Narendra Modi was re-elected as Chief Minister in the 2002 elections - ten months after the post-Godhra riots. He was re-elected again in 2007, after defeating the Congress by a wide margin. An argument made even by those who are willing to consider the charges of state-sponsorship or negligence levelled against Modi, is that the people of Gujarat themselves want him in power. If he is a democratically elected leader, who are we to question him?
It was through democracy that segregation was entrenched in America; the majority voted for a system founded upon discrimination against Blacks. Similarly, free and fair elections have led to the emergence of dictatorships in some places in Central Asia. In both cases, democracy was at odds with freedom. Just providing the argument that democracy is flourishing through a system of elections - does not automatically imply that freedom is flourishing, or that equality is being promoted.
In the 1990s, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats were forced to flee their homes and expelled from Bosnia and Herzegovina by Bosnian Serbs. Almost 3 lakh people were displaced. In 1995, more than 8000 Bosnian Muslims were killed and 30,000 were forcefully expelled from the town of Srebrenica. All this took place under the auspices of elected officials. This does not justify what happened, nor does the fact that the Serbian president enjoyed tremendous popular support.
That people want a particular leader does not automatically justify his holding office. Popular opinion can often be belligerent towards ‘others’, and may even support discriminatory policies, or agendas of ethnic cleansing. Public opinion may also be influenced through silent, gradual indoctrination against a particular race, nation, religion, or caste. But can a system that allows several heads to be broken after counting them be called ‘democratic’? Indeed, to be meaningfully democratic, head counts must be followed by policies which reflect that each head counts, that every person has been treated as an equal.
Popular support through elections is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for a leader to justify his position. Any democratic leader must be judged against other criteria that qualifies a country as a liberal, constitutional democracy. In such a democracy, actions of elected officials are constrained by constitutional provisions and a commitment to civil liberties. In other words, no elected leader can act arbitrarily. He must follow the rule of law, respect the separation of powers (between the executive, legislature and judiciary), and ensure protection of the basic freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion etc.
The same applies to Narendra Modi. Those who are raising questions about freedom, equality and justice under his rule must not be stumped by the retort that ‘the people themselves want him in power’. Questions about whether the other criteria of a constitutional democracy are being met by him need to be asked, and satisfactory answers must be given on those accounts. For one must remember that procedural democracy (regular elections and competitive politics) is just one among many values. Although an important one, it is by no means the supreme value- it cannot override other important values like freedom, equality and justice.
1) Modi re-elected in 2007 - http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/24/world/asia/24india.html
2) Ethic cleansing during the Bosnian war - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_cleansing_in_the_Bosnian_War
3) Charges of genocide in Bosnia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosnian_Genocide
4) Who was the Serbian President? - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milosevic#Milo.C5.A1evi.C4.87.E2.80.99s_role_in_the_Yugoslav_wars
5) Srebrenica Massacre - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srebrenica_massacre
6) More on democracies and illiberalism (and for what constitutes a constitutional democracy) - Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracies at Home and Abroad
7) More on democracy and violence - Jack Snyder, From Voting to Violence: Democratisation and Nationalist conflict