Wednesday, February 26, 2014

India 2020: The Problem of Democracy

There is a saying - whatever can be said about India, the opposite would also be true. However, this epithet of being the land of the opposites is a benign one, almost affectionate. It is more a proclamation of India's diversity than an excuse for any hypocrisy. However, on the issue of whether Indians hate or love democracy, the opposites rule explain very little: The Indian attitude can rather be called, yes, hypocritical.

Consider what Indians say about China and one gets the sense. On one hand, Indians proclaim that India's future is more sustainable than China, because, of course, India is a democracy. India's path may be torturous and full of surprises, but India is still moving ahead with its billion people not by government design but collective will. For this and this alone, Indians proudly claim, the world should recognise India as a great power, on the same pedestal with the other great powers.

However, at the same time, when a visitor would point to the contrast of India's crowded and almost failing railways with China's superfast one, or its roads and bridges and universities with the decisive progress of its northern neighbour, Indians are quick to admit that India's biggest problem is its democracy. Too much of democracy, where anyone can obstruct anything, some observers claim, is pulling India behind. The panacea, they suggest, is a 'strong leader', who can override all this and prioritise on infrastructure, and move the country forward.

How can Indians be simultaneously proud and ashamed about its democracy? How can they claim the world's recognition for being a great example of a poor country maintaining, above everything, a democratic will, and yet not recognise the value of democracy themselves? Indeed, the common sense solution to India's democratic deadlock, when it is projected as such, appears to be in reforming not its electoral system but legal system. One would see that the courts are too slow, burdened and often abused, and the judiciary is somewhat unaccountable. If one wanted to speed up development, they won't be talking about scrapping democracy, but a war-like investment and reform of the judiciary. 

But no one is talking about this. Because this is not what the most vocal section of the Indian voters want. They want, as Political parties promise to fulfill: 'development' by making land acquisitions easier. And, in this, perhaps, one can find an answer to the apparent puzzle.

India's middle class is not really at war against democracy or they are not seeking a functioning judiciary. The label of democracy suits them not just to flaunt it at the world stage and help project India as a mature country, but also to push forth their agenda and their concerns. However, what's inconvenient is the rule of law, which comes on the way of the land grab they are intent upon. The way to think about 'development' in India is not to say this is the kind of society India is and how we make life better for everyone, but rather, how do I get rich fast. And, one lesson Indians learnt over the last two decades is that the fastest and least troublesome way to do it is find 'agricultural land' and pay some officials to 'de-notify' it, allowing real estate developments on it, which makes the value of the land go up almost overnight. The only problem is that the lawful owners of the land may object and they may have some inconvenient rights because, as in some cases, they have been living on the land for centuries. It is things like this that comes in the way of development: It is these rights that the Indian middle classes are fighting against.

Indeed, we have been here before: It is easy to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin to say that those who want prosperity at the cost of liberty, may deserve neither. Indeed, this whole rhetoric against 'too much democracy' is really about keeping the facade of electoral system but suspending the rights of the poor and of the minorities. Even for those who are rooting for this, there is one uncomfortable thought: In a country like India, almost everyone is a minority. And, when time comes, when we got what we want, when we have given up all those rights which our constitution guarantees, we may just end up finding our individual selves in the minority of one: If we learn from history, and in this case we don't seem to, we will see that the fights against democracy and rule of law almost always end this way.

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