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Democracies are expected to empower citizens to take genuine control of instruments of the state for their development. At the core of this concept is the idea that citizens will participate in governance at the local level, making decisions for themselves, and vote in representatives to legislatures for higher-level decisions. India is an implausible democracy, an audacious experiment, attempting to bring together a billion people with starkly different languages, religions, and food habits. However, the state of our democracy remains perilous, a country hanging on by a slender thread to its claim to being defined a democracy. Like with many other aspects famously considered ‘Indian’, our democracy is a mediocre one, fulfilling satisfactorily, only the most basic requirement of regular (and reasonably free and fair) elections. Democratic accountability in particular, appears particularly at risk, as we the people, have fewer ways to hold those in power responsible for their performance.

Four scenarios raising concerns about democratic accountability currently playing out in India:

Propaganda rules over facts

Late last year, the central government pulled off ‘Demonetisation’, an exercise in purging cash reserves of the political opposition after ensuring the ruling party’s own reserves were safely parked (or converted) well in time. Manipulation of the press by political parties through direct funding (or proxy measures) continues unabated, as news channels spectacularly out-do the state broadcaster in peddling propaganda. The true extent of damage caused by Demonetisation will never be known — not because we do not have the tools to measure the damage, but because voters are being herded like sheep, not to ask any questions. As a result, the Reserve Bank of India can get away without releasing key data, and the lack of that data need not deter the government from making grandiose statements that go almost completely unchallenged in the public domain. Those who do question, do it with the knowledge that nit-picking on facts is futile.

Dissent is anti-national

The state’s response to dissent continues to plumb new depths. Civil society voices have been muted, farmer/dalit protests are killed in cahoots with a friendly media, etc. Those speaking up against the rampant terrorism in the name of the cow, or the fast-receding freedom of the press, are labelled anti-national. Dissent, whether from the grassroots or from intellectuals in society, are continuously demonised by a government that seems to take pride in its own anti-intellectualism, and celebration of mediocrity as evident from the various appointments to institutions of repute. Activists are being silenced everywhere. Today, Medha Patkar languishes in jail, as a government utterly insensitive to citizen protests makes no conciliatory move.Decimation of political opposition: A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader — it is the perfect storm for the Indian National

Decimation of political opposition

A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader — it is the perfect storm for the Indian National Congress, and a sign of the times for political opposition in India. This decimation is now fully reflected in the composition of India’s Parliament, and the erosion of checks and balances that the Legislature is supposed to have over the Executive In a parliamentary system. The few states that are not ruled by the BJP get undue attention from partisan Governors and federal anti-corruption agencies. The use of the Governor’s office as a pawn in the hands of the central government must evoke a sense of deja-vu. Politics that seemed to have matured in the last fifteen years or so now lies in tatters.

Narcissism and hero-worship

When the BJP government recently completed three years in office, the government launched the MODI Fest — the Making of Developed India festival. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly Mann Ki Baat speeches were released as a book at an event in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Every government scheme is credited to only one man, and no failures are ever pinned on him. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, Modi-bhakti seems to be his second-last weapon of choice.

The point overall is this — to celebrate our incredible democracy, it is not enough to just conduct every five years, and for everyone to accept the election results. That is a very low bar. What matters is the quality of our democracy as measured by how the polity, the people, and the institutions operate once elections are over.

By this measure, India’s democracy has a long way to go. The systematic destruction of institutions, which need to function with a degree of competence and independence, will eventually kill our democracy. In the last three years, our institutions have shown themselves to be utterly incapable of protecting themselves from a government with authoritarian tendencies. The power that we have to hold public officials and politicians to account is directly proportionate to the credibility of institutions of governance. The way the Reserve Bank of India has folded in the last nine months should be serious cause for concern. The repeated attempts at politicising the military forces, the bellowing nationalistic media, our sanskari cultural guardians, and the uber-patriotic people’s representatives — together foretell a scary future for India.

