Deeper Understanding of Today’s Indian Democracy

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Dr. Rajkumar Singh


When India became independent in 1947, the country opted to be a democratic nation. The idea of democracy as it developed in India remained ‘contextual’ in many ways. The particular historical-social context or the contextual influences shaped the new democratic institutions in various ways. Reciprocally, social hierarchies and preference for group rights were affected by the egalitarian and liberal principles of governance. While evaluating the performance of Indian democracy in providing a space for the dignity, rights, and entitlements of the underprivileged, it is useful to distinguish between democratic ideals, democratic institutions, and democratic practice.

Democratic ideals represent various aspects of the broad idea of “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” They include poetical characteristics that can be seen to be intrinsically valuable regarding the objectives of democratic social living, such as freedom of expression, the participation of the people in deciding on the factors governing their lives, public accountability of leaders and an equitable distribution of power. Democratic institutions go beyond these basic intents and include such instrumental arrangements as constitutional rights, competent courts, responsive electoral systems, functioning parliaments and assemblies, open and free media, and participatory institutions of local governance.

The crux of democracy lies with the people. Democratic polity also implied a faith that the people – whatever the state of development – were capable of understanding their best interests and taking their decisions. In the struggle for power, the device of vote replaces the use of force. Ballot substitutes the bullet. Also, democratic polity allows legitimate dissent and opposition to grow and prosper and even emerge as an alternative power centre to take over the reins of government constitutionally and peacefully.

It needs to be noted that every democratic system recognizes the primacy of the will of the people. Behind every action of the executive or the legislative organ of the State, there is the will of the people which is the ultimate and final source of all authority. A democratic government has to function by the laws and with a full sense of accountability to the people through their representatives elected at periodic elections.

The variant of the democratic system chosen for us by the framers of our Constitution is that of representative parliamentary democracy where under the Legislature and the Executive are not separate centres of power. They intermingle and merge. The executive government (Council of Ministers) comes out of Parliament, remains part of it and responsible to the House consisting of directly elected representatives of the people. There is a fusion between the two.

Indian Grassroots Democracy

The biggest evolution after independence has been the adoption of universal adult franchise. In the context of appalling poverty and illiteracy, it was an act of faith to give the right to vote to every adult citizen. The citizens choose their representatives to act in their interest. Problems arise when the representatives tend to act in their narrow, selfish interest instead of serving the interests of the people. Therefore, in recent decades, attention in the academia and among political activists has been focused on making representative democracy more and more participatory by direct involvement of citizens in matters of people’s concerns.

In the context participatory democracy is being considered more and more as not merely desirable but necessary. Under conditions of globalization, where nation-level institutions of representation are being subordinated to hegemonic global power with the structure of political and economic decision-making more remote and alienated from people, the politics of participatory democracy has acquired a new relevance.

Being a variant of participatory democracy, grassroots democracy is often identified with the struggle for empowerment and various micro movements brought about at the grassroots levels. But, if after more than six decades of democratic government, we are talking about empowerment of the people, transfer of power to the people and of decentralization of power to the grassroots, it is a clear admission of the fact that so far power was wrongfully centralized or that those in Government were unlawful usurpers of the power and rights of the people and failed to provide democratic governance.

It must be added that India was also among the first countries to include legislation aimed at affirmative action to combat the lasting influence of past social inequalities. The “reservations” and other priorities for scheduled castes (formerly, the “untouchable”) and scheduled tribes expanded the horizon of legal support for social equity, no matter how we judge the exact achievements and failures of this early departure. Affirmative action would not become a serious possibility in the United States for many years after the Indian constitution (which had many positive provisions) came into effect in 1950.

What is more, India’s democratic institutions have, on the whole, stood the test of time and popular support. In the early stages of Indian independence, there was widespread skepticism about the ability of democratic institutions to survive, let alone flourish, in a poverty stricken and inequality-ridden country. There was also much pessimism about the potential for democracy in the “third world” as a whole. In both respects, the outlook is much brighter today. India’s democratic institutions have proved quite robust (even surviving significant challenges such as the imposition of “emergency” in 1975 to 1977, which was reversed by a popular electoral vote), and enjoy wide legitimacy among most sections of the population. The healthy survival of Indian democracy elsewhere in the world.

It is, however, important to realize that achieving greater equity in Indian society depends crucially on political action and the practice of democracy. Indeed, a reduction of inequality contributes to democratic practice and is strengthened by successful practice of democratic freedoms. There is, in fact, a “virtuous circle” here, the nature of which has to be more adequately reflected in policy analysis and social action in India. There have been, significant gains in that respect during the last sixty-five years, and while reductions of inequality have strengthened the reach of democratic practice, they have often been achieved through the determined use of the democratic opportunities that were already available.

