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Tuesday, May 11, 2004

dir="ltr">Over the years Indian democracy has certainly stood the test of time. Among the nations liberated after the Second World War, India has a unique record of successive elections and, stable and peaceful democracy.

Judged by four key criteria, our democracy is robust and real. Government leaders are chosen in competitive elections; all parties have the right to propagate their ideas and openly seek public support; there is peaceful transfer of power and losers are not punished by winners; and elected governments exercise real authority and are accountable to the electors. When we criticize our democracy in operation, we tend to take our blessings for granted.

Participation trends in successive elections clearly establish that our democracy is deepening. The voter turnout for State Assembly elections has shown a steady increase from 45% (1952) to 64% (1993-95). The polling percentage for Lok Sabha too is around 60%. Among countries with first-past-the-post system, this is a high rate of polling. The participation in the US is only around 50%, and even in the UK it is around 60%. Only countries with proportional representation record consistently higher voter participation. Considering the defects in our electoral rolls, this polling percentage is high. Even more heartening is the fact that the poor, illiterate and rural voters participate more earnestly than others.

Our democracy also has given space for accommodating regional diversity and various social groups. Regional parties have grown, and now occupy pride of place in many states.  Various caste groups which have been historically underprivileged have now become politically powerful. Monolithic, centralized governance has given way to more genuine federalism and increasing devolution to local governments. Despite the multiplicity of parties, unity of India has been preserved. Almost all recognized political parties pursue centrist policies and practice consensual politics. This is a remarkable accomplishment in an extraordinarily diverse polity and society. As a result, in most states there is either a two-party system, or two stable alliances competing for power. Even at the Union level, a coalition culture is gaining ground, providing stability and continuity of policies, even as there is genuine clash of ideas and competition for power.

But there are many warts in our democratic system which hold us back. Political parties have become private estates, with little intra-party democracy or freedom of choice to members. Given the single-member constituencies in the first-past-the-post system, there is an oligopoly of parties operating, denying people real choice or political competition. Electoral verdicts are broadly reflective of public opinion, and there is no state-sponsored rigging. However, at the constituency level, criminal gangs, bogus voting, and illegitimate and unaccounted expenditure for vote buying play an important role. A system of compensatory errors is in place, by which the malpractices of one candidate are neutralized by those of his rival!

Vast expenditure and polling irregularities may not ensure victory; but the candidates who cannot deploy money and muscle are almost certain to lose! This forces parties to nominate only “winnable” candidates who can muster the money and muscle power required for success. The link between vote and public good is tenuous. Consequently many voters have become short-term maximisers, seeking money and liquor, or succumbing to anger, populist promises, or primordial loyalties like caste or religion. Vast amounts of money are spent illegitimately in many states; and a vicious cycle of money, political power and corruption has taken hold of our system. Integrity and competence are increasingly not compatible with political survival. Those like Manmohan Singh, Arun Jaitley, Arun Shourie and Jairam Ramesh are unelectable!

These political infirmities have distorted our priorities, and undermined our economic growth. Public education and health care are in shambles, and justice system is on the verge of collapse. States like Bihar are falling farther behind, and regional disparities are widening, posing dangers to national integration. The potential of many of our children, and that of the nation remain largely unfulfilled.

Happily, there are signs of our politicians showing welcome awareness of what needs to be done. Several recent political reforms including an excellent campaign finance law, tightening anti-defection provisions, and limiting the size of council of ministers are a testimony to the maturity of our democracy and constant improvements effected through consensus. Much more needs to be done – party democracy, some form of proportional  representation, clearer separation between executive and legislature, judicial reforms, decentralization and accountability. But our society and political system have the resilience, strength and adaptability to navigate through this minefield. Two cheers to Indian democracy!