Review: To Kill a Democracy by Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane
The questions could not be more fundamental or more important. “In Noida, a city neighboring Delhi, an eight-month-pregnant woman died in an ambulance during a frantic 13-hour search for a hospital bed. She was denied admission to eight hospitals… A Delhi great from the Congress party took to Twitter after his family’s heartbreaking ordeal in trying to get his wife tested in the nation’s capital: ‘Although grew up on a hospital campus and knows all the important medical professionals, I had to leave no stone unturned just to get her tested. Delhi’s health systems are broken. For lower beings in lower cities, it was infinitely more hellish.
Famine is next. “On New Year’s Eve in 2018, Budhni Brijiyan, Sanchi’s mother-in-law, died after four days without food. Sanchi was out of rice and neighbors could not come to the rescue with offers of extra rice. Budhni caught a cold and his broken body could not defend itself”. On the 2020 Global Hunger Index, India ranked 94th, with Sudan doing worse than countries like Congo and Nepal and miles behind China and Brazil, which do part of the 17 countries that have low levels of hunger and are therefore not ranked. “The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 190 million Indians – almost three times the population of France – are undernourished”, recall the authors.
There is water scarcity: 600 million Indians, by the government’s own calculations, face high to extreme levels of water stress. The water they receive is often so polluted that it makes them very sick. The issue, like others, takes on a human face through the case study of Nandlal Baiga in a place called Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh, which is part of an industrial belt on the state’s border with India. Uttar Pradesh which supplies 15% of India’s coal-fired electricity – to great suffering for the region’s original inhabitants, who have lost their farmland, and even drinking water, by- above the market.
kill a democracy by journalist Debasish Roy Chowdhury and academic John Keane, presents these examples and many more, supported by case studies and statistics on India’s failures to provide even the most basic necessities to hundreds of millions of inhabitants. The quality of what it offers is also catastrophic. Take jobs, for example. Roy Chowdhury and Keane say it is largely a new form of slavery. “Slavery is forced hysterectomy to increase productivity, no bathroom breaks, 15-hour shifts, entire families in unpaid labor and sexual predation by masters,” they say . They contrast this with nearly three-quarters of the national wealth generated each year going to the top 1%, who already own four times the combined wealth of the bottom 70%.
The authors link these multiple social failures to democratic failures, which manifest themselves, for example, in the overt criminalization of his politics. “The crumbling social foundations and inability of the Indian state to deliver basic services create conditions in which voters have little hope of accessing justice or public goods in a way based on rules,” they say. “A candidate’s disregard for the law and his ability to get away with it is a sign of his ability to get things done… Politics becomes a protection racket. Election campaigns resemble street fights… Democratic failures and despotic regimes flourish in the basement of a society in ruins”.
Readers take a brief look at the capture of institutions such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Law Enforcement Directorate, the failures of the justice system and the transformation of India’s media into a public relations wing of the ruling party, which put together leaves no doubt that India is now firmly in the thrall of politicians whom they call ‘poligarchs’, a very useful word meaning ‘political oligarch’. They are people who take advantage of political power to enrich themselves in a system where political parties operate like mafias, each party being led by a despotic party leader who is akin to a mafia boss – an overlord whose supremacy within the party cannot be challenged by their underlings.
The last question is what awaits a degenerated democracy in the grip of a government determined to reshape institutions with the help of big business friends, docile courts, police brutality and election victories dominated by the black money, media manipulation and muscle power. The answer the authors give is that aside from the old methods of military coups and revolutions, there now exists a new possibility: despotism, a murder of democracy in the name of democracy – the kind of thing attempted with more or less success by the leaders. like Viktor Orban in Hungary and Donald Trump in America.
kill a democracy is a chilling reality check, even for those of us who have watched this reality unfold for decades. There is nothing to debate here; it doesn’t say anything we didn’t already know – every Indian is aware in one way or another of the hellish healthcare system, the existence of extreme poverty, water shortages and pollution of the water and air in many areas, and the exploitation of miserable laborers barely better off than slaves. We know the criminalization of our politics, the misuse of investigative agencies, crumbling institutions, sold-out media, the rise of regional and national populist despots. The thing is, we kind of seem to believe that everything is fine. We have learned to look away. The whole situation has been normalized.
What kill a democracy does, with its humanizing case studies and academic rigor, open our jaded eyes to the horror, the horror of it all.
Samrat Choudhury is an author and journalist. His most recent book is The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra.
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