Saturday, August 23, 2014

India 2014: The Democratic End

India is a proud democratic country, even more so after the magic of a clear majority has been achieved by the new administration in Delhi after quarter of a century of coalition politics. Everywhere one goes, democratic pride is in display: If some people started doubting if a democratic system will only produce politics of division, they have now been thoroughly convinced that Indian democracy is a system that works.

In this rather triumphalist environment, it is rather blasphemous to question whether democracy is enough in itself. Indeed, blogging with a contrarian opinion is quite hazardous in India, where people are commonly arrested for political opinions using colonial era gagging laws. Besides, even if there is no legal ground to arrest someone, smashing up people's houses by agitated supporters of one party or the other is quite common. TV channels are routinely silenced, either by political mandate or by corporate takeovers, with the objective of squashing any critical perspective. In some ways, India seems to take democracy as the end, not a means to attain greater liberties.

Among those celebrating India's democracy, the contrast with China is often highlighted. Many claims India will eventually overtake China because India is democratic while China is not. There may be some merit in that claim, though such unquestioning formulation, worthy of a George Bush Junior, may make one wonder whether this is complacence or plain silliness. These claims are indeed made quite nonchalantly, as appropriate for a self-evident truth, even though the local government in India's capital city remains in suspension for last several months. That India is sending Helicopter gunships to fight its own landless peasants in Central India is seen only as an anti-terrorist operation. If one observes the case of Irom Sharmila, the lady who has been protesting against the arbitrary powers given to the Indian Armed Forces and was jailed and force-fed for the last 13 years (read the latest), the limits of democracy is enough view become more apparent.

Besides China has a deep meritocracy, which India's corrupt democracy in fact undermines. Most institutions, Police particularly among them, but also such unseemly ones like Hospitals and Schools and Universities, are politicised, with appointments linked to political patronage. The Indian judiciary prides itself of its independence, but questions about its corruption and political affiliations are only kept off the media for the fear of contempt of court, which Indian judges have a penchant for. And, indeed, deep corruption in all public services, this week Senior Officials got arrested for selling a range of things including Government jobs and Censor Board certificates, makes one wonder whether democracy is enough.

Indian democracy is indeed no mean feat. The very imagination that a poor, illiterate country could have universal suffrage was a great achievement of political imagination. Indian people have indeed risen to the challenge, by displaying their collective will in great splendour every time they were allowed to vote. They have taken the right decision on every turn, throwing out the corrupt and the inefficient, and voting for hope, peace, and lately, development. And, indeed, democracy has become ingrained in the Indian life: Last time a Prime Minister tried to suspend democracy in 1975 learnt a lesson.

However, the greatest danger to Indian democracy comes from its treatment as an end in itself. The people who imagined Indian democracy saw it as a means: To greater liberties, as a means for holding the powerful to account, to ensure equitable development. Trading off such aims to treat democracy as enough, and to speak moist-eyed about how there was a polling station at even the remotest part of the country (no mean feat), and accepting poor education, poor healthcare, corruption and lack of accountability as just ways of Indian life, poses the greatest challenge to sustenance of Indian democracy. Democracy isn't a substitute for public accountability; democracy does not guarantee meritocracy, so on and so forth. Democracy makes all those things possible, indeed, only if we care about them. It is time for Indians to wake up from their democratic stupor and start working towards some of those other goals.

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