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Perils of Democracy – In the Indian Context

The victim of democracy is the politics itself. As they say familiarity breeds contempt, politics in a democratic set up tends to be looked upon with contempt by the people. If, in India, people are asked to vote for an institution that has maintained some level of integrity – they would vote for the Supreme court, Election Commission or to the Comptroller and Auditor General of India – reserving their last preference to either Parliament or state Assemblies.

Romanticizing the concept of democracy has shadowed the perils of its empirical implementation. Freedom is an essential part of democracy. But unfettered freedom brings with it its own hazards that would undermine the institutions that help sustain democracy. Here freedom is essential for both the ruled and the ruler. Either way, absolute liberty would make it difficult to govern as it would lead to evolution of new challenges which would pose threat to the state and its people.

It is clearly evident in the context of India – a country much hailed as the largest, vibrant and stable democracy in the world. Indeed we are fortunate to experience the fruits of democracy – rights guaranteed by the constitution, empowered to vote and chose the ‘right’ representative to frame the laws, rule of law etc. While gleefully listening to the paeans, we seldom realize the threats posed by the very nature of democracy.

Politics, Corruption and Violence

In the beginning I mentioned about politics becoming the victim in democracy. It is much maligned and abused field in all the democracies – whether in USA, Europe or in India, politics is reviled and looked upon with disdain. There is a reason for this. Politicians, whom we elect with much fanfare hailing free and fair elections, tend to become the arbiters of ‘power’. In India, they become the custodians and abusers of power. Unfortunately it is the people who vest them with this ‘opportunity’. As democracy with weak institutions gives them free hand to run the government, they tend to err, and err with impunity.

It’s not uncommon to see criminals getting repeatedly elected to the legislature. Only democracy bestows that ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ both for the people to vote and for the ‘representative’ to chose to contest either from the jail or even when slapped with multiple criminal charges.

Criminalization of politics is the biggest peril of democracy. With it comes misuse of position and authority. It inevitably leads to corruption.

A democracy is not a democracy unless it has independent and strong institutions that help facilitate good governance and right thinking citizens demanding accountability and transparency.

Bad politics leads to corruption. India has been rightly recognized as the most corrupt nation in the world. Thanks to democracy. It is mean to blame democracy for the state of affairs. But, you can only blame democracy for it – as the people responsible for corruption are ‘enabled’ to loot the exchequer either by the loopholes in the laws or indifferent ‘people’ who form the very basis of democracy.

If corruption has reached gargantuan proportions, it is because of the indifferent attitude of the people and enabling environment provided by democracy for the corrupt to practise their art.

The very notion of ‘chalta hai’ attitude is the gift of democracy. Post 1992 reforms, it’s individualism which has been strengthened by certain set of laws, which has become the root cause of corruption. We aid the corrupt to preserve our individuality, hence freedom. A voter reveres a corrupt politician because that politician is not a threat but a perceived benefactor to that voter. A capitalist, knows that his business would thrive if he can preserve his individualism by bribing an official or a politician. Democracy aides both the individual and the ‘corrupt’ authority.

Violence – between citizens belonging to two disparate groups, classes, religions, castes or genders blossoms best within a state that has deregulated its authority on its citizens. And violence – citizens versus state is the result of authoritative state using its power to do injustice to a section of people, e.g. Naxalism and insurgency in north-east.  There is also a state sponsored violence against its own citizens misguided by certain ideology and perception of threat that is non-existential.

A better democracy is the one which has strong checks and balances in place. It may be educated citizens, independent institutions, strong civil society and strong laws.

Democracy in itself is not a threat. But, any weak link within it is bound to weaken the whole structure of its.

Development, Underdevelopment and Poverty

Democracy has become synonymous with elections. Or it is reduced to the process of elections.

In democracy poor people vote, and the elected become rich at the cost of the poor. It’s a government of the rich, for the poor to sustain the poverty. This sounds cynical, but hard facts are there to vindicate the statement. If 80% of India’s population still earns less than Rs 50 per day, should we compliment ourselves or introspect?

Development has suffered more in democracy than in other forms of governments. Though it is fashionable to say that democracy is better than despotism despite lack of development, does it do justice to the vast millions who go to sleep with hunger in their bellies?

This is not to suggest we should bring an authoritarian government to bring change. Within democracy, we need a change of mindset both of the people and politicians in their attitude towards development. We are witnessing the loot of our resources by the powerful few who are covertly supported by the government machinery. Every penny that’s put to improve the lot of this country is unaccounted for. The crux is lack of accountability.

Corruption directly brings underdevelopment. And this spawns poverty. In India poverty is the major benefactor for the politicians. As long as poverty is sustained, they can amass wealth – always unaccounted.

Solution

Education of the masses and strong institutions. Institutions which are not pestered and interfered by the ruling classes perform better. The fear that these institutions if given complete autonomy would grow as a threat is unfounded. The Supreme Court of India has acted truly as the custodian of our constitution and also public faith in the system we live in. The election commission of India has become the role model for other countries for emulation in conducting free and fair elections. These institutions are governed by bureaucrats, not by the elected politicians. These institutions function well within the scope of our constitution.

Even our military has gained reputation for being fair to its people and the constitution. It can be safely assumed that where there is no interference by the politics, the institutions serve well. For a democracy to thrive and bring development to the masses, we need independent institutions to act as check and balances on the government and make accountable people responsible for policy implementation.

We need universities which are not at the mercy of government; we need public service commissions not interfered in their functioning by the government; we need a strong Lokpal to punish the corrupt; strong local governments to bring development at the bottom; independent CBI and a police force which is pro-people; the list goes on.

These changes are not difficult to bring on. It is the will which is missing, lest it affects the power of few to amass the wealth.

Perils of democracy are the result of loopholes within it. To plug them, we need to fight. Of course, non-violently.

(these are just few thoughts, I welcome readers to debate this issue and express their views below