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(Article) CSM - December 2012: Has Democracy in India Delivered the Goods?

Has Democracy in India Delivered the Goods?

Democracy in Lincoln’s famous words is “Government of the people, for the people, by the people’. The rudiments of democracy are wellknown. It is a form of government wherein every individual has a say. Democracy has come a long way since the classical times when Aristotle in his classification categorized it as a -perverted form of government. Rousseau’s concept of General Will which had entrusted sovereign power to the masses paved the way for the French Revolution with its cry of liberty, equality and fraternity. It marked the turning point for the rise of modern democracy -ultimate authority of government is vested in the common people so that
public policy is made to conform to the will of the people and to serve the interests of people today we have indirect democracy where government is conducted by the representatives of the people, who are elected at regular intervals. Have we ever given heed to the kind of democracy we have in India and under what conditions it had been established? Well, let’s explore this. It is impossible to define Indian democracy as liberal, participatory or deliberative, because it is a blend all of these at the same time. It is not enough to only examine the formal presence of democracy but checking how effective are the institutions and procedures by relating them to the conditions that sustain them and reproduce them is equally important. So let’s check and examine what conditions were present when democratic values and procedures were adopted.

According to Sameul Huntington, Indian democracy as an institution was facing few crises at the eve of independence. They were: crises of national integration, crises of identity, crises of participation, crises of penetration and crises of legitimacy. Thus we see the number of challenges, which the newly independent and decolonized India was facing while adopting the system of democracy. The major problems before India were linguistic problems, caste system (which further took a new form of economic class system), poverty and illiteracy. To add to them malnutrition and poor health conditions, poor housing, poor work capability, lack of occupational adaptability and an inadequate level of savings reflected the clear picture of India. Many scholars compare the status of development and democracy, since independence. Does democracy leads to development or development leads to democracy? This dilemma still remains. India had a firm nationalist base with the strong leadership of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister. But during that time, the members of legislative assembly were elitist. The democracy was functioning smoothly but in their favor because the masses were illiterate. Congress at that time was working for indigenous bourgeoisie. Thus congress became a party of social status quo. 1967 was the turning point when the state parties suddenly came into power. This was a signal of democratization of Indian politics. Due to balance of payment problem, international financial institutions devalued rupee and India started drifting into economic crises. Mrs. Indira Gandhi swept the polls in 1971 elections with the ‘eradicate poverty’ slogans. In 1975 with the misuse of article 356 of Indian constitution, Mrs. Gandhi declared an emergency in India. Economic crises, formation of Bangladesh and Authoritarian rule at the center weakened Indian democracy. The decision-making roles and powers of the cabinet members and ministers were consequently dissolved and were taken over by Mrs. Gandhi. Though the Panchayati raj system was to democratize the country at the village level but the power was still concentrated at the top of the pyramid.

But after all the turbulent years in India, democracy still exists in its unique forms. Arguably it is the best form of government. Democracy would thus appear differently to different classes of India. To more privilege classes of society it would mean the freedom of enterprise and to the lower orders it would mean equality (at least between communities) and representation. But whatever the contradictions democracy may offers, Indian democracy will continue in spite of its paradoxical and surprising history.

It’s noteworthy that despite everything, India has sustained a fairly stable democracy, while the countries with comparable (and in some cases much less serious) problems have abandoned democracy for authoritarian form of rule. There are many conflicting views on the success and failure of democracy and they all are associated to some ideals. For some an ideal democracy is a construct where people are truly equal citizens, politically engaged with an equal voice, tolerant of each other and where representatives are accountable. On the other hand, scholars have viewed democracy as an institution, which would mean free and fair elections, legislative assembly, and under this understanding India is considered as the largest democracy in the world. But any evaluation of democracy is of course, a combination of both.

Indian state has a deep commitment to democratic system and values as democracy provides impulse towards change and looks at contemporary struggles and movements of the people as a part of the democratic process. Democracy centers certain rights on the people. But more often than not these rights are abused in the name of resisting oppression. Au unbalanced insistence on ones rights without a corresponding realization of one’s duties creates indiscipline and disorder and, in reality, an erosion of the democratic principle.

Liberty and equality are both basic to democracy but are not these two concepts intrinsically opposed’? Can liberty, which allows a human being to develop his/her individuality, be reconciled to equality, which by its very nature puts a check on such individual aspirations for the welfare of a group. a community, a collectivity ? Democracy contains within it seeds of dissolution and decay as well as of life and progress. In truth, it calls for a balance between self-interest and consideration for others, between rights and duties and a successful democracy manifests a reconciliation of opposites.

