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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.


The following is the transcript of snippets of P. Sainath's insights on democracy. I think there is much to think of here. Many thanks Atul Hirde for making this video and sharing.

I believe that a democratic political culture is essential for any kind of governance, any kind of social contract, for any kind of society to be together, live together, work together, but the thing is, when you say "Do you agree that democracy is the best form?" You have one concept in your mind, which is not going to be easy for you to articulate. I may have another concept of it in my mind. Which may be completely different.

What is democracy?

Now, when we are talking about Western democracy, let it also be clear that there are many kinds of... there's more than one Western concept of democracy, okay?

One can look at Thomas Paine. He had radical ideas of democracy, but the main people who led the US independence and benefited from it, unlike Thomas Paine, were people like Jefferson, Washington... all of them were slave owners.

We speak of the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy. Thomas Jefferson not only wrote beautiful and exquisite poems, he was also pretty harsh on his slaves and he was willing to sell months old children of slaves. He did not release his slaves in his will - as Washington did for some of them - and Mr. Jefferson also had profoundly racist prejudices.

Democracies that you have in the west in the United Kingdom or the US are based on the enslavements of people, whether in Africa or Iraq or all around the world. In that sense there is continuity and consistency in the approach.

All the founding fathers of the United States, many of the ... you have people from the 17th, 18th century, you have people harking back to Rome, harking back to Greece, writing epics on these nations and the early republics and the democracies... these were democracies based on slave ownership.

When European nations went out and enslaved the world, it was very good to remember Rome and Greece. And it is very good in Greece to remember Plato and Aristotle, because these were guys who justified slavery. They saw the slave as property. Adam Smith writes of the slave as if he is a piece of machinery whereas in ancient Greece. Whether it is ancient greece or more modern England. Adam Smith writes of the slave as a piece of machinery - whose parts wear out. And you have to reinvest.

There's a lot of consistency in this view of human beings.

When you are an imperialist power in the 18th, 19th centuries, conquering people around the world, it is pretty good to restore those elements of the Roman, Greco-Roman, other cultures which support your position, because those were slave owning republics and slave owning democracies and slave owning empires and most of those who founded the United States drew their inspiration from that kind of democracy.

It's on view in Iraq, where everyone of you has sent the token number of troops as well, okay? We're seeing that kind of democracy. A democracy again based on enslavement of people.

You were asking me a question, "Why did Gandhi call Western Democracy a diluted form of fascism?"

Do you know something about Gandhi? All but five months of his life, he lived under British Imperialism. He watched the nation that called itself the mother of all Parliaments and he watched them enslave a hundred nations. All of them completely oppressed and held under the British rule. While the British power practiced democracy at home. To some extent. Even that democracy at home was substantially improved by the radical work and writings and ideas of people like Thomas Paine and others.

Please notice, Gandhi did not say democracy is diluted fascism. He said Western democracy is diluted fascism.

Let me give you an idea. I find it apalling, this Greco-Roman stuff, which is.... I have it coming out of my ears, and then we have a French academic passing through Bombay, who sings the praise of Greco-Roman republics and I think where are... you know... here is a guy coming from France - a nation that has produced far more noble ideas on democracy and egalitarianism than Greece and Rome ever did. Here is the nation that gave the world the slogan, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" - a slogan that Indian freedom fighters took to their graves with them.

Switzerland, oh great. Switzerland. Taught to me in school as the epitome of democracy at every level... when did they give women the right to vote? Some 30 years after India did, because women in India had the right to vote the minute this country was born. I still say it doesn't make India a good democracy in that sense. It makes India a good electoral democracy.

Unlike people of America, people of this country vote, they use their vote, and they use it to change governments and to produce change.

The man who was the main architect of the Constitution of India, Babasaheb Ambedkar, when the constitution was released, when the constitution was launched, in 1950, Ambedkar said, we have built a thriving political democracy, but we have not accompanied it with economic democracy. The tensions of inequality, the tensions of this contradiction will blow us up one day.

Now if you want to believe that the United States and UK and its allies in Europe went into Iraq to promote democracy, if you believe that, then you can believe in the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, and the rest of it.

Now if Iraq's national product had been onions, there would have been no war. There are two kinds of things why people went into Iraq. One is of course is the natural resources and the other geo-political stuff. Noam Chomsky put it very well when they have said International relations are also organized pretty much on the lines of the Mafia. If the small shopkeeper refuses to pay, you don't really need his money, but you gotta beat the shit out of him, because otherwise other shopkeepers will get ideas.