The immediate casualty has been democratic accountability. No one seems to be responsible for the sluggish economy, now showing alarming signs of slipping into deflation. Similarly, no one seems responsible for breakdown in public services that the government is responsible for, nor is anyone held accountable for the questionable and inconsistent foreign policy decisions. Neither national security, nor corruption or cronyism seem to be topical any longer. Vigilantes break the law with impunity, as representatives of government hail them as patriots.

It is a great tragedy that after completing seventy years as a proud independent nation, our democracy is faced with such an existential crisis. If you are a liberal progressive Indian, this spectre should concern you.


A short addendum

A friend pointed out that none of this is “new” — that this has been the nature of politics in India, and indeed, is something I recognise in this column on politics and power:
It is in the nature of a government to exercise power. Every political party in power manifests power in one form or the other — never mind if the one exercising it is being labelled ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. Often, these labels allow us the convenience of picking sides based on who we like, rather than the issue at hand. This only serves to lower the quality of public debate. In reality, it would appear that at their extremities, the Left and Right are indistinguishable; and that is a clue that what we need to really discern is the manner in which both sides choose to exercise power. And for citizens unaffiliated with these labels, understanding power is the first step towards engaging with it.

The exercise of power, and the “feudal” nature of politics in India is a reality. And yet, there is distinct shift in the pattern that we need to recognise. A government running amok with little counter-balance from the Legislature or the Press, and an inconsistent Judiciary has created an unique operating environment. Political parties that are now emaciated are of course responsible for their own fates, but the corporate control of the media (and an organised effort on social media) has emboldened the current government in ways we haven’t seen in recent years. And while ordinary citizens and observers cannot replace a conventional political opposition, we need to keep demanding accountability from the government — ultimately, that is the essence of a democracy. The voters may yet surprise us again, (who knows!), but this column is about holding governments to account in between two successive elections.

Originally published here.

India is rapidly becoming a country lost in depression. With over a hundred bills pending, the opposition staging walkouts like it was a fashion show ramp, precarious economy, the two things our politicians appear to be unanimous on are both against National Interest.


One is

Baijayant Panda, MP tweeted that the UPA was trying for an all-party consensus on a law against the Supreme Court order disqualifying convicted MPs. Considering that the main parties in the Parliament also happen to be the parties with the most politicians with criminal cases against them, they are coming together to pass a law and save their behinds. So they can continue to comfortably enjoy their privilege while filing appeals and leisurely court cases.

It would be tough to imagine anything worse than this in terms of democracy, but there is worse. After the CIC order that ruled that six National Parties would be brought under RTI Act because they were public authorities, the government is doing what it does best. Match fixing. Said six parties are in agreement that they will do no such thing and are amending the law to provide exempton to political parties. This morning. None of the parties have instituted PIOs as directed.

So let us get this straight. Citizens rights are eroded for "security", but the far greater problem of corruption and accountability in a country that has almost made a religion out of it does not deserve transparency.

A democracy defends citizen's rights and provides transparency in public organizations. This worthless government and the useless oppositon and their cronies in the Parliament will conspire to prevent accountabilty in what have emerged as the greatest hubs of corruption.

The political parties that get land for their offices in Delhi, residential space for leaders, that don't pay taxes on donations they get from the public have the gall to formally put information about them out of reach of questioning by the masses.

They do not think the public has a right to know how they run their party before trusting them to run the government. It seems after these jokers wrecking the country to this extent, they still expect us to make our decisions based on the propaganda they design for us to swallow instead of examining how they operate and seeing if we want that for the nation.

Today, they will bring about this farce in the Parliament. I sincerely hope enough people with conscience are still left alive that it doesn't pass, but hopes are low. If they bring about this perversion of the RTI Act, remember names. Remember faces. Remember parties. Never vote for them ever again.

Save India. Save the right of people to demand accountability.

Save RTI.

