What is Democracy?
Today is a historic day for India. After 12 days of going without any food, Anna Hazare managed to get the govt to agree to some of his demands. The provisions of the proposed Jan Lokpal bill are to be considered by the Parliament, having been agreed in principle in initial debates.
Having said that, i have been following some of the debates over the past many days, and have been left somewhat befuddled. It has been a widespread refrain of many of the intelligentsia who oppose Anna’s movement, calling it undemocratic, unnecessary, even an unconstitutional farce.
This happened during Anna’s first movement as well. I remember the cynical comments then, and had said at that time that we need a movement to get India rid of cynicism, before we can do anything about corruption. The cynicism turned to derision this time around, with taunts about Anna’s blackmail tactics.
Which makes me wonder what exactly is Democracy? What is Constitutional? How do you make your voice heard in a Democratic setup?
Abraham Lincoln once famously summarised it as ” Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for thepeople.” Let’s go with that.
Government of the people
Does the common Indian man identify with his voted representative anymore? Can he approach him to find out about the representative’s plans for his welfare? Do these representatives have to slug it out for basics everyday, ever? No.
Is it a government of the people if it isn’t coming out of the pool to which the common man belongs? The common man’s voice can no more enter the fancy bungalows inhabited by the people representing him in the seats of power.
Government for the people
Is the Indian government working for me? Can i hold it accountable for any of the scams that keep occurring with increasing regularity? Would it tell me why prices keep going up? Would it tell me why we let food grain rot while millions live in penury? Would it tell me why potbellied babus run sports federations like personal fiefdoms, while we continue to be an embarrassment in international events?
Government by the people?
Did we really elect this government? Did we ask for A Raja to be made telecom minister and create one of the biggest scams we have ever seen? Did we ask for Sharad Pawar to be made a union minister? Did we even vote for Manmohan Singh? Not quite. The current PM didnt even stand for election, but entered the Parliament via the Rajya Sabha and was made the head of state.
Our govt is not one we asked for. We vote for individual MPs, not for ministers. Certainly not for the PM. Was the current PM getting his post constitutional? Technically it was, you would say. But was it in keeping with the spirit of democracy? No?
So on all three counts from Abraham Lincoln’s criteria, our democracy would appear to be working only in name, but not in spirit. Farcical?
The pundits keep pointing to the power of the vote, and how it is the only instrument available to reform the country. But that’s not accurate. A vote should not be an event that happens once in five years and be forgotten till the next available chance. Even a DVD player comes with an exchange policy, then why not the government? In the absence of a continuous evaluation for our elected reps, what stops them from abusing their powers for 4.5 years, then come up with a few populist schemes in the last 6 months to get our vote again. The indian voter does have a short memory, as oft noted.
And then our elections seem to get settled by promised freebies such as mixer-grinders, rather than intelligent debates about policy and development. Where is the chance for reform if elections are settled by monetary muscle, often at the ultimate cost of the taxpayer?
To contribute to the mess, if a party gets an absolute majority it can be ruthless and get away with anything it wants. On the other hand, if it turns out to be a coalition such as the UPA, the ruling parties are tied by what are called the compulsions of coalition politics, and petty regional parties are able to blackmail the government for their benefit. Which evil do you choose?
Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as a wise man once said. Unless there is clear accountability and transparency of public officials, Democracy cannot work optimally. Which is where institutions such as the Lokpal can come in to play the role of that vital safeguard.
What is good for democracy is clearly not good for the ones abusing their powers. Obviously the government is scared.
If only the British had come up with the idea of thwarting the Indian freedom movement by declaring it unconstitutional and undemocratic, Prince William would have been OUR prince today. And Kate Middleton our bahu.
How a small mistake brings down a vast empire.