Among the nations liberated after the Second World War, India has a unique record of successive elections and stable and peaceful democracy. Many countries which emerged as nascent democracies with high hopes over the past fifty years have fast succumbed to authoritarian impulses and army coups. The experiences of our own neighbours – Pakistan and Bangladesh – illustrate the difficulties in running a democracy. Indian democracy has shown refreshing capacity to adapt to conditions and uphold democratic institutions and practices. People have been voting in large numbers, and democracy has broadened its appeal, though it may not have struck deep enough roots. There is wider representation of various castes and social groups in legislatures. By all accounts, the bold experiment of universal adult franchise since the inception of our republic has paid off.
However, it will be useful to pause and examine the record of post-colonial India in the light of the democratic institutions and practices as commonly understood in contemporary liberal democratic world. Myron Weiner has listed four such institutions and practices as follows:
i) Government leaders are chosen in competitive elections in which there are opposition political parties.
ii) Political parties – including opponents of government – have the right to openly seek public support. They have access to press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom from arbitrary arrest.
iii) Governments defeated in elections step down; losers are not punished by winners; defeated leaders are not punished unless in the act of governance they have broken the law; their punishment is based on due process.
iv) Elected governments are not figureheads; they exercise power and make policies and are accountable to the electors – not to the military, the monarchy, the bureaucracy, or an oligarchy.
Judged by these yardsticks, many countries, while having elections, fail to qualify at varying periods of time as true liberal democracies (Alan Ware). Zambia and Argentina had for sometime competitive elections for public office, but gave unlimited power to elected leaders. In Argentina for some time there was also limited electoral competition with major political forces banned. In apartheid South Africa and white-dominated Rhodesia, while there were regular elections, large sections of people were forcibly prevented from participating in them. In fact, even in the Southern states of the United States, the blacks, while legally permitted to vote, were in practice denied the franchise until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In countries like Mexico for decades, and in Pakistan and Bangladesh often, there was theoretical electoral competition, but massive state sponsored rigging was practiced. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Philippines periods of electoral competition are interspersed with authoritarianism. In Algeria and Burma there was electoral competition but the winning parties were prevented from assuming office, and are in fact persecuted. In countries like Iraq some parties exist, with no electoral competition. Erstwhile Soviet Union, and most of the Eastern European countries until their adoption of democracy about a decade ago, had authoritarian communist regimes in which only one party could control government. China continues to be under an authoritarian, one-party rule. Several South East Asian countries too have witnessed limited electoral competition or outright authoritarianism for decades.
Judged by these standards, as Myron Weiner points out, "India is one of a handful of post-colonial countries that could be regarded as having a stable democratic regime. The list is very small and one could quarrel with the inclusion of several of the countries in it: Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Trinidad / Tobago, Papua New Guinea, and a variety of mini-states: Bahama Islands, Barbados, Botswana, Gambia, Mauritius and Surinam. In the main, post-colonial regimes have been one-party states, military bureaucracies and dictatorships, communist, or personalized autocracies. The new regimes typically restrict opposition parties, limit freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, do not permit competitive elections, restrain the judiciary from performing an independent role, and limit freedoms of their citizens in a variety of ways – to speak out, to travel abroad, to criticize the regime and to change the government peacefully. In most post-colonial regimes, political participation is restricted and leaders are not held accountable; and, in the worst cases, governments are tyrannical. India, along with a handful of smaller countries, is a notable exception."
However, there have been several aberrations from time to time in our commitment to democratic institutions and practices. The most notorious example is the period of "internal emergency" between 1975 and 1977. Civil liberties and habeas corpus were suspended during the period and thousands were incarcerated for no other reason except that they were the opponents of the regime. Elected legislators and leaders of opposition were all detained without charges or trial. Opposition political parties had no access to media. Freedom of press was suspended and press was subjected to pre-censorship. The 42nd Amendment allowed the Parliament to suspend elections and extend its own life indefinitely – one year at a time. In fact, the life of the 5th Lok Sabha was extended thus, and elections were postponed. However, it must be said in favour of Mrs Gandhi, the architect of that emergency, that she did voluntarily call for elections, though after the expiry of the natural term of the Lok Sabha, and lifted the curbs on most freedoms. The elections in 1977 were by and large free and fair, and the transfer of power from the defeated ruling Congress Party to the newly elected Janata Party was peaceful and orderly.
