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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 13, March 25, 2023

Democracy Under Threat: Can Ram Manohar Lohia be an Answer? | Gyan Prakash

Saturday 25 March 2023


by Gyan Prakash *

In the face of ever-weakening forces of democracy and liberal values across the globe, V-Dem’s recently published report acts as an eye-opener for all of us. As per the report, 72 percent of humanity is being ruled by autocracies and 28 percent of them are living under dictatorial regimes. During the last ten years from 2012 to 2022, the share of the global population living under autocracies has moved up sharply from 46 percent to 72 percent. The same report says that the number of autocratizing countries has gone up from 13 in 2002 to 42 in 2022, while the number of democratizing countries have fallen heavily from 43 in 2002 to 14 in 2022. The number of countries undergoing deterioration in freedom of expression has risen from 7 in 2012 to 35 in 2022. India has further declined to 97th position from the 93rd position in the last report of its Liberal Democracy Index. The V-Dem report denigrates India and slammed the world’s largest democracy for descending into an electoral autocracy by curbing Freedom of Expression, indulging in government censorship of the media and repression of the civil society organization.. The V-Dem report has come at a time when the world prepares itself for the second World Democracy Summit to be held in the last week of this month. Ever since the first World Democracy Summit, held in December 2021, the figures/parameters indicating the democratic health of a nation have been deteriorating further. Therefore, serious deliberations must be made in order to meet the multi-dimensional challenges before democracy.

 The period after the second world war saw the countries in the third world gaining their political independence after a long battle against colonialism and committing themselves to the democratization of their societies. But, the last two decades have witnessed a reversal of that project towards democratization as more and more countries have fallen prey to autocratic forces. The first World Democracy Summit deliberated around three major issues- corruption, sustained struggle against autocracies and expanding the horizon of human rights and civil liberties. However, it remained silent on the issue of global inequalities which have assumed threatening figures in the recent past. Global Inequality Report 2022 suggests that the top 10 percent of the rich have 76 percent of the global wealth while the lower 50 percent have only 2 percent of the global wealth. There is skyrocketing inequality in the parts of the world beyond Europe which includes the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. The covid-19 Pandemic has further worsened the situation by adding more and more dollar billionaires in countries like India. The two years period during the pandemic added 71 new dollar billionaires in India at a time when the working population was on streets struggling to make ends meet. The rank of India in terms of the Egalitarian Component Index is 123 in a list of 179 countries which is even poorer than that of Sri Lanka (102), Kenya (87) and Nepal (97).

    Therefore, there is an immediate need for a collective struggle against brute face of global inequality with richer nations of Europe and North America on the one hand and poorer nations of the developing and under-developed world on the other hand. The diverse experience of being a colonial and a colonized nation and the unequal terms of globalization have to be brought to the centre of any summit on democracy. Most of the autocracies in the world are found in the poorer regions of the world having a history of colonialism. While 79 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa is under autocracies, the control of autocracies is over 89 percent of the Asia-pacific and 98 percent of the Middle east and North Africa. Cultural relativism offers a way forward for a free, democratic and humane world that fight against internal as well as external dominance which is central to democratization. Apart from this, the ever-expanding inequalities between the social groups within a national boundary have to be dealt with strongly by the national governments who keep on delivering lofty speeches but remain skeptical of any solid democratic intervention in the present state of things.

  Most of the wealth that has been generated in India and the world has gone into the hands of private players which constitute a minuscule of India’s and the world’s population. So, the poor have not been able to affiliate themselves with the project of development and they feel that democracy has not done enough for them. Therefore, there is a huge responsibility upon the elected governments to keep the stakes of the poor and the marginalized high in the democratic system while designing programmes and policies for further development and need not succumb to the pressure of the private capital which has essentially worked in an undemocratic fashion to check the aspirations of the downtrodden to live a dignified life. Rammanohar Lohia wanted the government to put a check on consumption. The ever-expanding madness for consumption has provided the way for the reproduction of the vicious cycle of private property and in turn, the call for the collective good which is very central to any democratic formation has become a secondary project regulated by the whims and fancies of the social and political elites. The dominance of the private capital is established through political and economic centralization and therefore Lohia’s call for a struggle for political and economic decentralization was a dual guard against the economic imperialism of the west and the reproduction of elites within the national boundaries.

The programme of Saptkranti (seven revolutions) envisaged by Lohia, was presented at an international conference at Athens in 1961. He brought to the surface the need for a collective struggle against seven major evils that have corrupted humanity. The programme of saptkranti includes the following 1. Equality for men and women 2. Destruction of caste 3. Struggle against Race-based inequalities 4. Fight against foreign domination 5. The struggle for planned development against the accumulation of private property 6. Struggle against interference in private life and 7. Establishing the weapon of satyagraha against arms and nuclear weapons. He was of the opinion that an individual can be fully free in his/her private as well as public life only by meeting this grand vision of saptkranti. An extra emphasis on any one of them by ignoring the rest does not justify the call for a just and truly democratic global space. Fighting against Racism, he willingly went to jail in Mississippi when the officials stopped him from entering a café that was open to entry for whites only. Any movement in the name of democracy being carried out around the world must have to find its ideological mentor in these ideas propounded by Rammanohar Lohia.

