Slow death of liberal democracy


The Constitution of India has a preamble. Few read the preamble or understand its meaning. Even those familiar with certain provisions such as “Fundamental Rights”, “Article 32” or “Urgency” may not be familiar with the terms of the Preamble.

On the day of its adoption by the Constituent Assembly, the preamble declared that “We, the Indian people, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign democratic republic”. (The words “socialist” and “secular” were added in January 1977 to further define our nation.) The preamble went further and stated that we resolved to “assure all its citizens:

– JUSTICE …

– FREEDOM…

– EQUALITY …

and to promote among them all

– BROTHERHOOD….

These are the words that define who we are as a nation and what the Republic of India will be – a liberal democracy.

These words are forever

These words echo the war cry of the French Revolution (1789): “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death”. President Emmanuel Macron is pilloried by certain countries for having reminded the people of France – and all those who wish to live within its borders – that these are the words that will define, forever, the French Republic and the French people. After a teacher, Samuel Paty, was killed by an Islamist terrorist, Mr Macron said: “We accept all differences in the spirit of peace. We will never accept hate speech and we stand for reasonable debate. We will continue. We always stand on the side of human dignity and universal values.

Many countries have adopted the three words, in one form or another, in their constitutions. They claim to be liberal democracies, like India does. Increasingly, however, such claims ring hollow in many countries, including India. Many countries fail even the first test of “democracy”, let alone the next test of whether this democracy is “liberal”.

Fall into the shadows

A recent issue of Time magazine featured “The 100 Most Influential People in the World”. I counted 6 heads of state / government: Mr. Narendra Modi, Mr. Xi Jinping, Ms. Angela Merkel, Mr. Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Mr. Donald Trump and Ms. Tsai Ing-Wen (Taiwan). Of the six, no one will claim that two lead democracies. Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump are indeed leaders of electoral democracies, but even they will reject the label “liberal.” Only Ms Merkel and Ms Tsai are the heads of truly liberal democracies. If you add other leaders of great and powerful countries to the list, the picture will be worse. In Central Asia, Africa, Latin America, and our own neighborhood, we have many examples of autocracies and electoral democracies, but not really liberal democracies.

This is what time had to say about

Mr. Modi: “… .the Dalai Lama hailed (India) as ‘an example of harmony and stability.’ Narendra Modi questioned all this… his Party rejected not only elitism but also pluralism… The melting pot of the pandemic has become a pretext to stifle dissent. And the world’s most dynamic democracy has fallen deeper into the shadows.

Other countries are also struggling against the slide into the shadows. Following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump wasted no time in appointing Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court and advanced the nomination process in an unprecedented 30 days. Liberal America, especially women, is concerned that major liberal gains such as inclusive education, abortion rights, affordable care law, and non-discriminatory immigration rules may be overturned.

Who are we?

Democracy is not equal to a liberal country. A democracy can become illiberal in a short period of time, as it does in India. The citizenship of millions of people is questioned, freedom of expression is restricted, the media are tamed, demonstrations are banned or severely restricted, political defections are encouraged, the state sponsors a religion or language, majoritarianism is presented as a culture, minority and discriminated communities live in fear, the police obey their political masters and not the law, the army talks about political issues, tax and law enforcement agencies become instruments of oppression, Courts are weak, institutions are captured or weakened and the rule of law collapses. The sad part is that not many people “see” what is going on. And among the few people who “see”, many are content to remain silent.

When laws are passed in Parliament without a vote; when political leaders are held without charge for several months; when charges of sedition are brought against writers, poets, teachers, students and social activists; when no one is convicted in a case where a centuries-old mosque is demolished in broad daylight; when an FIR is not registered and no one is arrested for days despite the declaration of death of a girl who was raped and brutally assaulted; when the word “encounter” enters the vocabulary of the police; when titular governors hinder elected governments; and when crucial institutions find themselves without a head or with multiple vacancies, the country falls a little more “in the shadows”.

In November 2019, a gunman killed 51 people and injured dozens at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “They are us. The person who perpetrated this violence against us is not.

Mr Macron and Ms Ardern are among the few leaders who speak the voice we want to hear. Even as we witness the slow death of liberal democracy, we must ask ourselves “who are we?”


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