WHITHER INDIAN DEMOCRACY?
When Winston Churchill remarked, “Democracy is the worst form of government, unfortunately we do not know anything better,” he was not merely enjoying a paradox. He was underlining the fact, derived from historic experience, how difficult it is to successfully work a democratic polity!
People in India, who revile against the perversions of Indian democracy since 1950, when free India declared itself a Sovereign Democratic Republic, should realise that it is nothing short of a miracle that our country – a bewildering diversity of languages, religions, ethnicity and regional history – has preserved the basic framework of democracy as bequeathed to us in 1950 in a fairly good shape. This is all the more significant in the light of what has happened in most of the countries which got their freedom after World War II, including our post-partition neighbour, Pakistan. In many countries, including Pakistan, military rule became the alternative to democratic regime. India is perhaps the most notable exception where the Army, while serving effectively to maintain external and internal security, has scrupulously kept out of politics.
But a look at the political and social history of the past five decades would reveal that our democracy has faced many challenges. Since independence, each year has appeared worse than the previous one. Prof. Galbraith’s description of India as a ‘functioning anarchy’ is now astonishingly precise. Our country is fast deteriorating to become the “Wild West”. In fact, the present situation makes one wonder if the country has any Constitution or laws at all. The age-old, well-recognised rules governing democracy have been consigned to the dustbin and the institutions meant to safeguard the democratic fabric were devalued. All the right thinking people must be wondering whether this is the democracy we gave to ourselves.
A democratic republic, which is what our Constitution aims to build, is one in which the worth of the individual is not submerged in the collective will but sustains it. In such a polity no man may walk on crutches or regard public business as no concern of his. Every citizen must remember that if matters go wrong with the State it is he who is ultimately responsible. He must, therefore, not only acquire by study enough familiarity with the working of the Government through which democracy functions, but also understand the basic problems which have to be tackled if the good life is to be realised here and now.
Bleak Political Scenario
The present political scenario in our country is pathetic. Politics has become tattered and tainted with crime. The quality of our public life has slipped to the nadir. The moral standards of our politicians, policemen and criminals are indistinguishable from one another. In large parts of the country, the Government simply does not exist. Mafia gangs terrorise and rule; even the thin dividing line between the politicians and criminals has disappeared giving rise to criminal-politic nexus. Politics has been criminalised and crime politicised. If, earlier, the criminal sought the protection of the politician, now it is the politician who needs the protection of the criminals or the two have become one and the same person. Governments have lost their credibility, legitimacy and even their representative credentials. The people have lost faith in political parties and in the promises of their leaders which have proved to be hollow.
Need for Electoral Reforms
Free and fair elections constitute the foundation of parliamentary democracy. The framers of the Constitution have given a foolproof electoral mechanism to ensure free and fair elections. However, several factors including – increase in the use of money-power, reliance on muscle-power at the time of election, inciting the caste and communal prejudice in the voters and the misuse of official machinery – have shaken the foundation of the electoral process.
It is widely recognised that the whole electoral system has become corrupt, dishonest, divisive and exploitative. It is used for gaining power by hook or by crook. The only remedy in these circumstances lies in bringing about systemic changes in the polity and elections that offer no opportunity to the unscrupulous elements to play their nefarious game.
Role of Opposition
The ruling party in a democracy is generally guided more by the lust for power than by the sincere desire to uplift the living conditions of the people. As the government becomes more powerful, the rights of the people are infringed upon. Consequently, the institution of democracy degenerates. At the juncture, it is the opposition that pinpoints lapses as well as the weaknesses of the people who constitute the government. It remains alert and puts check upon the erring Government. Opposition helps in making the people politically educated. All governments in every type of political system, seek to win for their policies the support or acquiescence of the population and a common man may live under illusions created by the ruling party’s false propaganda vindicating its own actions and policies. It is the opposition that brings about the political awakening among the people. They will be able to evaluate the situation correctly. Sadly in India the Opposition dons the role of playing negative game for petty political gains by censuring almost everything that the ruling party proposes to do. The Opposition’s actions have been restricted to playing dubious roles in toppling the government as was the case in the fall of Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP-led coalition government in April 1999. Today, the constructive opposition which is one of the elements of democratic set up has whithered. Even in decisions taken on sensitive issues such as the signing of the CTBT, which concerns the national security, political consensus is hard to come by. Such types of petty squabbles and dissensions in between political parties flout the very idiom and grammar of democracy.