I think a lot of people make the distinction between democratic behavior and democratic governance, and the imposition of a particular breed of a violent democracy, on these nations by the United States and its western allies, I think people are intelligent enough to make this difference.

Many Western minds are not intelligent enough it seems to understand that people make that distinction. They might want democracy. They may not want your democracy.

The Australian political scientist, Alex Carry. I think he summarized when talking about the 20th century. He summarized - he said, "There were three great developments in the 20th Century. The rise and growth of democracy, the rise and growth of corporate power and The rise and growth of corporate media - to try and strangle the rise and growth of democracy.


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As a kid, I remember questioning "If someone is really good at making country decisions, but doesn't have money to advertise, then aren't we losing him?" That's profound, but I grew up, and stopped thinking about such things.

This whole thing with Indian democracy, remained like a sore tooth, where your tongue keeps going. It hurts, but you can't leave it alone.

I don't have answers, but at the risk of being publicly foolish, I am spreading my thoughts wide open for anyone to pick up on, or pick apart. The more we think about this, the more we may be able to move from this all pervasive depression about government.

  1. Elections are the ultimate in discrimination, because they guarantee that you will get nowhere without money and influence. They are not a representation of people, but a contest among those who can mass influence. Usually those who are inclined to exploit the country for fun and profit?
  2. We say things like "all politicians are the same", "all parties are corrupt", etc. It may be true, but what if it isn't the real problem? Many things we do as a part of a system are things we would never do on our own or even things we are aware of doing or furthering. The system has its own culture. You can replace every employee in a department plagued with gender bias, and still have the bias intact with a totally new staff. I think our whole political system is set up in a manner that predisposes its misuse. That doesn't excuse any politician, but it does mean that changing people and parties will not work. We show an instinctive inkling of this in the quiet resignation to corruption as something that will not go away. Or, when we think of "politician" as a person with a less than good character by default.
  3. The language we use influences our destiny. It is an ancient belief in India.We name our children in order to influence their lives with certain qualities. We stop someone voicing something undesirable. A method of changework - Appreciative Inquiry - leverages this instinctive knowledge into something near science, where the power of the words in directing our attention is engaged to create positive change. The results are quite real. We are shaped by our words. Now look at what we call the party that wins elections and governs the country - we call it the ruling party.  And, we are being ruled thoroughly. We ape the west and suffer from identity confusions, because mentally we feel slaves. On the other hand, the party that is supposed to provide oversight, to provide a dissenting voice and to balance perspectives is called the opposition party, and all it seems to do is oppose the ruling party. The diversity intended in its role rarely gets enacted.
  4. We blame the Congress and the BJP or other parties, but the story was still quite similar on a meta level when the BJP "ruled". Only positions were reversed. It actually depressed the country, because till that happened, there was, perhaps some pretence that we could escape the curse of the politicians in this manner.
  5. What is democracy? The whole election based politics system is designed like an unending series of battles with the country footing the bill for both sides and losing the war no matter who wins. Its a constant cold war with astonishing amounts of national resources, attention and energy being squandered in power struggles. The only ones to profit are those who use this chaos as distraction from outright theft.
  6. Indian democracy system is set up such that at any given time, there is one "kind of people" "lobby", "vote bank" etc who will be feeling powerless and cheated and ignored, because their representatives are not "in power". Reminds me of cheap labor accommodation where people sleep in shifts on the same bed and no one feels rested. What does democracy mean then? Have we designed the country so that someone or the other is always destined to feel orphaned in power.
  7. Is India a democracy? In India, the legitimate Indian seems to be becoming more and more rigidly defined.If India is a democracy, where are the people?
    • Criminals, separatists, terrorists, maoists, etc are discredited and denied representation in shaping the national narrative. This is a lot of people.
    • Our population of children of course has no legitimate voice till they suddenly snap into legal existence at eighteen.
    • The illiterates and others who "don't understand". With the economic condition of India, it is fair to say that this is actually the real majority who simply cannot 'get' what the shehari mind thinks.
    • And then, we have another group of people who simply has no voice. The tribals, etc.
    • Then, there is this population that simply does not care. They feel no hope of shaping politics. They decide to believe or not based on how pretty the campaign was, or if there are similarities of caste, creed, religion, or if the leader is handsome 😉 , etc. They don't believe the false promises before elections, don't expect the government to deliver anything beyond basic functioning, and they certainly are not surprised by things like corruption, etc. They simply don't care, as long as they can continue to live without interference.
    • That brings us to the "participative Indians". These people have beliefs, ideals, and they strive to shape the country accordingly. Some familiar avatars are journalists/bloggers, activists, maoists, politicians, etc. Each in their own way is attempting to influence the national narrative. The system is set up such that those who want to impose their will on the rest choose politics (which is why there is an inherent mistrust of politicians).

