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CHANGING TO DEMOCRACY

- India must transform its administrative mindset and function

Kashmir has needed an occupying Indian army (about a quarter of a million soldiers) for decades. The Northeast, particularly Nagaland, has been in turmoil for over 30 years. Only Tripura has overcome conflict. The army is there in large numbers to control violence. Assam has seen large-scale riots after the formation of Bangladesh. These could be controlled only by the army.

We have a civilian-controlled army. But we have become very dependent on the army for sorting out civil problems. Governments do not use development expenditures honestly and effectively to improve peoples’ well-being. Development activity and force might together control these movements. Civilian forces are poorly trained.

The pace of urbanization has led to rapidly rising migration from rural to urban areas. There is no anticipatory government planning for infrastructure and housing. Slums proliferate in urban India.

Local people in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore resent this migration. Mumbai is no more the welcoming melting pot for people from all over India. Migration to Mumbai continues, with migrants seeking employment and incomes, but they do so in some fear. This will happen in more cities and towns.

Bangalore is much like Mumbai was. Migrants find employment and income. It is no longer the ‘garden city’ or the ‘pensioners’ paradise’ of earlier years. But Bangalore experienced the panic reverse migration of Northeasterners fearing violence from local Kannadigas. They have come back, but it is a signal to politicians and governments. Migrants of different cultures must be helped to assimilate. Facilities must be created so that they do not overwhelm infrastructure.

In 1955 when the linguistic state of Karnataka was formed, Kannada was not the language of the majority in Bangalore. But it was surrounded by Kannada-speaking areas and was awarded to Karnataka. Attempts to generate linguistic chauvinism in Bangalore have failed so far. But local demands for a bigger role for Kannada (and Kannadigas) remain. They have yet no strong political mobilization like the Shiv Sena in Mumbai. Civil society and government must take urgent corrective actions to prevent this from happening.

Balasaheb Thackeray had clarity about objectives, singlemindedness and cynical tactics. The unarticulated sympathies of other political parties helped. The Congress in power has looked away when Thackeray let goons loose in Mumbai to smash restaurants, shops, taxis, cars and hurt people, if they were not Marathi-speaking and Maharashtrian by origin. The Bombay municipal corporation has been a Shiv Sena fief for over a decade. The Sena has allowed Mumbai to deteriorate in infrastructure, and socially as well. It is no longer the cosmopolitan and meritocratic city of earlier years. Many Shiv Sena-type movements will arise in other cities and towns if governments continue in their hands-off attitude.

There is also growing communal extremism. This has sympathizers among other parties, bureaucrats and the police. This is shown by the largely unpunished pogroms (targeted killings of specific groups) — in Hyderabad in 1948, Sikh killings in 1984, Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and many smaller scale communal killings.

Sixty-five years after Independence, violence, insurrection, linguistic and communal hatreds remain. More violence will accompany growing urbanization. Urban populations are more easily organized and their protests violent.

Is India destined to remain an increasingly divided country held together by force? Is ‘unity in diversity’ merely a good phrase, not to be a reality? Our difference from Pakistan might only be that our army does not rule. In Pakistan, army rule has not kept the country peacefully together. Can democracy succeed in doing that for India?

India is now a growing economic power with considerable military might. The courts, especially the Supreme Court and some high courts, have been at the forefront in upholding citizens’ rights and the rule of law. Constitutional bodies like the comptroller and auditor general and the Election Commission, are much stronger and more independent. The Right to Information Act has made government ‘secrets’ public. The constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech has resulted in powerful and investigative television and print media. Social media have made possible the viral spread of information, and the mass mobilization of protests. The anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal was greatly helped by saturation television coverage.

However, national and regional political parties do not lead public opinion. The Congress is ruled by a family surrounded by sycophants. The Bharatiya Janata Party is ruled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS is hostile to all other religions, and is an anachronism in our diverse country. The communists have no inner-party democracy and persist with rigid ineffective leaders. Almost every regional party is ruled by inheritors from ruling families: the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Shiv Sena, the YSR Congress, the Biju Janata Dal, the JD Secular of H.D. Deve Gowda, the Samajwadi Party. They are a negation of democratic functioning. They quietly bury important initiatives for changing society.

Other constitutional and statutory bodies such as the judiciary or the CAG are attacked by political parties and governments, or subverted by appointing malleable people to head them. Investigatory bodies like the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Intelligence Branch, the police forces, in some states the lokayukta, are supine under the control of governments. The government would like to dilute the powers of courts and regulatory bodies.

Statutory regulatory bodies like the Reserve Bank of India, the securities and Exchange Board of India, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority, the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the Petrol and Natural Gas Regulatory Board and so on are packed with ex-government servants. Yet a few do act transparently, independently and in consultation with all interests. But many do not and tend to mostly comply with government wishes.

Press and television media are largely owned and controlled as businesses for profit maximization. They do not always aim at honest reporting and comment. ‘Paid news’ and worse are common. ‘News’ is at times slanted to suit special interests. Corruption is all-pervasive, and many executive and statutory bodies are infected. Even some judges, especially at the lower levels, are said to have succumbed.

The factors that can reverse these trends are rapid economic growth, widespread literacy, higher education and skills development. The government makes feeble attempts to bring these about. Economic growth is erratic because of entrenched administrators, venal politics and grandiose untested schemes. They have failed to benefit most and their quality is poor. As public opinion mobilizes in support of transparency of regulation and governance, the regulatory bodies, RTI, judiciary and media will become more correct.

These transformations will take time. Meanwhile there will be apparent deterioration. We need fundamental administrative reform. Administration must have far less discretionary authority, accountability must be fixed on individuals, penalties for violation be swift and severe, transparency must be the norm in decision-making. Even more difficult transformations will be of political parties. They now have deep vested interests in the status quo and the power and pelf it results in.

The Election Commission must disbar legislators from transacting legislative business if they are on criminal trial. It must publicize the attendance record and participation of each legislator in his or her constituency. It must ask for sources of funds from each political party.

India has many miles to go before it can truly be a democracy. At best we have begun. Now we must transform. Only then can we claim our place at the high table in the comity of nations.