Time to redefine our democracy

A democratic edifice will be fragile and vulnerable unless values of democracy are internalised.

On the eve of India celebrating its 66th anniversary of the Independence, it is time to introspect  and make a dispassionate assessment of its achievements and failures. It is worthwhile to remember the words of the former British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden what he said in 1954, “the Indian venture is not a pale imitation of our practice at home, but a magnified and multiplied reproduction of on a scale we have never dreamt of. If it succeeds, its influence on Asia is incalculable for good. Whatever the outcome, we must honour those who attempted it.” 

When the country liberated itself from the yoke of colonialism after the epic freedom struggle, the challenge before the nation was how to put in place a system of governance taking into account the vastness of the country and its corresponding economic, social, cultural and linguistic plurality and diversity and socio-economic backwardness.

Many who subscribed to the imperatives of economic and educational advancement as the prerequisite of a liberal democratic edifice, expressed their cynicism as to the efficacy of the Westminster model, borrowed from abroad on the native soil. But sooner than later the teeming millions of the electorate who were otherwise illiterate and uneducated proved the ‘prophecies of doom’ wrong by their robust and earthy commonsense.

Nothing more can prove better the resilience of the pulsating democratic and parliamentary polity than the regular and periodic elections to the representative institutions from panchayat to Parliament, the vibrant media, the civil society and the vigilant judiciary.

Festivals of democracy

While we have celebrated the festivals of democracy with much gusto, we are far from realising what Gandhi talked about: “removing every tear from every eye.”

The challenges before democracy in the contemporary world is not the lofty goals of democracy per se, but how to create an enabling environment to realise the goals of democracy by both legislative measures and by strengthening  the service delivery mechanism like the civil service, the police and the judiciary. 

It is also not correct to assume that concepts like liberty and equality were exclusive to western discourse. These concepts were known and practiced in the countries of the East like India.  While the representative institutions like Sabha and Samiti were very much in vague in ancient India, streaks of philosophy of equality can also traced to the holy scriptures of the Hindus containing the filtered wisdom, articulates that ‘Sarve janah sukhinobhavantu.’  This very eloquently speaks of equality and an inclusive society.  

In this context, it is worth recalling what Gandhi spoke of democracy. His notion of democracy was, to quote him, “under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest.. no country in the world today shows any but patronizing regard for the weak... western democracy, as it functions today, is diluted fascism… true democracy can not be worked out by twenty men sitting at the centre. It has to be worked from below by people of every village.”  

Prime minister Manmohan Singh’s admission that 42 per cent of Indian children are still under malnourishment is a national shame that smacks of our false claim to GDP growth. It is high time that our politicians and the bureaucrats do some soul searching to redeem our pledge with the ‘tryst with destiny’.

Rampant corruption is like a cancer of democracy.  A democratic edifice will be fragile and vulnerable unless values of democracy such as honesty, dedication, initiative, dynamism and commitment for excellence are internalised by all the stakeholders alike. Formal structures of governance are as important as democratic spirit and bent of mind on part of the citizenry.  A vibrant civic culture is an integral aspect of democracy in the contemporary world.

Democracy is also all about reconciliation, not only of divergent viewpoints, but perhaps more important is coexistence of different culture, tolerance of different faiths and persuasion giving rise to what is called multiculturalism. The scientific and technological marvel that the western countries boasts of today, the super structure of their technological and industrial superiority, their architecture, the industries, the corporate houses, their knowledge base such as universities and institutions are based on values like sustained hard work, dedication and initiative. Excellence comes with unhindered competitions on a level playing field and where there are equal opportunities.  

(The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

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