India today proudly proclaims its position as one of the foremost democratic nations of the world. In terms of the size of the electorate, it is the largest democracy in the world. India, on gaining independence from colonial rule, had forthwith decided to adopt the parliamentary system of government of its erstwhile coloniser - Great Britain. The founding fathers of the Constitution, truly inspired by egalitarian zeal, had ensured universal adult franchise to citizens of the country, without any discrimination on the basis of caste, religion. sex, education or ownership of property. India had its first general elections in 1952 and the democratic processes have been vigorously functioning ever since. Belying all doubts and apprehensions on account of the large number of illiterate citizens in the country; the people have displayed an amazing political maturity and have ensured that democracy becomes a part of the social ethos of the country. To express their dissatisfaction with the agendas and policies of a particular government or with the qualities of governance -in general, they have skillfully utilised their democratic privilege to oust the incumbent from power. Democratic processes have earned such credibility that there has not been a single instance of a coup d’état or mass revolution to destabilise or overthrow the government. The regular, periodic elections have almost become a source of envy to other countries in South Asia whose experimentations with democracy are marred by interference from the army top brass as well as extremist religious leaders.

One of the biggest achievements of the Indian Constitution is the protection of democratic rights since its inception. The success and failure of a democracy can be judged by looking at its track record in the protection of ‘right to freedom’. Any erosion of these rights can ultimately lead to the breakdown of the very Constitution of the country. We the citizens need to be vigilant against the assault to our rights. If we overlook these violations today, it will be a licence for the unscrupulous and unethical elements to subvert our very democratic system. which we value greatly. Such admirable achievements notwithstanding, India is often characterised by critics as a pseudo-democracy. The time is ripe enough to look back at the errors committed, to analyse the maladies that afflict the present day political system. In other words, what ails Indian Democracy?

The reasons are not far to seek. India had failed in its primary democratic responsibility of ensuring liberty and equality to the people. Fiftysix years since independence and still, every night, one third of the population goes to bed on an empty stomach. Thirty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, means to meet their consumption requirements, without access to safe and clean drinking water, sanitation or proper health facilities. Governments have come and one, policies have been framed and supposedly implemented. crores of rupees have been spent, and yet India staggers into the New Millennium with millions of disadvantaged people to whom every day is nothing but a struggle for existence. Surely it is a grave sin to talk about democracy and voting rights to a person lying oil an empty stomach. The right to freedom is the most fundamental of the Fundamental Rights in our Constitution. Without this right the moral and intellectual development of a citizen cannot be achieved. Articles 19 to 22 describe this vital right in the Constitution, which is the very backbone of the Fundamental Rights. Democracy is meaningful only when these rights are fulfilled.

Of late, our Fundamental Rights are under severe stress from certain elements in the state. In the name of ‘national interest’ and ‘protection of privileges this ‘essence of democracy is being crucified by vested interests.’

Equality has also taken a beating in a society totally raven by communal considerations. Casteism today is perhaps more rampant than it ever was. Untouchability remains abolished only in theory, with frequent newspaper reports of Dalits being denied entry to temples or other public places. Class conflict, too is on the rise with entire Dalit families being massacred by upper class landlords and the retaliatory violence that the Dalits indulge in to seek vengeance. The dreams of Gandhiji for an egalitarian casteless society lie shattered on the ground. It is the political parties, organized on caste lines that thrive on such societal tensions and rivalries and perpetuate the animosity between upper & lower castes to serve their vested interests.

The liberal, humanistic principles which can result in the establishment of a just and humane society have been subjected to criminal negligence. Indian democracy signifies nothing greater than party politics and elections. The very process of election has become suspect, marred as it is by allegations of rigging, booth capturing and bogus voting. A large number of police personnel and paramilitary forces have to be deployed lust to ensure that legitimate voters get opportunity to exercise their right to vote. Serious distortions are visible in the. democratic process - a recent example being the Panchayat elections in one of the States where there were widespread allegations that candidates belonging to opposition parties bad been prevented even from filing their nomination papers - thus making a sham of all the rhetoric about democratic decentralization and grassroots participation of people in democratic process.