There have been many other aberrations too. Flawed elections have often reduced the legitimacy of our democracy. Severely flawed electoral rolls, polling irregularities, vote-buying, unaccountable use of money in elections, criminalization of politics and the curse of defections for personal gain have undermined the sanctity of elections. For a long period, the state-owned electronic media have been rigorously controlled by the government of the day. The autocratic and unaccountable control of parties has reduced them to personal estates and private fiefdoms, undermining the political process. The well-intentioned but poorly designed Tenth Schedule of the Constitution has reduced legislators to a status of serfdom. All these undemocratic institutions and practices have severely eroded the legitimacy of governments and legislatures.
Certain recent trends have been even more disturbing. There is a perceptible and alarming decline in the quality of debate in legislatures. Much of legislative business and reviewing the work of government has become perfunctory. Legislatures have become theatres of the absurd to catch the attention of the media and the public, with little sense of purpose or dignity. Changes of governments, particularly in States, have been often divorced from the people's mandates. Midnight parleys and palace coups, but not public opinion or policy differences, have often led to change of governments. The ouster of NTR's government in Andhra Pradesh and Farooq Abdulla's government in Kashmir in 1984, and the unseating of NTR's government in Andhra Pradesh in 1995 all had nothing to do with people's mandate or policy differences. There were scores of other such changes in governments engineered by palace coups and politics of defection for personal gain. However, it must be stated that all these downfalls of governments were constitutionally and technically valid, even though their democratic legitimacy was questionable. And more importantly, peaceful transfer of power has been the norm. Even after the elections to the 6th Lok Sabha, when the first transfer of power took place in the Union government, the change was peaceful and dignified despite the heat and passion generated by the authoritarianism of the emergency period.
A more disturbing trend is in evidence in recent times. The brief episode of Jagadambica Pal government in Uttar Pradesh in February 1998 showed that even peaceful and orderly transfer of power cannot be taken far granted any longer. The television cameras brought to millions of drawing rooms the vivid images of Jagadambica Pal being forcibly evicted literally from the chief minister's official chair by a court directive. The tension, drama, and fisticuffs, which accompanied the formation of the first governments in the newly formed States of Chattisgarh and Jarkhand indicate further erosion of the democratic tradition of peaceful and dignified transfer of power.
The infamous JMM bribery case of proven acceptance of bribes to extend support to the government on the floor of the Lok Sabha is a telling illustration of this tendency to support or bring down governments for a price. Happily in India, losing politicians are not victimised, jailed or beheaded as is the unfortunate practice in many post-colonial nations, including neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, public officials are not held accountable either. The system never allowed a government leader to be punished for misdeeds or corruption while in office. The rare instances of chargesheeting, trial, or conviction have invariably been well after they lost power, and always while their opponents are in power. Launching of prosecution has always been selective, sparing the ruling parties and aimed against a rare opposition politician
The most important infirmity of the elected governments is in the realm of governance. While elected governments in India are not figureheads, their capacity to really make a difference has proved to be marginal at best. If we play a mind game and assume that all the legislators who have won a general election have actually lost, and instead their immediate rivals won, the reality is that the quality of governance would be virtually unchanged, and the change of government would go totally unnoticed. The only visible difference with change of government is the new set of faces in public office, and the improved fortunes of individuals playing the power game! This woodenness in our governance process means that no mater who wins or loses in the election, the people always end up as losers. The institutional rigidities in our parliamentary democracy have thus ensured that real governance reform, bureaucratic accountability or significant shifts of public expenditure are virtually impossible. The room for maneuvering of any government is extraordinarily limited, and the system is locked in a vicious cycle. The incapacity of the governments to address the deepening fiscal crisis is a case in point. The fight against corruption, the struggle for electoral reform, the measures for speedy and efficient justice, the efforts to decentralize power, and the attempts to enforce bureaucratic accountability have all been stymied by these institutional rigidities and consequent governance failure.