      To do this, they need votes, which they get through promises, demands, threats, advertising, any good they do and outright purchase. They may be tempted into misconduct, largely because they don't think anyone cares enough to notice. They don't expect to be caught at all, and if caught, they don't expect anyone to persist in the face of their clout. There is absolutely no anticipation of any unfavourable consequences.

    • By no accounts do I see this as a representation of the people of India. It is simply the school playground for all kids being turned into a stadium for elite teams and the rest become the audience, cheering equally inept teams at whim.
  8. Another interesting usage is the description of the 'ruling party', which is functionally supposed to be the 'governing party'. This power is largely experienced as power over the people rather than power arising from the people. Then we have issues with dissent and censorship. The fantasy that dissent happens only with anti-national elements is exactly that - a fantasy. The people are first censored and silenced. If anyone notices, they are called anti-national. Fact is that there are thousands silenced without being called anti-national, because no one objected to them being shut up, so no explanations were necessary.
  9. All democracies seem to think elections are the best thing since sliced bread. I think its fair to say that there are no democracies. Since it works for those "in power" or hoping to be "in power", I don't expect this will change without some serious soul searching by citizens. Will probably require revolution, since there is no reason to expect that politicians left with nothing to lose will give up power out of the goodness of their hearts.
  10. If we are looking for a superficial level governance illusion where things seem to work, this works. . .

This is where I am stuck. That this doesn't work is evident to me. What would work is a difficult question. I don't know many modern models. The only idea that comes to mind is inclusion. Not proposing this as an exact system, but something along the lines of engaging all the diverse voices of the country in running it rather than ruling it.

A sample model of democratic governance:

Each area has a governance body based largely on volunteers. This is your pool of future politicians as well. No parties. Just everyone wishing to serve, joins in. Out of these, based on consensus or something about their ability to represent people, a few - say two, for example are nominated to represent the area in a larger body. And so on. Totally nominated at whatever level the representation is happening. Till we reach the top, where people with different expertises can take charge of things about the country they are best able to manage. Anyone who can't negotiate differences should not be nominated higher, because the job profile is essentially one of being able to represent their area and their people and speak on their behalf in a functional manner. None of that "adjourned because we can't be civil" business.

This will not necessarily be foolproof, but it will have more chances of local representation rather than lobbies. It will allow the country to be at peace rather than forever exhausted and disillusioned between the melodramatics of two (or more) political parties about each other rather than national interests. It will free up massive national resources for things that last longer than election terms and matter to more people in essential ways.

While I'm fantasizing this nice government, I'd like to suggest three things:

  • A court jester: This was a valuable person in our courts throughout history. Entertainment, insight, low-stakes mirror showing. No responsibilities other than being able to have an effective commentary.
  • The census to have a happiness survey in built. I think its more important than asking things like religion and stuff. "Are you happy?" If not, in very brief, would you like to describe what you would need to be happy? (rather than pointing out what is wrong). The statistics from this survey should be paramount in determining the 'success' of the country.
  • Have a government anyone will understand. Simple, transparent. If its too complicated for a shoemaker or farmer to understand, explain. If they still don't, either agree with them, or agree with them. As a last option, ditch whatever is causing the confusion. The minute understanding what's happening in the country becomes esoteric and limited to a few, you've lost a large part of the population. The democracy is no more. And its not needed for ideas to be exotically obscure. We, as a species have survived for a heck of a long time. The Indian civilization is possibly the longest continuing one. Many ideas of democracy are so deeply embedded in our genes, that there really is no need to micromanage and shut off so many brains from enriching the country.

So, here it is, no holds barred. I'll likely update, if I think of something else. Would really like to know what you think, even if it is "no comment" or disagreement.