Way to go
The world lauds us as the largest democracy. Yet, how much of a democracy are we and where must we improve?
Elections and their consequences: We have regular elections. They are supervised with increasing effectiveness as far as booth capturing, bogus voters and violence are concerned. The influence of money has not waned; if anything, it has increased. It is not as it used to be, for paying voters only. Voters are also more sophisticated and are not above taking money, but voting as they prefer. The money is for advertising, banners, ferrying crowds to meetings, and for ‘paid news’.
The Press Council of India’s report prepared by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K. Sreenivas Reddy had laid this bare. But the practice has not stopped. Both the print and visual media appear to engage in this practice. The paid news comes in different stages. The simplest is to give name and picture recognition. The highest is where laudatory references are made to the candidate and objectionable parts of the opponent’s life and career, as well as of his party, are publicized, sometimes even created. The Election Commission has so far not been able to stop or even control this.
With elections being expensive to fight, winners have to recoup their expenses soon. They do so by peddling influence. The growing instances of corruption show that economic growth has led to major illegal earnings from the sale or lease of natural resources, land, infrastructure contracts, and from leakages in large social welfare programmes like the public distribution system or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Any democracy requires candidates for election. There is data to show that a significant number of our corporators, legislators and parliamentarians have been jailed on criminal charges or have criminal charges pending against them — some of the charges are of rape and murder — but, so far, there has been no bar on their standing for elections, being elected or participating in the framing of legislation. It was interesting that the Lok Pal debate saw such a parliamentarian active in framing the legislation that was intended to curb people like him who had faced charges or have been in jail.
Some successes: The ruling coalition has introduced measures that are transforming society. The Right to Information Act is bringing greater transparency in public policy and action. It has exposed many misdeeds and corruption in government. The MGNREGS has, despite vast leakages, improved livelihoods for millions of families. The RTI Act has significantly increased the number of children in school. Various other schemes have, in varying degrees, helped the poor with housing, health services, nutrition programmes, unemployment benefits and the like. The constitutional amendments for panchayats have brought many women into public life and improved matters to some extent in villages. The road construction programmes introduced by Atal Bihari Vajpayee have continued and have made a difference in connectivity, providing work for many. If all these had been implemented more effectively, reaching most eligible beneficiaries, and with little leakage, the Congress could have taken credit and won the forthcoming elections without difficulty.
Our electorates include large numbers of the deprived, from among scheduled castes and tribes, and Muslims. However, there is a larger section of the deprived and oppressed, namely women. They are killed as foetuses, at birth, and for dowry. They are sexually harassed at work. Rape is a common occurrence among all classes and parts of India. The government has done little to make women and other marginalized sections of society much better off than they are. This is despite much election propaganda for the minorities, and reports of various commissions and committees. The status and treatment of women remain quite appalling in spite of the many women in positions of leadership in all sectors.
After initial success in reforming the economy and achieving high growth, the Congress has now got bogged down by populism. Growth has faltered badly. Inequalities have risen greatly.
An unaccountable executive: The second leg of our democracy, the executive, has also become suborned by the immense financial powers and low levels of accountability of ministers and government officials. Until there is true administrative reform, with clear definitions of responsibilities, individual accountability, impartial appointments, stopping of transfers meant as punishments, transparency in financial decision-making and decisions involving large sums of money, speedy investigations and severe penalties for proven misuse of office, this part of our democracy will become increasingly dysfunctional and costly.
Law and judiciary: In spite of being the bulwark of the people’s expectations of fairness and justice, the judiciary is understaffed, underpaid, with little infrastructural support, and some corruption. An essential element of our democracy is the obedience of the executive to judicial orders. Prime ministers have stepped down, top politicians have been charged and arrested. In most critical matters, our judiciary has been wise and balanced. It has been able to moderate or overrule the ideologies of lower courts.
But justice is inordinately delayed. There are too many adjournments, for little good reason. The adage, “Justice delayed is justice denied”, seems to miss our judges. Some judges also display a paternalistic, feudal, indeed casteist, mindset. The superior courts in most instances are able to correct them. The courts do little to follow up on the execution of their decisions by the government, for example, the inordinate delay in executing the assassins of Rajiv Gandhi, Beant Singh and the masterminds of the attack on our Parliament.
We also have the misbehaviour of lawyers. They go on strike, indulge in violence as part of their ‘protests’, or refuse to appear for clients whose ideologies they do not support (for example, of terrorists, religious fundamentalists and the like). As officers of the court, they cannot refuse to appear for a person who asks for their service.
The J.S. Verma committee on the gangrape of a 23-year-old Delhi girl also raises the issue of the behaviour of armed forces and other police authorities. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is intended to protect the armed forces from accusations of brutality in insurgency. But why allow them the licence of rape and murder of innocents, without any civilian oversight? The same applies to the police. For example, the violence against unarmed protesters at India Gate and Jantar Mantar in Delhi by the Delhi Police has not been investigated and disciplinary action has not been taken against the policemen involved. There are far too many of such incidents where the police and the armed forces are a law unto themselves and not answerable even when they commit unlawful acts.
State governments show even less respect for the law and public opinion too often. Some are worse than the others. The chief minister of West Bengal acts decisively against cartoonists who lampoon her. Gujarat encourages protesters who forced the withdrawal of M.F. Husain’s paintings of nude Indian goddesses, although they do not protest against similar depictions at Konark, Khajuraho and many other places. In Chhattisgarh, the State armed civilians to fight insurgent Maoists, resulting in mass killings. In Haryana, the government permits khap panchayats to inflict punishments on innocent lovers. In Mumbai, the police, led by a senior officer, go around smashing bars and other such places. In Karnataka, the government allows loutish fanatics to intervene when they see boys and girls together. There are cases like these all over the country. Democracy would demand that this is not permissible.
India has some of the forms of democracy, but not the content. The present United Progressive Alliance government has done more than any other government to improve matters. But it has barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done. Our democracy will take decades before its form and substance improve.