Key Ingredients of Democracy
While the record of our parliamentary democracy has been fair when judged by Myron Weiner's postulates, our polity emerges poorly when judged by more exacting standards of democracy. There are five key ingredients of democratic polity: freedom, self-governance, empowerment of citizens, rule of law and self-correcting institutions of state. Let us briefly examine the performance of Indian polity in the light of these standards.
- Freedom, in an elementary sense, is the right of an individual to do as he or she pleases, as long as his actions do not impinge on the freedom of others. While the constitution and law have guaranteed these freedoms in a fair measure to citizens, in reality freedom is undermined by the unchecked power of parties and state functionaries to paralyze society at will, to appropriate resources, and to blackmail or bully citizens and groups. Institutional maladies including inaccessible school education and primary health care, delayed justice, unaccountable police, unchecked crime, secrecy in government and inefficient public services have severely eroded our freedoms despite constitutional guarantees.
- Self-governance is the right of citizens to govern themselves directly or indirectly. Representative democracy means that the elected legislators and governments should be fully accountable to citizens. However, autocratic political parties, flawed electoral process, limited and often unhappy choice of candidates, uninformed and distorted public discourse, criminalisation of politics, marginalization of citizens and over-centralization have all reduced our self-governance to a mockery.
- Empowerment is the ability of citizens to influence the course of events on a sustained basis and to make meaningful decisions on matters of governance having impact on their own lives. In effect, people should always continue to remain sovereigns. However, rampant corruption, hostility to public participation in governance, centralization, secrecy, red tape, and a culture of touts and middlemen with the backing of powerful party organizations have denied people any meaningful degree of empowerment.
- Rule of law is the concept of people being governed by law, and all citizens, irrespective of station and rank, being subject to the same laws to the same extent. However, centralized and autocratic political party functioning, flawed electoral system, highly opaque and secretive functioning, habitual abuse of executive authority, ubiquitous patronage system, VIP culture in every public service, gross failure of public order, primacy of political agents, influence-peddlers, touts and rabble rousers in government decision making at the cost of non-partisan citizens, political control of crime investigation and the tardy and inefficient justice system all make rule of law virtually non-existent in our society.
- Self-correcting mechanisms give institutions of state and polity the capacity to learn from past experience and to constantly improve themselves in order to serve the people better. Our incapacity to design and operate the institutional correctives, constitutional functionaries being amenable to political influence, the secrecy in government, tardy and inefficient justice system, a political system dependent on uncontrolled corruption, and the moribund party structure incapable of attracting the best elements of society have made sure that the decline of the Indian state is progressive. This impairment of self-correcting mechanisms contributed to near-collapse of our governance structure, and made reversal of the trend within the existing framework a Herculean task.
Primacy of Politics
Given these infirmities and distortions of our political process, it is easy to deride politics and democracy. In fact it has become fashionable among the upper echelons of society to be anti-political, and to wistfully suggest authoritarian, even fascist, solutions. It therefore needs to be emphasized that true politics is about promotion of human happiness. In a democracy there is no substitute to political process. Politics is the mechanism through which the gulf between unlimited wants and limited resources is bridged, and means are reconciled with ends in governance. Political process mediates conflicts in society, and resolves seemingly irreconcilable differences among various groups in society. Finally, politics is the only means of peaceful, democratic transformation in a free society. Contempt for democratic institutions is dangerous and short-sighted. Anti-political approach is both undemocratic and counterproductive. The real solution to the problem of democracy lies in deepening democracy. In order to preserve and strengthen liberty and democracy, we should constantly seek to improve the democratic institutions and practices based on lessons of past experience.
