Friday, June 14, 2002

India: A Democracy?

I attended my convocation ceremony at IIT-Kanpur a few weeks back, and I was lucky enough to get a chance of spending almost an hour talking in person with our Chief Guest - Dr. Arun Shourie. Dr. Shourie is the present Disinvestment Minister of India, and he has been credited with revolutionizing free and fair journalism in India when he was earlier the editor of the Indian Express.

We talked about the Kashmir issue and the pathetic lack of decision-making capability by the government. We talked about the atrociously slow judicial process. We talked about the growth of low-researched and negativistic journalism in the media. We talked about the dishonorable corruption record of India. Interestingly, each and every single issue seemed to boil down to faults in the political structure of India. Allow me to enumerate some of the glaring faults of the flawed democratic system of India.

Firstly: Elections in a country having only 60% literacy and very high poverty levels are not fair and democratic at all, because most people vote for a candidate who either threatens them physically, or gives them some monetary incentives. Almost nobody does (or is capable of doing) an unbiased knowledge-based assessment of the candidates.

Secondly: There are such a large number of small political parties that no single party is able to achieve a total majority these days and a coalition government is finally formed, with each constituent party having a different ideology and different preferences. This is completely against the basic theme of democracy, which states that the populace actually votes for or against a particular governing ideology based on industry or religion or other attitudes. Instead, in India the result of the elections is a mixed, ad-hoc, and confused structure that is not able to do justice to even one party that had been voted for.

The coalition members are rather perpetually engaged in mutual conflicts arising from differing personal ambitions, instead of uniting together and handling the functioning of such a large country. Such unstable coalitions often break and no-confidence motions are enforced and more elections are held. First of all, the case for a no-confidence motion should never arise in an ideal democracy. Add to this the tremendous costs involved in funding the infrastructure required for organizing a fair election in the world's largest democracy.

Thirdly: The Opposition opposes each and every proposal made by the Government, either because the Opposition might have made mistakes when it was earlier in power and does not want anybody to rectify them now, or because it wants to reserve the better proposals for itself and implement them when it hopefully comes into power later. Even the Government delays reforms and times them according to the dates of the various upcoming elections to reap maximum benefit. Both groups are logically justified in thinking practically, but as a result, the development of the country slows down tremendously.

Fourthly: In all other democracies, it is customary for the politicians to specialize in a particular field and take up portfolios that they are most capable of handling. This practice is clearly absent in India because cabinet reshuffles are very common, and meritocracy is singularly absent. An even worse situation arises when people who have unresolved criminal records because of the sad state of the Indian judiciary, and people who have not even completed their basic education, are elected into the Parliament.

An engineer in India has to spend his first twenty-two years studying before he can claim that he is capable of solving some practical engineering problems. A doctor has to spend his first twenty-five years studying before he can claim that he is capable of saving a patient's life. How can an illiterate person, and a criminal, claim that he is capable of running a country?

Fifthly: The system of reservation for backward tribes was most apparently evolved as a way of keeping minority groups happy and gathering their votes. Else, by all logic, reservation should have been imposed on the basis of income groups, instead of being done on a caste basis. This has only led to a very lowly form of exploitation of the system by the politicians. The result is that incapable people get to run the bureaucracy, and the ones who should be benefiting from the reservation policies are still helpless, blindly voting for the politicians who are good at giving speeches on discrimination and human rights violation. Furthermore, the system of reservation has contributed more towards the segregation of segments of society, than towards the united and cooperative betterment of the needy.

Sixthly: As a sad culmination of all the above reasons, corruption has traveled down from the highest political office of the country to right down to the peons who work in the government offices. This culture of corruption is deeply intertwined with the way power is won, exercised, and retained in the Indian political system.

I finally told Dr. Shourie that it was apparent that the fault lay in the Indian way of democracy and the way it had evolved over the years. He just spoke a single sentence - "The caste system of India has ruined us."

The reason became immediately clear to me because most of the problems of the democratic system could be attributed to the highly fragmented and disunited multi-party scenario, and this was a result of the caste system in India. On gaining independence, we started with an ideal democratic India with just a few parties, but soon these parties discovered an easy way to guarantee themselves votes by taking advantage of the communal groups in India. Coupled with the personal desire for power, the original bi-party or tri-party democratic India (similar to the bi-party British system) broke into smaller and smaller political parties, and ruined the very spirit of democracy. The result has been all the points that I enumerated above, and many more. I would term India as only an "artificial-democracy" at the very best, because achieving democracy seems to be possible at two levels. One would be a democracy in spirit where social justice, human rights, participation from all groups, and the redistribution of wealth is ensured. The second would be a democracy in name where regular elections are held, the constitution is followed, and justice is guaranteed. India appears to have been targeting the easier second alternative, but unfortunately, we have not been successful in achieving that either.

If you think deeply, you will easily agree with the fact that any kind of a democracy forces everybody to be selfish and work not towards the welfare of the nation, but towards their own personal gains and personal power - the national welfare is expected to follow as a parallel and secondary effect.

Look at it this way: In an ideal competitive democracy, all politicians will try to ensure more votes for them, which will in turn be possible only if they work in the interests of the nation and its people. However, the problematic clause is that the politicians can ensure votes for themselves not necessarily "only" through working towards the welfare of the nation, but also through a dozen other work-around methods. The Indian politicians have perfected these other alternative methods, taking advantage of the poverty and the low literacy levels in the country. A side effect of the Indian democratic system has definitely been positive development, but so has been the growth of extensive corruption. This corruption has evolved because of the very nature of the system and the way elections are won and the country is ruled.

I asked Dr. Shourie if he could give examples of some other countries that followed a political system similar to the Indian democracy and were yet doing well, but he could not name even one such country. I next asked him what he thought could be a solution to this seemingly impossible problem. He sadly shook his head and said -

"I'm sorry young man. India evolved in a very inappropriate way. Many mistakes were made and they should have been corrected much before, but nobody tried or even wanted to rectify them.

"There is a saying in psychology - A Breakdown is a Breakthrough - which means, that once a person breaks down, then this is actually considered to be a breakthrough because the person needs to start afresh. India will continue going down the ruins for some more time, and should wait for a breakdown of the present structure. Only after that can a more mature political structure be put into place."