest and continued detention of Karti Chidambaram, son of former Finance Minister P Chidambaram, on charges that are yet to be proven. Filing of a Rs 100 crore defamation suit against an online news site ‘The Wire’ for publishing an article against Jay Shah, son of BJP President Amit Shah.

Repeated criminal cases against Human Rights Lawyer Teesta Setalvad, who is fighting for justice for the victims of communal violence in Gujarat in 2002.)

Have they praised repressive measures taken by other governments, either in the past or elsewhere in the world?

Adolf Hitler is often regarded as a great source of inspiration by the followers of RSS. 

They greatly admire his success in building up a powerful state of Germany that emerged from the ruins of the First World War. Now Israel and PM Benjamin Netanyahu are the role models for their ruthless suppression of the Palestinians.

Both in the US and India, the guardrails of democracy have been breached. The trends are dangerous and worrying. ‘Saving Democracy’ is the last chapter in the book that has many useful lessons for all democracies. It is a compelling book for our troubled times.

(Ravi Joshi is a retired Diplomat and presently a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them).

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