Deep-seated discontent

Deep-seated discontent

DEMOCRACY IN INDIA

Though we take pride in being the biggest democracy in the world, there is widespread discontent over the way the Indian democracy works in practice. Why is this so? A useful starting point would be (according to Pranab Bardhan, an eminent economist, in a recent lecture) the analytical distinction between the depth and the width of democracy.

As for widening democracy, we have made a lot of progress in including historically discriminated groups like SC/STs, women and minorities in the political process through reservation of seats in legislatures. There is enthusiastic participation in voting by people from all strata of society, especially the poor. We have had people from Dalit, women and minority groups as presidents, prime ministers, chief ministers, Supreme Court judges and high level administrative officers. So, one would expect that state policies would focus on issues like removing poverty and deprivation for the masses.

Instead, the circle of reservation is being sought to be expanded to include even the traditionally powerful social groups (like the Jats, Patels etc), now posing as backward communities. Even within the historically oppressed SC/ST groups, the so-called ‘creamy layer’ is continuing to corner reserved privileges in education and jobs over successive generations at the expense of the less fortunate. Some of the Dalit leaders, while occupying high positions like that of chief minister, have amassed huge personal fortunes.

Another obstacle in widening the distribution of political power is the lack of internal democracy in almost all political parties, which have become either single person (like Mamata Banerjee’s TMC, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, Mayawati’s BSP) or dynastic enterprises (like the Samajwadi Party of Yadav family, the DMK of Karunanidhi family, the RJD of Lalu Prasad family, the Shiv Sena of Thackeray family and the Congress of Nehru-Gandhi family).

Consequently, only people close to the dominant family – through blood relation, loyalty or control over money or muscle power – can occupy positions of power. Within that circle, even people with criminal records get nomination and win in ‘people’s courts’! All political parties raise huge unaccounted funds from dubious sources. As a result, corruption is rampant in all layers of the government.

A glaring instance is the recent flyover collapse in Kolkata which has brought in the open the pervasive nexus between politicians, building contractors and unscrupulous local goons working as sub-contractors and supplying sub-standard materials (the so-called ‘syndicate raj’). Worst of all, increasingly people are accepting that corruption is the norm in politics and, hence, do not consider it to be an important election issue any more.

Deepening democracy depends mainly on the efficiency and independence of supporting institutions like the police, the investigative agencies, the judiciary and the press to ensure fair elections, rule of law and accountability of the elected representatives and government officials. In India, the Central Election Commission is largely independent but its instructions are often flouted by the state governments. Intimidation, false voting and bribing voters are commonplace, particularly in remote areas.

Though some newspapers and TV channels are financed and controlled by political parties and business houses, the competition among them ensures free flow of information to discerning voters. At the same time, many people – either due to lack of education or blind faith in the rhetoric or personality of some leader – go on voting for the same parties, irrespective of their performance. The judiciary, especially at the higher levels, is largely independent but the high cost, hassles and the inordinate delay in the legal process is a big hindrance to delivery of justice.

The biggest obstacle to personal freedom and civil liberties are the highly partisan police and investigative agencies. Since the judicial verdict in a case depends on how the case is presented before the court, the rights of ordinary people are often at the mercy of the ruling party politicians, local goons and people with money power who control the police and the course of investigations.

Identity, freebie politics

There is an additional issue. Many of the poor and historically subjugated people would prefer to vote for a candidate who belongs to their own caste, religion or someone who treats them, at least in words, as their own. These ‘identity’ considerations are more important to such voters than whether the candidate has brought about local area development (roads, schools, hospitals, sanitation). Votes of people can also be bought by distributing freebies like liquor, blankets, colour TVs or cash and promises of free electricity, water and loans from banks which need not be repaid.

The connection between voting and the freebies is direct whereas the link between voting and the fruit from long term development for a specific voter is not very clear. In addition, in situations where one cannot count on the police or local administration to protect them against extortionists of different types (including the police), the poor voters will like to vote for a candidate who they believe can provide them protection.

In the absence of alternative job opportunities, they will also vote for a person who can ensure that they be able to continue illegally occupying government lands or encroaching on city pavements as street vendors, plying unauthorised auto rickshaws and taxis breaking rules, stealing coal from coal mines or forcibly supplying construction materials at higher prices to builders. That is why with every change of government, such people and their trade unions rush to change their loyalties to align with the new ruling party.

In these contexts, candidates like known criminals, goons and powerful trade union bosses are considered more vote-worthy than others. Consequently, longer term development issues like poverty, illiteracy, lack of sanitation and basic health services are put on the back burner.

(The writer is former professor of Economics, IIM-Calcutta)

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