India faces the threat of being won over by religious fundamentalists; so say many experts, commenting in light of the on-going elections. Nothing could be more unfortunate for India, which has stood tall and contained regressive radicals for six decades. This is no mean task, given how many neighbours have fallen prey to homegrown rogues like a houses of cards.
Despite being real, the fears, however, are misplaced. Though the spectre of fundamentalism that looms over the country presents a grave danger, graver still is the absence of strong and independent institutions that can halt the march. Forget about being a dictatorship, India does not even follow a Presidential system, which can bestow immense power on the executive.
Then why should Indians be worried about a particular individual coming to power? All the checks and balances that define a democracy are firmly in a place? So what if the individual has a proven track record of failing to prevent a pogrom? Or, as per two dominant narratives of the Gujarat riots, being complicit in what rendered thousands in the minority community dead and far more homeless?
The answer is simple.
This so-called democracy should be worried, because the checks and balances are not in place. In fact, they have never been in place.
Indians are right to worry because evidence from the past proves the possibility of these institutions being taken for a ride by an individual or political outfit. This is what happened in Delhi in 1984, when thousands of Sikhs were massacred under the watchful eyes of the police. This is exactly what occurred in Punjab when, consequently, the police and security agencies assassinated countless innocent men and women using extrajudicial means. And, this is also what happened earlier in Marichjhapi, West Bengal, and in Nellie, Assam, and in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, to name a few.
What is common to these incidents is that the police were silent, sometimes even complicit, in the murders of Indian citizens, in order to placate or follow the instructions of political bosses. The failure of criminal justice system let nearly all the offenders go scot-free.
This is the real threat.
The difference with fundamentalists in power will be that the attacks – on the back of a supine and corrupt criminal justice system – will be more vicious and murderous.
This so-called democracy should be worried, as it is not merely a matter of mass killings or riots. Institutions in India have categorically failed to contain all other kinds of criminality, including corruption. On the contrary, these institutions have often delivered whistle-blowers to the criminals instead of protecting them; Satyendra Dubey and Shanmughan Manjunath are but two examples.
Indians should be worried because their judiciary, the final check against criminal excesses of the executive, has failed to serve its mandate as well. The lower judiciary, in fact, has often been found to be hand in glove with the corrupt politico-criminal nexus. The higher judiciary, apart from its corruption, has failed to punish violators in time, and has thus denied not only redress, but also deterrence.
It is in this context that Indians must get their act together and radically reform their institutions; the criminal justice system must be reformed first. Holding elections regularly is good but not enough for sustaining democracy. Democracy can only be sustained by functional institutions, which respond to the grievances of citizens.
Would fundamentalist forces not have knocked so boldly on the door to power had the criminals in their ranks been prosecuted and punished in time?
For six decades, India has failed to build institutions that can protect its citizens, and protect democracy itself, and, if citizens do not act soon, the chance might go for good.