Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Will Indians ever enjoy democracy?

From The Times April 10, 2009 published a year ago...
In 60 years India has been unable to solve armed conflicts in Kashmir, its north east or with the growing communist “Naxalite” movement in its heartland. India's human rights record is poor - and not just in Kashmir or the north east. The latest figures from the National Human Rights Commission show that the largest numbers of complaints about abuses came from states outside conflict zones. Corruption is endemic. Contrary to assumptions in the West, anyone who has lived in India knows that the country doesn't really have the rule of law.

Democracy is supposed to produce greater accountability but India's democracy does not respond to the needs of its people. One excuse used to be that time was needed for democratic habits and values to put down roots. But India has had 60 years to reach maturity. And many political scientists believe that the mere process of going through elections may not be enough to guarantee the survival of democracy. Indeed, over time, confidence in all important institutions has eroded in India. The Election Commission, which is entrusted with ensuring that elections are free and fair, was one of the last to enjoy public respect (another being the Supreme Court). But this election will be overseen by a Chief Election Commissioner, who has been appointed by the present Government, but was deemed unfit for public office by a national inquiry commission because of his role in the “emergency” declared by Indira Gandhi from 1975-77.

The second excuse was that India's challenges were so vast that more time was needed to make democracy work. Political scientists have shown that the poorer a country, the greater the threat to the permanence of its democracy. India's per capita income remains below the risk threshold identified by these academics. But since embarking on economic reforms in 1991, “emergent” India's growth rate has risen dramatically and has been about 9 per cent a year for the past five years. This is good news for its politics. Yet despite that improvement, India's service to its people ranks below countries with neither democracy nor high growth.

There is something wrong with the story of democracy in India. Elections have not produced government that serves the greatest needs of the greatest number of people. Could this be because what India's politics has produced over six decades is not really a democracy? The political system clearly serves somebody's interest, but its political currency is not the common good, but the distribution of patronage by the elite.

India is a curious case of a “democracy” in which none of the important players believes in democracy. Almost all of India's political parties are personal autocracies, in which leadership is inherited, or contested among sons, daughters, widows, sons-in-law - and in two refreshingly “liberal” success stories, the female partners of male leaders. The Congress party has long been a family retainership masquerading as a political party.

The most significant political development in the past 25 years has been the rise of parties based on identity - regional, caste or religious. The only two parties whose appeal is ideological and whose leadership is not determined by family relationships are the communists and the Hindu nationalists. But neither party is a standard-bearer of inclusive parliamentary democracy.

Two potential future prime ministers who - unlike the nice Dr Manmohan Singh - have real political power are Narendra Modi. of the Hindu nationalist party (BJP), and Mayawati, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which represents the lowest in the caste system. Mr Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, is formidably able, but will be forever stained by his willingness to ride to power in 2002 on the corpses of his Muslim fellow-citizens.
Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has happily allied with both the BJP and the Congress party, misled Parliament and transferred hundreds of civil servants every time she took power in the state.

She throws lavish birthday parties for herself, bedecked in jewellery, and has been accused of misappropriating her party's funds. Her political support rests not on welfare programmes or economic policies that help the downtrodden, but on the vicarious “dignity” that her own advancement brings them - last year she emerged among the top 20 income-tax payers in India.

She is emblematic of an India that is not a democracy, but more a competitive autocracy, in which authoritarian forces (still) seek legitimacy and access to resources through the ritual of elections. Just as India has taken cricket and changed it for ever, it has adopted “democracy” and transformed it into its own unique political game.

Sarmila Bose is a senior research Fellow in the Politics of South Asia at the University of Oxford
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