In spite of the seemingly intractable crisis, the political process is responding and struggling to find solutions to some of the problems. The last few months have been most productive in terms of furthering the democratic reform agenda, and generating a serious debate. Not all changes are positive or flawless, but cumulatively they all certainly help improve the situation; illustrate the serious concern of political parties about the need to address the electoral and governance reform issues; and presage more fundamental, durable and far-reaching changes in the electoral system in coming years. A few of the recent developments are outlined below:
- Disclosure of Candidate Details : As a result of the Supreme Court judgment of March 13th, 2003, disclosure of criminal and financial antecedents by all candidates contesting elections is mandatory.
- Political Funding Reform Bill: A far-reaching political funding reform Bill has become a law in September 2003. This law has the potential to fundamentally alter the nature of our polity in the coming years. For the first time, this law provides 100 % tax exemption for individuals and corporates who contribute to political parties and it also made disclosure of all contributions above Rs 20000 mandatory for political parties. The law also provides for equitable sharing of time by the recognized political parties on the cable television network and other electronic media (public and private).
- Changes in Rajya Sabha Election: The Bill which is currently being considered by the Parliament provides for open voting by MLAs and allows candidates to contest from any state for Rajya Sabha.
- Anti-Defection Law Changes: The current Bill under the consideration of the Parliament, provides for disqualification of all members who defy a party whip, irrespective of whether they constitute one-third or more. It also ensures that defecting members cannot be ministers until reelection or expiry of normal term.
- Limiting the Size of Council of Ministers : The 97th Constitution Amendment Bill which is being considered by the Parliament, mandates that the total number of ministers in the Council of Ministers at the union and state level cannot exceed 10 % of the strength of the House(s).
- Post Office as Nodal Agency for Voter Registration: Responding to strong advocacy by civil society, the Election Commission of India and the Department of Posts have agreed in principle to make post office the nodal agency for voter registration. This will bring the currently inaccessible voter registration process closer to the people.
- Right to Information Law: The union government has recently enacted a law to give effect to freedom of information, which has been ruled by the Supreme Court as a fundamental right. The rules for implementation are yet to be framed.
- National Judicial Commission: A Constitutional Amendment Bill, providing for the creation of a National Judicial Commission for appointment of higher judiciary is under the consideration of the Parliament. The proposed Commission will have a say in the appointment of judges in higher courts.
While some of the reforms proposed could be improved, it is clear that the flurry of legislative and executive action indicates a broad awareness that status quo cannot be sustained forever. This awareness and the cumulative impact of these changes will lead to major systemic reform. As can be seen, these recent developments give us a sense of rapid change, and offer us hope that our governance system is on the verge of major transformation. Some of the changes, for instance, the political funding reform, are potentially far-reaching, and would be regarded as revolutionary in any democracy. But given the complexity of our crisis, such reforms are significant milestones in our evolution, but do not really change the nature of our troubled politics. The complex nature of our political and governance crisis is outlined below:
Six interlocking vicious cycles
The political process, which should have provided solutions to the problems afflicting our polity, itself has become a problem. In a well-functioning democracy, the political process ought to find answers to governance problems. Every election holds a promise for peaceful change. People in India have been voting for change time and again. But the political process is locked into a vicious cycle, and has become a part of the problem. There are six factors complicating the political process, perpetuating status quo.
First, election expenditures are large, unaccounted and mostly illegitimate. For instance, expenditure limit for assembly elections in most states is Rs 600,000 (recently enhanced to Rs 10 lakhs). In reality average expenditure in most states is several multiples of it, sometimes exceeding Rs 10 million. Most of this expenditure is incurred to buy votes, bribe officials and hire musclemen. Such large, unaccounted expenditure can be sustained only if the system is abused to enable multiple returns on investment. Rent seeking behaviour is therefore endemic to the system. Most of this corruption is in the form of control of transfers and postings, which in turn sustains a system of retail corruption for a variety of routine services, regulatory functions and direct transfer of resources through government programmes. Large leakages in public expenditure, and collusion in contracts and procurement are extremely common. The economic decision-making power of the state is on the wane as part of the reform process. But as the demand for illegitimate political funds is not reduced, corruption is shifting to the core areas of state functioning, like crime investigation. Robert Wade studied this phenomenon of corruption, and described the dangerously stable equilibrium which operates in Indian governance. This vicious chain of corruption has created a class of political and bureaucratic ‘entrepreneurs’ who treat public office as big business.
