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Saturday, May 25, 2002

The Gujarat carnage over the past few weeks and the continual Kashmir imbroglio deflected national attention from a momentous event in the evolution of our democracy. On May 12, we have successfully completed 50 years of our parliament. This is a rare achievement among post-war democracies. There is a lot to celebrate. We are a robust and cheerful democracy. Our people treasure the freedoms guaranteed to us under the Constitution. Elections have been held to Lok Sabha under the Constitution of our new republic without break since 1952. The only exception was the shameful episode of emergency when the term of Lok Sabha and State Assemblies was prolonged, and elections were postponed. But the resounding verdict of the largely illiterate voters in March 1977 against the tyranny of emergency restored our freedoms and taught our political class an unforgettable lesson.

Fierce political competition exists in India and all parties have the freedom to put across their points of view to the people and seek their mandate. Power always changes hands peacefully after electoral verdicts. Winners do not punish or imprison or behead the losers. Elected governments have real power and are not accountable to the army or an oligarchy or a coterie. These democratic practices fulfil the conditions laid by Myron Weiner for a functioning democracy. We only have to look across our borders on all sides to appreciate how privileged we are to be free citizens in a democracy.

And yet, there is a deep sense of discontent plaguing most people. We find the political process, which ought to be the solution, is the main problem itself. While electoral verdicts result in change of players, the rules of the game remain unchanged. In fact elections themselves are tainted with unaccounted money power, criminalization of politics and rampant polling irregularities. If a Ganghiji or Ambedkar were to contest today, chances are they would lose hands down!

And yet we are a truly functioning democracy. This paradox of serious distortions in electoral process on the one hand, and reasonably fair verdicts at macro level on the other hand baffles us. This is possible largely because ours is a system of compensatory errors. Most of the leading parties and candidates are good at this game of manipulation, and each neutralises the other! Mercifully the state is genuinely neutral in our elections, and strong institutions like the Election Commission ensure a fair degree of impartiality and efficiency.

But a democracy which neither facilitates rapid economic growth nor creates conditions for peace, harmony and rule of law in many parts of the country does not satisfy us. While democracy seems to be doing better, we feel worse!  Even the communal disturbances deliberately provoked by the political class expose its bankruptcy.  The only way parties feel assured of vote mobilization is through crude appeal to primordial loyalties. Politics of individuation are anathema to our parties, and vote bank politics through caste and communal polarazation are a sure recipe for political relevance.

Worst of all, we have created political fiefdoms resembling ancient monarchies or medieval Zamindaris. Little dynasties have spawned all over the country and these oligarchies have a vice-like grip over our legislatures. A careful analysis of the nearly 5000 legislative offices in States and Lok Sabha will reaveal that probably two-thirds of them are controlled by about 10,000 well-connected political families. No matter which party wins, power alternates between members of these families. Politics has become big business. Big investments are made in elections, and much bigger profits are reaped once elected to office. A legislator is more a disguised and unaccountable executive than a public representative.

For too long we trotted out democracy as an excuse for our failures. In reality, democracy is our strength, and all these and other ills could be corrected genuinely democratic instruments, backed by the consensus which only democracy fosters. And yet, we deliberately distorted our democratic institutions and practices, and blame everything on the failure of democracy. The real problem is not a surfeit of liberty, but a deficit of democracy. The ills of a democracy can be overcome only by more and better democracy. Decentralization of power, restoration of rule of law and speedy justice, comprehensive electoral reforms to attract the best talent and reject the professional parasites, and instruments of accountability – these are needed to invigorate our democracy and promote economic growth. There is much that we can be proud of in our record of 50 years of parliament. There is also much that has gone wrong. The political class owes it to the nation to give up shibboleths for once, and provide clear, honest direction. We need simple, uncomplicated national goals, and specific, practical, effective institutional reforms to achieve them. We have it in us to make lot of difference in a short-while. The millions of jobless youngsters are getting impatient. We need to act quickly.



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