Most people these days seem to be plagued with a vague dissatisfaction that is all encompassing. Where we turn things seem to be operating below par. No matter what. Nothing is perfect and the flaws are always serious. Be it a corrupt government being challenged, terrorist attacks, public services or simply doing any of the many things of routine lives. Farmers are dropping off like flies and newspaper headlines have got better things to talk about. Rickshaws charge extra at night for the inconvenience, but actually won't take inconvenient passengers at all, day or night. Nothing seems to work as advertized in the grand story of independence.

There is this vague restlessness in a country with a discredited government, dysfunctional crucial services, and dissatisfied public.

The other thing that strikes me is the all permeating feeling of helplessness that seems to be there. The people feel helpless about everything from inflation to terror attacks, the government feels helpless about the demands of the people, the security agencies feel helpless about the serious questions raised about their functioning...

It reminds me of a time during a training programme when the entire group was stuck in a situation that required acting on totally different patterns, but they were all being flatlined by each other's actions or responses. The need of the group was for all to take the risk together and endure through whatever hurdles came in their way. The same interdependence that was causing the paralysis was the safety net if they trusted it and committed to the trust regardless of how daunting it seemed.

We did a quick exercise to experience the possibility. The group stood in a circle holding hands. The goal was for all of them to tilt back as far as possible - out of their centers of gravity. Hands crossed, held tight with the person next to them, bodies straight. It took a while to achieve. At a crucial moment, when the weight moves beyond the capability to balance, and the hands take the task of holding everyone suspended at a tilt, someone or the other gave in to the inherent insecurity of the position and bent their knee, or didn't move out of balance, or whatever, to preserve their own balance. Their weight not acting against the pull of those next to them caused those next to them to fail too and the whole circle couldn't do it.

After much trying and frustration, with little time left, they decided too give it their best shot or fall, but they wouldn't foul the process for the group. No matter what, they would keep bodies straight, arms extended and taking their weight, and tilt off balance as far as the length of their hands allowed. If they fell, so be it. But they would do exactly this. They tried. One person leaned back before the others, pulled his neighbours off balance, and the circle failed again. This time, instead of becoming defensive at the failure and more protective of themselves, they consciously decided to counter problems by doing exactly as planned.

They tried again. This time, they also went slow, so that they could see problems sooner. This time, again a woman in the group was the first to tilt out of her center of gravity, but when she started falling because of gravity, the rest of the group quickly leaned back too, and everyone's weight countered the others, and there was this group of people - all off balance, not falling because their linked arms countered each other's weight safely.

Today, our country is like that. There are problems with everything, but there is a lot of defensiveness and lack of trust. We don't trust the government to look after our interests, the government doesn't trust us to not destabilize the country or safeguard its interest, we don't trust the security agencies to conduct efficient investigations and safeguard our safety, they don't trust us to accept their lack of results.... all of them very real reasons for mistrusting. The government has really failed to safeguard citizen's interests, the citizens are really okay with disrupting the country's well being if that is what it takes to bring the government corruption to heel. The security agencies really are not conducting investigations efficiently, and the people really are in no mood to listen to the lack of results in investigations. All the fears leading to this internal mistrust are true. Like that group, everyone is acting on their own fears only.

What is needed at this time to move beyond our own fears and trust that if we give up our interest out of belief that a goal that encompasses us all is better for us all, we may be able to take that risk of losing safety as we stop defending ourselves and being prey to falling in that moment before the interdependent system shows its function and we are all held safe because of each other rather than in spite of each other.

We may be able to pool strength to achieve something together that isn't individually possible, just like it isn't possible for a group of individuals to stand at an angle to the ground without other support.

This is the point where people look around at the magnitude of the task and shake their heads in despair that nothing will change, our system is like that, our politicians are like that, there is rampant unprofessionalism, etc. Another choice is to step in and shoulder some of the load however we can, so that we provide that safety for others to lean too. Will not be easy, answers will not be obvious, but it is clear to me that in a country that is better described as a mediocracy (both media ruled and outstandingly mediocre) change will only happen if we all jump into it at once, or any change made will be dragged back to old dysfunctional patterns by the inertia of the rest.

Just a thought.