Second, as the vicious cycle of money power, polling irregularities, and corruption has taken hold of the system, electoral verdicts ceased to make a difference to people. Repeated disappointments made people come to the conclusion that no matter who wins the election, they always end up losing. As incentive for discerning behaviour in voting has disappeared, people started maximizing their short-term returns. As a result, money and liquor are accepted habitually by many voters. This pattern of behaviour only converted politics and elections into big business. As illegitimate electoral expenditure skyrocketed, the vicious cycle of corruption is further strengthened. With public good delinked from voting, honesty and survival in public office are further separated.
Third, this situation bred a class of political ‘entrepreneurs’ who established fiefdoms. In most constituencies, money power, caste clout, bureaucratic links, and political contacts came together perpetuating politics of fiefdoms. Entry into electoral politics is restricted in real terms, as people who cannot muster these forces have little chance of getting elected. While there is competition for political power, it is often restricted between two or three families over a long period of time; parties are compelled to choose one of these individuals or families to enhance their chances of electoral success. Parties thus are helpless, and political process is stymied. Absence of internal democratic norms in parties and the consequent oligarchic control has denied a possibility of rejuvenation of political process through establishment of a virtuous cycle.
Fourth, in a centralized governance system, even if the vote is wisely used by people, public good cannot be promoted. As the citizen is distanced from the decision-making process, the administrative machinery has no capacity to deliver public services of high quality or low cost. Such a climate which cannot ensure better services or good governance breeds competitive populism to gain electoral advantage. Such populist politics have led to serious fiscal imbalances.
Fifth, fiscal health can be restored only by higher taxes, or reduced subsidies or wages. The total tax revenues of the union and states are of the order of only 15 percent of GDP. Higher taxation is resisted in the face of ubiquitous corruption and poor quality services. Desubsidization is always painful for the poor who do not see alternative benefits accruing from the money saved by withdrawal of subsidies. A vast bureaucracy under centralized control can neither be held to account, nor is wage reduction a realistic option.
Sixth, elected governments are helpless to change this perilous situation. As the survival of the government depends on the support of legislators, their demands have to be met. The legislator has thus become the disguised, unaccountable executive controlling all facets of government functioning. The local legislator and the bureaucrats have a vested interest in denying local governments any say in real decision making. The vicious cycle of corruption and centralized, unaccountable governance is thus perpetuated.
Given this complex nature of our crisis, many of the reforms in the pipe-line are necessary, but not sufficient. Apart from reforms in local governments, judiciary and bureaucracy and effective instruments to enforce accountability and check corruption, we need to pursue systemic reforms changing the nature of elections and process of power. There are three such reforms required:
Mixed Compensatory Proportional Representation System: 50 % members elected from territorial constituencies as now and balance 50 % drawn from party lists and allotted on the basis of the proportion of total votes obtained by a party state-wise. The overall composition of the legislature will reflect the share of vote obtained by each party.
Clear Separation of Powers at the State and Local Levels Through Direct Election of Head of Government: The head of the government at the state level will be directly elected by people and he/she can recruit the Cabinet from outside the legislatures. The legislature in turn will have strong oversight authority. At state level there is no fear of authoritarianism, since union government and constitutional authorities will act as checks. At the union level, given our diversity, the current parliamentary executive model should continue.
Political Party regulation by Law: Free and open membership with no arbitrary expulsions. Democratic, regular, free, secret ballot for leadership election; and opportunity to challenge and unseat leadership through formal procedures with no risk of being penalized; democratic choice of party candidates for elective office by members or their elected delegates
We have briefly looked at the history of our Parliamentary democracy, its strengths, weaknesses and some of the changes that took place in the past decade. In the next 5 to 10 years, the nation is poised and ready to embrace fundamental and far-reaching reforms. The people are ready yearning for change, and the time is ripe for new politics to bring back vigour to our democracy.