FACE TO FACE – Prasanta J Baruah
Sandhya Goswami is former Professor in the Department of Political Science, Gauhati University. She has been a member of the Lokniti Network of Indian Political Scientists that conducts the National Election Studies in India. Her recent publication is “Assam Politics in Post Congress Era 1985 and Beyond” under Sage Series on Politics in Indian States(2020). Currently, she is engaged with a rural-based NGO, SeSTA, working on social issues of North East India.
It is said that Democracy is a government of the people, for the people and by the people. How far is this relevant in present day Indian democracy?
Yes, in a democracy the state exists to serve people, not the other way round. And for democracy to succeed, its rules must be respected by the government and the opposition alike. Democracy seeks recognition and acceptance of ideas like equality, social justice and limited state intervention. Actually two kinds of post-election requirements are necessary: One pertains to institutional constraints on the executive, another to civil liberties. Is the power of the executive checked by the legislature or judiciary? Are citizens free to speak? Are they free to organise and protest?
We find there are reasons to be concerned about the health of our present day democracy on above ground. Because, we find even peaceful protestors are charged with sedition, exclusionary principles for citizenship, press freedoms are constrained, and students are not spared for ideological non-conformity.
Today’s situation reminded me of a book I read recently. It is written jointly by Steven Levitsy and Daniel Ziblatt from Harvard University, who, spent almost twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies around the world titled ‘How Democracy Die’ (2018).To quote ‘We think of democracies as dying at the hands of men with guns, but more often, they die at the hands of elected leaders who maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating substance. People do not immediately realize what is happening”.
In a big country like India with so many diversities , is the voice of the people really reflected?
In a big country like India with diverse population, largely religious diversity, the issue of relationship between majority and minority always becomes critical. More than the actual relationship between these groups, their position in democratic polity becomes a bone of contention. Particularly, since the 1990’s,the politics around this issue has become central to democratic contestations . Since 2014 general elections these issues have been further brought into the centre stage. An important component of democratic politics in India today consists of mobilizations and contestations around the issue of role of majority community today.
You have made in-depth study of democracy through elections. What is the significance of election in a democracy?
I had the privilege of engaging myself in the election studies of Assam as the State co-ordinator of the National Election Survey (NES) Project carried out under the Lokniti Programme of Competitive Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) Delhi. Since 1996, at the initiative of Lokniti, CSDS, a series of elections surveys both for Assembly and Lok sabha elections in the form of pre-poll, mid-poll, exit poll and post poll surveys have been conducted at regular intervals covering all the states in India. The publication is expected to enhance understanding on the nature of democracy in various states The election studies have a tremendous potential to understand and interpret the larger forces and long term processes active in democratic politics. Such understanding requires a methodologically sound and inclusive research agenda.
Democracy is a game of numbers. How does people vote in a democracy?
Ideally in a democracy, people are expected to vote freely in choosing the right candidate irrespective of caste, community, and economic status. However, unfortunately in India, these variables appear to play an increasingly major role in the voting process.
In Assam , we see people voting on caste, creed, language and religious lines.
The trends of voting and the nature of political competition in Assam reflect the political significance of its multi ethnic reality. The presence of linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity leaves tremendous scope for socio-cultural overlap and also polarization on ethnic lines.
What is the role of political parties? In Assam we see parties taking up issues ranging from political to religious to developmental issues.
Political parties play a central role in democratic contestations. Parties are the bridge between government and society. They are suppose to translate society’s demands into political ideas and programmes and in a way that should hold government accountable on society’s behalf. But winning elections has become the only role a party envisages for itself. Political opportunism has become the order of the day for most of the parties. It appears when elections get closer, some politicians shift their loyalty towards the dominant party, as it looks more lucrative option politically. This kind of trend of strategy definitely helps to expand a party’s electoral base in short time, but in the long run for not having concern for overall development of people it is likely to have an adverse effect on the functioning of democracy.
How does economic and political issues like Big dams, CAA, ST status, Clause 6 implementation influence the polls?
Definitely these issues are most important for the state but unfortunately the polls are not much influenced by these issues. The political parties nor civil society groups have failed to project these issues more effectively nor are they successful in creating adequate awareness about the ill effects of these issues at the grass root level.
How do you assess the rise and fall of the Congress in Assam, the growth of regionalism and the rise of the BJP?
The rise of the Congress party in the electoral history of the state stemmed from its role in the National freedom struggle.The dominance of Congress party in Assam continued uninterrupted for three decades beginning with the first election in 1952 with social base drawn from diverse population groups. The first major set back of the Congress party came in the 1978 Assembly elections and then in 1985 elections. The Congress party’s recovery in the state began in the late 1990s.However, the party has been unable to re-establish the dominance that it had in the pre 1985 era in terms of its vote share. The loss of Congress dominance is caused by the emergence of a multi party competition and the assertion and realignment of the ethnic identities. However, the decimation of the Congress in the 2016 assembly elections for misgovernance is a milestone on its journey. It ended the hegemony of congress Party’s rule in the state..
Unlike most other states in India where regionalism is being articulated in terms of one dominant cultural community, in Assam a number of smaller ethnic communities have begun to carve out areas of influence through their respective parties.The AGP’s rise to power in the state has important implication for the polity. However, given the socio-cultural diversity within society, this triggered sub regional and ethnic aspirations among the people. The party could not deal with these contradictory processes as it could not draw up its comprehensive plan for the state and was mired in corruption. Today, the AGP is in a state of disarray without the regional clout it once had in providing an alternative to ‘national parties’.
The 2016 Assembly election amply reveals the changing nature of political dynamics in the state. The BJP led alliance have come to power for the first time by bringing an end to Congress rule. The clear mandate can be considered as an indication of voters expectations for change to end troubles and bring in good governance to the state. Voters even considered the chemistry between the regional and national thinking as it might lead to a path to resolve the lingering tangle of the ‘foreigners issue’. But the party in power seems to have demonstrated its ability for flexibility totally for its electoral gains. The exclusive religious politics followed by the party no doubt propelled it to power and popularity in the state beyond expectation, but it does not provide a viable basis for governance. The long standing vital issues of the state have remained unaddressed.