To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism by Debasish Roy Chowdhury & John Keane - review by Abhimanyu Arni

Abhimanyu Arni

Kingdom of Modi

To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism


Oxford University Press 320pp £20

Even as the fabled midnight hour of Indian independence passed, B R Ambedkar, the great spokesperson of the country’s hideously oppressed untouchables and the principal architect of its secular and democratic constitution, still harboured strong doubts and worries over the future of his country. For him, there was an unsolvable contradiction between the egalitarian ideals of universal suffrage and common citizenship enshrined in the new constitution and India’s deep, abiding and cruel inequalities. The agonies of this contradiction run through To Kill a Democracy, an urgent survey of India’s democratic shortcomings by the award-winning journalist Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane, a scholar of democracy.

The book is a happy marriage of the authors’ skills and expertise. A thoroughgoing, finely grained awareness of Indian politics and society is blended with a rigorous understanding of how democracy works and what is needed for it to thrive. The book avoids academic jargon, with the result that it is clear, accessible and compelling. It is also refreshing since, unlike many other writers on the subject, its authors do not see anything new in the assault on Indian democracy by Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister since 2014. While noting his authoritarian tendencies, the book asks the deeper, more plangent question: if most people in India stand condemned to poverty, powerlessness, homelessness, debt and desperation, how real was India’s democracy in the first place?

The book reminds prosperous Indians, its clearly intended audience, that the image they have of an India resembling Japan or South Korea is nothing more than a callous illusion. A series of chapters on health care, education, nutrition, working conditions and pollution provide fuel for a growing fire

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