The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- India has the trappings, not the practice, of a liberal democracy

The India story hinges on its being a liberal democracy. We must recognize the flaws in the story and correct them. We claim to want uplift of the poor and vulnerable, while providing opportunity for enterprise to flourish. We are proud of our regular electoral cycles when even powerful individuals quietly give up power after losing elections, of a free and outspoken media and an independent judiciary. But our liberalism is a thin veneer over a system that gives preferential treatment to the financially and politically powerful, criminal politicians, and continues to oppress the poor and vulnerable.

Liberalism emphasizes individual rights and equality of opportunity. Many poor and vulnerable people, even in the most ‘progressive’ states of India, are still bound for life to their masters, or have lived most of their lives in jails awaiting trial, or are tortured, burnt and treated as outcasts because they did not bring enough dowry, married out of caste, or were widowed, among other ‘reasons’. The human development indicators of states show even ‘egalitarian’ communist-ruled states like West Bengal as providing very limited opportunities to the poor and minorities.

Freedom of thought and speech are increasingly constrained by governments or with their support, to woo electoral blocks. India has the semantics of a liberal democracy — right to life, liberty and property, and we are also now talking of a right to education and health. The reality is the opposite.

Indira Gandhi began the replacement of Jawaharlal Nehru’s genuine liberalism with empty rhetoric. Successive governments have, to varying extents, followed her example. Her accession to prime ministership brought centralization of power, loyalty to her than competence in the job as the criteria for appointment to high office, and the beginning of the trend to dismiss opposing state governments and governors who did not pass the test. The maximum number of state governments were dismissed in her regime. Mrs Gandhi also tried to appoint “committed” judges so that a “committed” judiciary (committed to her) would uphold her policies. The judiciary halted this process. She centralized all appointments and chose officers who would do her bidding to ensure a “committed” bureaucracy. In her regime, even history texts were rewritten by “committed” historians. The Bharatiya Janata Party rewrote them when it came to power. This institutionalization of “commitment” and corruption was used by subsequent regimes as well. Mrs Gandhi did not practise a liberal democracy.

A liberal society investigates, prosecutes and punishes criminals. Events following the assassination of Mrs Gandhi started the trend towards non-accountability of governments for large-scale targeted killings of members of one community. Over 5,000 Sikhs were targeted and killed in revenge for her assassination by Sikh bodyguards. Lackadaisical investigation, poor collection of evidence, considerable delays in filing cases, ineffective prosecutors, and a general lethargy of intent to bring murderers to justice, became the unstated but understood government policy. This has continued in many other instances.

After the demolition of the Babri mosque and the killings of Muslims following the serial bomb explosions in Bombay, the Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra was compelled to appoint a commission of enquiry. It identified individuals responsible for the killings. Nobody has been brought to justice even under a Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government. The targeted killings of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat after a bogey in a train at Godhra with some Hindu karsevaks was burnt was not thoroughly investigated or the murderers brought to justice. Justice has been a casualty in our ‘liberal’ democracy because the executive will not prosecute honestly.

The killings of farmers in Nandigram in West Bengal who opposed the taking over of their lands for the creation of a chemicals hub, with the government supporting the killings, is in the same category.

Many other such incidents of ‘encounter’ and other killings of ‘terrorists’ have taken place. But ‘liberal’ opinion seems to focus only on the killings of Muslims. Sonia Gandhi’s labelling of the highest power-holders in the Gujarat government as “merchants of death” ignores other such “merchants” in her party and others. Each political party — the Congress, BJP or the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — accuses others of ‘genocide’ and other crimes without accepting responsibility for similar actions. This is quintessential pseudo-liberalism.

Classical economic liberalism emphasizes free private enterprise, individual property rights, laissez-faire economic policy, and freedom of contract. It supports competition in a free market and its effects. A Monopolies Commission ruled for years on restrictive trade practices without really promoting competition. It did restrict Indian companies from growing and becoming internationally competitive. We have a new Competition Act, which, for three years, has not been implemented. The lack of an effective Competition Commission allows anti-competitive practices free play.

India’s constitution promotes social liberalism by government interventions to actively protect individual rights through anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action. These have resulted in many reservations of government jobs, seats in educational institutions, and so on, for deprived classes. The beneficiaries have mostly been the already-better-off. For most, there is little improvement in their condition or capacities. Other deprived and exploited groups like the minorities, primarily Muslims, and women, have also not visibly benefited from such policies. The Sachar committee was the first to quantify the extent of deprivation among Muslims. It has yet to result in enabling policies and programmes for their uplift. Scheduled tribes receive even less attention and support. Social liberalism in India has been selective and ineffective.

Social liberals want universal education, the provision of welfare, including benefits for the unemployed, housing for the homeless, and medical care for the sick, all supported by progressive taxation. They support subsidized key inputs for the poor — foodgrains, fuel, electricity, water, free medical care and education. India has all these in policies. However, the cheap foodgrains and fuels for the poor reach only some of the deserving. Much is stolen and sold in the market. Health and education services are poor in quality and many prefer to pay for private healthcare by quacks and private schools for their children.

The innovative National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has so far been at best an infrastructure development programme using contractors. Even where it has led to employment of the poor, the full amounts claimed as spent, have rarely reached them. India has tried to provide rights to individuals pertaining to their conscience and lifestyle, including sexual freedom, religious freedom, cognitive freedom, and protection from government intrusion into private lives. However, governments do greatly interfere in personal liberties. Educational institutions laying down dress codes for students, even those above eighteen; homosexuality as a crime; women not allowed to work in dance bars; widespread tapping of private telephone conversations are some instances. Religious freedom exists, but there is growing ghettoization, particularly among Muslims.

A pluralistic society like India must ensure cultural liberalism. Governments have many times banned films, paintings and books because of pressures from interested groups. For many years, foreign, particularly American, scholars were not allowed to research in India. This has been relaxed in recent years. Lotteries have been banned in some states. Prostitution results in jail sentences for many wretched women.

We might persuade the world that we are a liberal democracy. We have the trappings, not the practice of social, economic or cultural liberalism. Central and state governments are the worst culprits. Intellectuals and the media must be objective and propagate true liberalism in practice.

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