US President Biden gave the call for a collective agenda for meeting the collective threat to democracy. However, it demands our trust in collective wisdom. It is no wonder that capitalism and the type of democracies that it has produced, remained indifferent to the diverse histories, multiplicity of cultural experiences, and institutional arrangements in the global north. The essence of democracy cannot be realized by merely providing economic support, rather it demands belief in the local knowledge of the local communities and developing nations that have survived the tougher phases of the evolution of human society through their exceptional institutional arrangements. Paulo Freire, one of the great educationists of the twentieth century in his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” argues for a dialogical education as opposed to a Banking model of education. Banking education sees the student as an empty vessel without history, culture and civilization and has to be filled through the constant pouring of information by the teacher. However, his metaphor gives an entry point into the relationship between the developed nations (who dominated the world for more than 200 years) and developing and under-developed nations (who remained colonized for more than two centuries). The dominant model of social and political organizations that emerged in the west has been used as a tool to reinforce the hegemonic west in the other parts of the world (which are considered spaces without history, culture, wisdom, and civilization). Lohia envisioned a socialist civilization for the newly independent nations of the world against the hegemonic and imperial west. This civilization would be based on dialogical relationships between the nations without any division of the dominant and the dominated and this ideal civilization would be free to explore the model of progress for two-thirds of humanity beyond the closed spaces of communism that believe in political centralization and capitalism that believes in economic capitalism. Lohia said that “Unless local initiative is aroused fully, by a grant of powers and responsibility, these apathetic millions of Asia cannot be roused into action.” Lohia believed that the new world civilization would give equal respect to bread and freedom and thereby would shape the democratic consciousness of a kind absent in the west.

 The democratically elected governments around the world and especially in India have used their power to crush the opposition through total control of the institutions. Lohia almost institutionalized the role of opposition in democracies. For him, opposing the government in a democracy is not a pleasurable pastime, it becomes, however, the sacred duty of the opposition when the ruling party blocks all routes to fruitful cooperation. He contested the 1962 general election from the Phulpur constituency against Jawaharlal Nehru, the tallest leader of his times, knowing that he would be defeated. He greeted the leaders who lost the elections but did not compromise with their moral duty of being a democratic citizen. He opened up the public space for new discourses that looked futile for many at that time but in the long run, those discourses have shaped the democratic consciousness of the people in search of a better world through non-violent means. Prof. Anand Kumar, a renowned sociologist and an expert on Lohia says that, Lohia addressed the wisdom and conscience of the people and not their emotions and was cultivating an electorate that could see all aspects of truth and then make judgements about their well-being through careful analysis. Therefore, Lohia remains a shining source of inspiration when the world today meets the dangers of a post-truth order.

The world after the two deadly wars marched on its journey toward democracy. The results were promising during the initial years as new institutions were established to check any dominance based on the power of bullets. However, the working of these institutions could not challenge the existing power relations which were essential to the development of the spirit of global democracy. It could not produce citizens that would struggle for the cause of democracy against the dictatorial and inhuman practices of their national government. As a result, the state of democracy has receded in many parts of the world. The level of democracy for the average global citizen in 2022 was the same as that of 1986 and in the Asia-Pacific region, the degree of liberal democracy enjoyed by the average citizen is now down to the level seen in 1978. The student movement in the United States against their government’s prolonged indulgence in an inhuman war in Vietnam was a promising incident in human history. However, such moments of celebration have been very rare. Rammanohar Lohia was the champion of the cause of global democracy in the sense that he presented to the world his ideas of world government and world citizen. For him, the constructive programme has to be planned on a global scale that would produce global citizens whose eyes could easily see exploitation in other parts of the world and his/her consciousness would make him rebel for the cause of humanity. The formation of a world government, for him, would overcome the contradictions between the nations through debate and dialogue. This would make the use of force and weapons almost irrelevant and would empower the weakest with the weapon of Satyagraha.

 Therefore, the report of V-Dem is very timely keeping in mind the second World Democracy Summit to be held on 29-30 March 2023. It must invite fresh ideas and insights and renewed commitments for a world that can meet the challenge of autocracies and dictatorships. The recent order of the supreme court says that a panel consisting of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha, and the Chief justice of India must pick the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and other Election Commissioners (ECs). This must be a welcoming step in the struggle against autocracy. The ideas of Rammanohar Lohia can be an entry point to the world of ideas and actions that shapes our imagination of a free and democratic future.

* (Author: Gyan Prakash (gyan.prakash.2295[at] is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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