An unsatisfactory aspect of Indian democracy is the practice of defection from one party to anotherironically justified on the basis of “democratic” considerations of freedom of choice. The problem with Indian democracy is that it has been transplanted recently and has not “grown” from the roots. “Government by the people is not and never can be a reality; it is only a cry by which demagogues humbug us into voting for them” said George Bernard Shaw. All of this is direct fallout of the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime. The visionary giants who led the country to independence and secured its future through a democratic Constitution have all departed; the present day leader is a creature driven greed and the lust for power; he can resort to any measure to capture power and then retain it. His value system is warped, he is driven by narrow, selfish, parochial interest and he does not hesitate in flexing muscle power to eliminate his opponents. Multiparty democracy; so essential for a diverse country like India, has come more as a bane titan a boon. Parties have become the vehicle for the leaders and faithful to amass wealth and shield themselves from the law of land. National interest has been made subservient to parry cause: The motto is ‘self before party. party before nation’. The Peoples Representation Act, 2002, passed in Parliament recently, exposes the shameless lengths to which politicians - of all hues and colours - can go to save their own skin.

A subversion of almost all democratic norms and values has led to a seething wave of intolerance and hatred, searing and destroying the bonds of love and harmony that had held the society together for ages. Violence assumes many forms - terrorism, insurgency, and communal tension, violence against women and through it all, the fabric of the society gets distorted beyond recognition. Intolerant, ignorant about the country’s composite culture and heritage, devoid of any sense of history, people indulge in relentless, meaningless criticism of all things Indian and blindly imbibe whatever crumbs of Western culture come our way, courtesy globalization. Negative criticism is, however, not an attribute limited to the uncomprehending masses - the august body of the parliamentary opposition. forgoing all attempts at constructive criticism, utilizes every single opportunity to humiliate and embarrass the government. Quite literally, its function has been reduced to mere opposition.

The question that naturally arises is whether the form of British parliamentary democracy, which was to a large extent imposed upon the nation without making sure whether the people were ready for it, is actually a suitable method of governance for a country like ours. The religious, ethnic, racial and caste diversities are deeply entrenched in the social ethos as well as the psyche of the people and they cannot be eradicated by just wishing them away. Doubtless, the needs of a country like ours, are vastly different from Britain, a small island nation with a largely homogeneous population.

The retrograde effect of Indian democracy has led a section of the educated masses to clamour for an end to democratic rule. Instead, they favour a brief stint of martial law and military dictatorship and justify their demand by arguing that such a step would help to restore discipline and confidence among the masses and reverse the process of degeneration that has set in. In fact, a lack of discipline and absence of national dedication was one of the six fatal mistakes which had brought the country to its present sorry state, as pointed out by the great jurist late Nani Palkhivala. But it would be fallacious to assume that respect for the rule of law can be enforced through a military government because such obedience based on fear of reprisals would be transitory. Love for the country is something that comes from within, through a proper appreciation of our unique social, cultural, historical legacy. No other political setup, except a democracy permits an individual to think freely and reach this level of realisation.

In India, we are fortunate enough to possess firmly established and functioning democratic institutions. Their weakness is their rigidity and inflexibility, their inability to adapt themselves to the changing times. Erosion of values has led to opacity of vision and this wrong can be set right only by that section of the population which constitutes its majority-the youth. No hurdle is formidable enough if people act to remove it. Action is important today, as the liberal educated intelligentsia turn their faces away in disgust from the murky world of politics and governance. People who plead helplessness in the face of rampant corruption are the very ones who sustain it by their silence acceptance of it. People who do not vote as a sign of protest are actually instrumental in perpetuating the lawlessness and anarchy around them.


Thus, it is thus clear that without a sense of discipline in all wakes of life, democracy is likely to turn into anarchy, chaos and disorder. If we wish to preserve democracy in India we will have to practice restraint and discipline each citizen. The onus is on the youth of the country-to create awareness, to sensitise the illiterate masses, to enable the downtrodden to ask for their rights, to teach them that rights are always accompanied by corresponding duties, to warn the politicians that we have borne the assault of the last straw on our back and will not tolerate any more. Democracy’s defects do not, however obscure its basic value. It guarantees freedom to the individual albeit that freedom is certainly restrained by virtue of mast’s living in a society. The freedom is certainly accompanied by certain responsibilities. Self-defence and the difficulty of judicious choice but a democratic way of life alone comes nearest to satisfying the love of freedom in man.

S. K. Singh