Wednesday, April 01, 2009

India: Up, Close and Personal - The Politics

Indian politics is often seen as the culprit, for the country not moving forward fast enough. I have two issues with this assertion. First, I don't know why we say we are not moving forward fast enough. Second, I think if we have a problem, it is the subversion of the political process, not the political process itself.

Let me explain. First, this thing about not moving forward fast enough - I don't get it. Oh yes, I know growth rates and the comparison about China, and I have seen the sprawling towers of Shanghai and the slums of Mumbai from the air. But, nations are not companies and year-on-year growth rate is not the only thing they are supposed to deliver. Despite all the fashionable talk, we are not shareholders of the country, we are citizens. It is important that we get a say. Benjamin Franklin talked about the trade-off between security and liberty, but it is equally true in terms of economic growth. So, if we have to measure progress, we should measure holistically and take into account various things we have achieved, not just the roads, the buildings, the software companies and the airports, but the fact that our villagers are voting now and are directly empowered. This may create issues in the parliament now, and we may not have the world's most educated legislators, but we are bumbling our way to better governance.

I don't like the political culture of India, but I don't think there is any outside solution. We can surely do better, but to do better, we have to start thinking differently and inclusively, and not the way we do now - by trying to exclude most of our population. Indian democracy has been a big experiment. We could have easily excluded most of our people and started the republic giving the voting rights to the learned and the moneyed, just as Americans did. But, our founding fathers [and why don't we use this term] had a vision - of giving everyone a vote. I am sure this is possibly one of the bravest political decisions of modern times. However, we have started taking that for granted and these days, want to close the gate if we could.

This dithering, this reluctance to accept the experiment of universal suffrage and take it forward has led to the subversion of our political culture. The idea, if I could attempt to read the intent, was that a republican constitution and universal suffrage will usher in an age of empowerment, and create a model of governance and development. Whatever we make of the Nehruvian state capitalism now, this fitted in with this model perfectly and prepared the ground for whatever we are achieving now. What we have however done is to try to subvert this model for most of our 60 year history, first by subverting the democracy inside the political parties, then by creating a system of economic patronage and then by creating a media-politician nexus to keep everyone else out.

Democracy, therefore, is not our problem. Exclusionism is. We have achieved a lot and will continue to progress, because we have the democratic institutions at the heart of our political culture. However, we have to fight exclusionism - statements like Muslims must go out of India or that there should be a minimum educational qualification for being the President - and try to create a more inclusive society. While we have achieved a lot politically, this is one area where we have some distance to cover.

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