The crisis of Indian democracy

By Pulapre Balakrishnan


While India’s economy has received periodic attention, mostly during critical moments defined by food shortages and foreign exchange outages, the workings of its democracy have received next to none. This reflects a complacency. Interestingly, the neglect is evident in every angle from which the country has been approached, applying to observers located both within and without its society. Thus while the rulers of the western world berate India for its deviance from the apparently superior norms of a free-market architecture India’s nationalist elite traces her pathologies to western hegemony. Both lose the narrative by refusing to see that its condition is related to the failings of its democracy, which in one dimension has remained more or less unchanged since 1947. This dimension is that the majority of the population has been left with weak capabilities. Capabilities are what enable individuals to pursue the lives that they value. This, Amartya Sen has suggested, is true freedom and should therefore be the focus of all developmental effort. The idea is foundational in that it vaults over narrow economistic or political definitions of development. It is irrelevant to it whether we have more or less of the state or the market or whether we insert ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ into the constitution so long as large sections of our people are unfree in the sense that they cannot lead lives that they value. Nehru, though perhaps elliptically, had expressed this in his famous speech on August 14, 1947. He had seen Indian independence as an opportunity to build a “prosperous, democratic and progressive nation and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman”. Ambedkar, with legal acumen and a practical bent of mind, had defined democracy as a means to bring about a significant change in the living conditions of the depressed without resorting to bloodshed. These ambitious programmes and the hard work they would have entailed fell by the wayside in the practices of India’s political class and in the discourse of its intellectuals.

       Whatever may have been the vision of India’s founding fathers Indian democracy has not lived up to their expectations. As a matter of fact, it has done far worse. In the past year it appears to have added heightened violence towards the marginalized to its sedentary character. The visuals of four Dalit youth being beaten in full public view in Gujarat is only the most recent instance of this. Parliament reportedly heard accusations and defences the next day but it is not yet clear what impact it will have and how civil society will respond. India’s middle classes are quick to hurt when news of Indians subjected to racial indignity in the west is beamed into our living rooms. No one could have missed the irony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month traveling by train in South Africa where about a century ago Gandhi has been thrown out of a first class carriage because of the colour of his skin. The scenes from India come a full century later. And the dalit youths had, going by public sources, only skinned a dead cow, a task to which Indian society historically confined them. By assaulting them for undertaking it not only has their dignity been denied but their livelihood snatched away. In any civilised society the perpetrators of this crime would not just be grasped by the long arm of the law but publicly shamed.

       Gujarat is of course only one of the sites of violence against dalits. It is important to recognise that it has been widespread across northern India and not absent from the south either, with Tamilnadu featuring prominently. It is also important to recognize that acts of violence against Dalits are not of recent origin. Their oppression is systemic and deeply rooted in India. Non-Congress parties with leadership drawn from the middle castes have long ruled Tamilnadu, Bihar and UP, India’s most populous states, all of which have witnessed violence against the dalits for some time. When in power, middle-caste based parties have replaced their invective towards the top of the caste pyramid with suppression of those at its bottom.

       So what can we do now? For those outside the corridors of power the task is to shape the discourse on Indian democracy. Its goal must now be re-directed towards human development while ensuring the security of all vulnerable groups. This need not in any way conflict with growing a strong economy. In fact a strong economy, including a vigorous market, is one element in furthering development as the expansion of freedoms. Opposition to the market, which has in certain contexts come equally from the right and the left in India, misses this point entirely. Restriction of private enterprise does nothing to empower the marginalised in a society. Their empowerment can come about only via direct public action to build their capabilities. In fact, a genuine commitment to socialism should have helped here. Marx had defended communism as the principle “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” Instead, socialism as the official ideology of the Indian state for close to three decades got trapped into expanding a public sector producing goods regardless of outcome and independent of its consequences for the historically outcast. The state prided itself in being interventionist in the economy and laissez faire in the social sphere. The task, envisaged by Nehru, of creating the institutions necessary to support individual freedom, did not materialise. The historically outcast were left to fend for themselves, a stance morally equivalent to allowing the devil to take the hindmost. The chicken have finally come to home to roost. India today hosts the world’s largest number of the poorly educated and prone to poor health, a development disaster in spite of being the world’s third largest economy in purchasing power terms. One need only occasionally travel third class on Indian Railways in most parts of the country, which, recall, Gandhi did, to comprehend the scale of the deprivation and estimate how close public policy today comes to addressing it. As a quarter century has been spent focusing on India’s economic architecture in the name of ‘economic reforms’ it would be profitable to now devote the next decade to mounting an assault on human deprivation. The development of the capabilities of India’s women and dalits, by virtue of their being the most deprived, would merit the first draft of  attention and resources thus expended.         

        For a democracy to be complete, however, something more than just focus on the individual, however deserving they may be, is necessary. As members of a democracy must engage with one another lest we remain equal but separated. Here public goods come into the reckoning. Public policy should engineer spaces where Indians meet on the basis of a participatory parity. Widespread public services from schools and hospitals to parks and crematoria are one way to bring individuals together as they struggle from birth to death in this country. Repeated interaction in public spaces would make us realise our common humanity and enable us to see any residual identity for what it really is. There has been far too little effort in Indian public policy to create spaces where citizens may interact freely and peacefully. Many other countries have done so. For instance, the provision of public housing in ‘capitalist’ Singapore comes with the proviso that it should be shared between people of all ‘races’, namely Chinese, Indian and Malay.

       Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often spoken in global fora of the unacceptability of terrorism. He is right to do so. Now the assault on dalits in Gujarat, the rape of women across the country and the intimidation of muslims in Uttar Pradesh bring home to us the presence of terrorism among us. While some of this predates his arrival in Delhi, there is reason to believe that fascist forces have been encouraged to act with impunity since then. In its inability to contain these forces India’s democracy can be seen to be flailing. Bertrand Russell had remarked that we can never guarantee our own security if we cannot assure that of others. Tired of oppression the dalits have finally risen in what was once the land of Gandhi. They at least have recognised our common humanity. They only dumped dead cattle at the collectorates. They did not poison the water supply.