Achieving greater democracy at the local level must be a crucial component of the broader task of transforming the practice and quality of democracy in India. Indeed, local democracy represents one means of participation in the larger democratic system, which is relatively accessible to the disadvantaged and can be potentially a stepping-stone towards other forms of democratic participation. It was in this context that the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution constituted a milestone in the process of establishing decentralized democratic administration through local bodies and taking the administration to the doorsteps of the people to ensure economic and social justice. There has been some effort to give more space, voice, powers and responsibilities to local self-governing institutions through poverty alleviation, rural development and employment generation programmes more particularly directed at the under-privileged. And Panchayati Raj institutions have been provided a substantial role in several of these programmes.

Increasing Assertive Democracy

Recently from the decade 1990s electoral upsurge of the disadvantaged groups witnessed the radical transformation like politics in India with growing participation of the marginalized people and rising grassroots political movements. Democracy no longer requires clutches in the shape of powerful leaders – as guardians of democracy and as trustees of people – to survive. It has become internal to common people’s political consciousness, not because it has solved all the problem of society, but because it has provided them a space to fight for their dignity, rights, and entitlements. It has become a mode of organizing power or space for struggles for the marginalized.

It is observed that most of the privileged sections of society are getting alienated from the democratic process, and the legitimacy of the democratic system, now, derived from the vulnerable sections of society. Today the historically disadvantaged groups are among the more active and enthusiastic participants in the political process. As a result of their participation, the locus of power has shifted from the established upper-caste elite to new upwardly mobile groups and from the centre to regions and localities.

Notwithstanding the lofty norms of democratic governance, the poor, underprivileged people do not have the means to assert their legitimate authority against their exploiters and usurpers. Also, a question that can no longer be put under the carpet is that of determining who are under-privileged? In fact, the term under-privileged’ seems to assume the legitimacy of a ‘privileged’ class while our democratic republican principles do not provide space for any privileged class. Also, how to ensure that the stigma of being the depressed and underprivileged does not become a matter of privileged status sought in perpetuity or a vested interest is not created in permanently remaining maimed and disabled to continue to be entitled to the support of crutches for all times.

A large number of poverty alleviation programmes and projects has consumed a sizable portion of the national and State budgets, but the results on the ground have been most disappointing it is often asked where all the money has gone. The destitute and deprived have hardly benefited from relief funds released in their names or from poverty alleviation programs. Even where some benefits have reached their categories, these have been cornered largely by the privileged amongst them.

The Latest Trends

The entry of the global forces in local spaces without much mediation by way of protection or control from the state has brought sharp divide between the classes and the masses and pushed the marginalized into a state of destitution. With the decline in the legitimacy of political practices and fewer state intervention, the rich getting richer by the logic of accumulation and market, and the poor getting poorer through the logic of exploitation, exclusion, and growing alienation from centers of power and decision-making.

Under the camouflage of the slogans of one world and a global village, ordinary citizens instead of being the masters in democratic polity have been increasingly reduced to being mere consumers of goods and services. The result is tremendous erosion in democratic rights and freedoms of the individual vis-à-vis the organs of the State substantially reducing the space for the voice of the poor and the underprivileged.

Economic liberalization and freedom to market forces have led to the erosion of the workers’ rights and competitive consumerism with no thought given to the need for sustainable levels of consumption. It is openly argued under what is called the trickle down or the leftover effect that the rich have got to grow richer if the poor are to be made less poor. The truth is that unemployment has increased, draughts and floods continue. While the granaries may be full, the poor continue to die of starvation or commit suicides in increasing numbers.

The number of landless labourers has increased. Nobody talks of land reforms now. The chief beneficiaries of various subsidies on fertilizers, diesel, seeds, etc. are the big land owners. More and more agricultural land is being acquired for setting up industries, building shopping Malls, industrial townships, fancy housing complexes and tourist resorts. Core areas like energy, water, power, electricity, insurance, banking and even retail trade are being thrown open to foreign entrepreneurs. The poor and the deprived are the worst sufferers.

Thus, as a response to the exploitative state and globalization process, multiple grassroots social movements have been active in challenging the current establishment and throwing alternative possibilities. The growing disparity between liberalization’s economic agenda for profit and subaltern’s empowerment agenda for social justice has translated the submissive language of mass alienation into assertive mass mobilization.

The most serious threat to the poor and the underprivileged having an adequate voice in a democracy comes from widespread corruption in governance under democratic polity. The mother of corruption and criminalization of politics is the system of electing our representatives. Electoral corruption in India seems to have increased in recent years primarily because of the high cost of campaigning and questionable practices indulged in by the political parties. The absence of proper regulation and monitoring of the expenses both by candidates and the parties has given rise to widespread criticism that electoral corruption has been increasing over the years without any effective oversight. Their representational legitimacy is therefore, most suspects. Increasingly they come from the neo-rich classes. If the declarations made by the candidates are any indication, many of them have assets running into crores.

The electoral system had proved to be terribly divisive of society on caste basis thereby further isolating and damaging the deprived and marginalized as mere vote banks with the leaders developing a vested interest in keeping them backward.