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10 August 2012, Gateway House

Regenerating our democracy

The promise of an egalitarian democratic system in India and abroad, has been tarnished by the entrenchment of dynastic leadership and by an inordinate concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few. It is imperative to find ways to confront the shortcomings that have crept into our cherished democracies.

Director, Gateway House

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On August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, addressed a newly-liberated people suffused with a sense of possibility and hope to collectively build an egalitarian and democratic nation. The people’s aspirations were articulated in Nehru’s famous words:

“The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.” 

This vision was subsequently enshrined in our Constitution on January 26, 1950.

Sixty-five years later, the dream of a truly democratic India has dulled more than a little. Hope has been replaced by dismay at the tawdry pursuit of self-interest that pervades our present political and economic landscape.

Did we expect too much from a post-colonial, impoverished country? Did we overstate our future and now find that the reality does not match our definition? Did we unrealistically compare ourselves with other fledgling or developing nations? In other words, is the sense of disillusionment only a problem of perception?

After all, a lot has been achieved since 1947 in taking a population that has nearly quadrupled to 1.2 billion towards a more dignified standard of living. Life expectancy has nearly tripled to 72 years, while infant mortality has halved. Literacy has grown from 12% to 74%; unemployment has dropped from 48% at independence to around 19%, and per capita income has risen from subsistence to approximately $3500 at Purchasing Power Parity levels. [i]

Development indicators, however, are debatable and only one part of the picture. The sense of failed expectations is not only a matter of perception, it is embedded in more tangible experiences. The promise of an egalitarian democratic nation has been tarnished by the entrenchment of dynastic leadership, by an inordinate concentration of power and wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer interconnected politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. This new aristocracy has replaced the colonial rulers and kings of earlier times and effectively subverted the ideals of a true people’s democracy. Indians are uneasy because they no longer feel empowered to determine their destiny.

At the same time, a parallel, paradoxical process is underway. The Indian citizen has greater expectations and a sense of entitlement. The spurt of economic growth since India began a process of economic liberalisation in the early 1990s, has raised aspirations. The escalating trend of populist political campaigning during elections involves promises made to potential vote banks—promises that people expect will be fulfilled, but rarely are.

This combination of greater expectations, along with a recognition that access to economic and political influence is increasingly circumscribed in Indian democracy, has resulted in disillusionment and cynicism. After 2007, as economic growth began to slow and the inequality of incomes became more palpable, Indians began to attribute this failure of equitable development to the degeneration of political parties into family fiefdoms. A nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and business has been gobbling up the “commons” or community resources such as land and water—this is also exemplified by the many scams in the telecom and mining sectors.

The creation of pockets of wealth has taken the number of dollar billionaires in India from zero in 2000 to 48 in 2012, while the number of malnourished children persists at 42%. [ii] Equally, people recognise that decision-making and governance, instead of becoming more decentralised, have become further concentrated in a few powerful hands. There is also a growing awareness that India’s fiscal and financial policy is losing coherence, and that it is manipulated by big business at the cost of the majority of the people.

The situation is exacerbated by the absence of any coherent political ideology. Governing coalitions are formed only on the mathematics of parliamentary majorities. The growing power of regional political parties, necessary for the formation of a federal government, has not led to greater devolution of power; it has only resulted in ever-greater giveaways to garner the numbers required to achieve office or pass legislation.

In Pakistan, the army, judiciary and the elected Asif Ali Zardari government are caught in an absurd confrontation; the Supreme Court forced out the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, and now threatens his successor with the same, because he refused to request Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against Zardari. In the guise of tackling corruption, a slow judicial coup is undercutting the democratically-elected government. Meanwhile, as a long-term precaution against being obliterated, the Bhutto dynasty has handed over the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party to Benazir’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

In Bangladesh, the Sheikh Hasina government has tried to recover the secular integrity of its independence struggle by putting on trial the people involved in the genocide committed during that struggle and the subsequent murder of her father, Sheikh Mujib.  But former President Khaleda Zia, who was married to a former President and a hero of the independence struggle, leads a political opposition that has subverted the functioning of parliament. Both her sons are charged with massive corruption. While the two Begums engage in battle, law and order have almost vanished from the streets, and the number of millionaires using the corrupt system to make money, is growing.

Further south in Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa dynasty succeeded the Bandaranaike dynasty. Three years after eliminating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Rajapaksa family is busy consolidating its hold over the nation. Three of the President’s brothers are ministers in the government and the sons and nephews of the family are in Parliament. But the Tamils—victims of untold violence committed by both the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE—have not been rehabilitated, and power has not devolved to the predominantly Tamil north-eastern provinces, as promised by the State.

Up north, in Nepal, people suffered terrible violence through a decade of civil war to oust a decadent monarchy, only to be cheated by their elected representatives. Despite numerous extensions in the last three years, the Parliament, which doubles as a Constituent Assembly, has failed to deliver a Constitution. Meanwhile, several political leaders, including leaders of the dominant communist party, are busy buying choice real estate in Kathmandu.

While the process of democracy is being debased by older practitioners across South Asia, another process is emerging—newly-risen nations in the Arab world are taking their first tentative steps towards genuine elected representative government. In Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, after decades of rule by dictators grooming their sons as successors, the people now hope to recover their voice and their share of jobs and the wealth of their nations, in a more transparent economy.

Is there a model that the emerging democracies can look towards? The Arabs have pulled down dynasties at a time when Indian and other South Asian democracies are consolidating dynastic rule. Neither the US, mired in a polit
ical deadlock and economic misery, nor Europe, trapped in the woes of the Euro, can be the guiding lights for negotiating the principles of participatory and egalitarian democracy. Could the economically successful but authoritarian Beijing model be an alternative?

For pluralistic countries such as India, the answer is a resounding no. This makes it imperative for us to find ways to confront the shortcomings that have crept into our cherished democracy. Indians must not allow their democratic institutions, such as the Parliament,  to be manipulated for the entrenchment of privilege We, as Indian citizens, can do this by participating more actively in politics, refusing to be part of a culture of bribery, and speaking out in various public fora at every opportunity. We must also actively rebuild and nurture our educational and intellectual institutions so that they act as a robust and legitimate alternative to the existing systems. We need and must strive for a moral regeneration; only then will other countries find something worthwhile in our experience of democracy that they can emulate.

Neelam Deo is India’s former ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast, and served in Washington and New York. She is the director and co-founder of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

This article is part of Gateway House’s Democracy in Motion report.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] World Bank figures

[2] Data from the International Food Policy Research Institute

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