Independent Judiciary and a Free Press
The Judiciary plays a very important role as the watchdog of our democratic constitution. Our society has devalued the Judiciary, as it has devalued every other important institution. Instead of fortifying our judges against political pressures and threats, instead of insisting upon integrity and neutrality in judicial appointments, we have permitted the executive to enunciate and apply the stupefying doctrine that it is at liberty to supersede judges of fine stature and grit and appoint men who subscribe to the philosophy of the ruling party.
Press is the crucial link between the people and the government. The grievances of the people should be brought to the notice of the government and the government’s policies should be made known to the public. It is the Press that keeps the people well informed about the working of the government. A common man does not have access to the information regarding the working of the governments. The investigative and informative functions of the media are necessary to combat every government’s reluctance for transparency in governance, and to offset the sheer weight of its public relations machine. A government can only be held publicly accountable if people know what it is doing and if they have an independent means of testing official claims about its policies.
In this respect also, we can say that the Press of our times is misused, largely influenced by politicians for publishing fabricated news and hence is biased. The criticism by the Press several times proves to be nothing more than libel. Under such circumstances, Press can misguide the public and may prove catastrophic for the stability of the society. Therefore, it is a must that they observe an ethical code of conduct.
Presently there is a distressing trend in the Indian public life and that is the growing cynicism about politics and politicians among the people. The public do not even care to cast their votes at the time of elections. A host of factors such as low rate of literacy, apathy, unprincipled politics, lack of concrete effort on the part of the political parties in motivating the voters and local conditions in some parts of the country are being cited as reasons adversely affecting the exercise of franchise. The cure lies in instilling confidence in the voters, by laying the emphasis on moral values, parliamentary standards, administrative accountability, internal democracy in political parties, and clean administration.
Parliamentary democracy is not merely representative democracy; it is also participatory democracy. It means that the responsibility of the voters does not stop with casting their votes; it means continuous active involvement in the selection of the government. The common man should not be influenced by the promises made by the politicians and the parties. He should vote for the candidates who have got character and have the calibre and competence to deliver the goods. The voter therefore should be sufficiently educated to distinguish between a candidate who will keep his promises and the one who will leave him in the lurch after the elections. Till the optimum level of literacy is achieved, intensive voter awareness camps must be held under the aegis of the Election Commission all over the country to enlighten the voters about the value of the vote and the need to exercise it.
The greatest problem of India today is that its finest men – men of calibre and vision, knowledge and character – are not in politics anymore. In the olden days, we had men and women of stature in our midst, individuals who were tempered and ennobled by the ordeal of the freedom movement. There was a semblance of morality in public life and the vulgarities of today were not even thought of.
In politics, as much as in economics, demand is an important influence on supply. We ultimately get what we strongly demand. “It’s a funny thing about life”, observed Somerset Maugham, “if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you often get it.” This is equally true of democracy. If people refuse to accept any but the best citizens as candidates in elections, it would usher in the golden age of our republic. The Constitution has provided us with the shell of Democracy. It is up to us to infuse life into it. The Puranic legends of Creation speak of the Virat lying prone to the face of the waters, unresponsive to any of the lesser powers that entered, until at last the supreme Spirit entered and forthwith the Virat moved. We may regard that as a parable of our present political situation. The republic of Weimar in pre-Nazi Germany, drew up an admirable constitution which became waste paper because the republic had no fire in its belly. It is that fire, that energy of life that must be aroused in the dormant consciousness of the people if India is to build up into a fair, equitable and viable democracy.
Light at the end of tunnel
With the prevailing political situation in the country it might seem that prospects for a radiant democracy are not very bright. But it is a wrong supposition. No institution can establish itself immediately; there are always certain primary obstacles and difficulties. Nothing demonstrated the vitality of Indian democracy so much as the complete rout of Indira Gandhi in 1977 after the herculean efforts she had made during the emergency to prevent the Constitution and perpetuate her regime. Equally, her return to power in 1980 showed that the Indian people will not be tolerant towards leaders who betray the trust reposed in them. Again Elections 1999 has proved that the voters won’t accept any idea of toppling a democratic government without any solid reason thereby reinstalling Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister of India. The Indian culture with its rich heritage and unsurpassable glory has given our people boundless patience and a secular attitude, two vital factors that are absolutely essential for making democracy stable. Therefore with the passing of time, democracy will stabilise itself in our country and this experiment of adopting democracy on such a large scale would be successful.
With regional parties ruling the roost in the Central coalition, the democratic fabric of the country is at stake. These regional parties little realise their responsibility to the nation, but are mainly guided by regional aspirations; moreover, there is horse-trading in formation of Government, votes are bought even in the Rajya Sabha election, criminals have managed to sneak into the body politic. In such a scenario there are little prospects for successful democratic functioning. Only a strong Centre with one party rule with a clear-cut majority is the crying need of today.