Tuesday, November 24, 2009


India's democracy is ill. This is a reality that no one can deny. But just how serious is this illness? Is it curable or is it only question of time?

Dr Manmohan Singh, an economist who became a politician by accident, is not known to make loose statements, much less dramatic ones. So, when he says something his inimitable manner, attention needs to be paid to it. Speaking to Fareed Zakaria of CNN a few days back, Dr Manmohan Singh's response to a single question about a lesson that a democratic India has to teach the world, has perhaps not got the attention it should have. In his brief answer, he qualified his answer by saying as many as three times, "if we do succeed" in remaining a functioning democracy.

Seen in isolation, one can be accused of reading too much in too little. But this is not the first time the Prime Minister, a man of spotless personal integrity, has voice his concern about the shape our experiment with democracy has taken. Two years back, he had spoken openly about the ills of the model of multi-party democracy that India has adopted, the model that has almost castrated the nation and rendered effective governance virtually impossible.

Shedding his characteristic soft stance, he had then candidly questioned whether "a multi-party model where parties with varying national reach and many with a limited sub-national reach is capable of providing the unity of purpose that nation states often have to demonstrate." The problem, he elucidated, is that “Sometimes the resolution of problems acquires an excessively political hue, and narrow political considerations, based on regional or sectional loyalties and ideologies can distort the national vision and sense of collective purpose”.

That was not all. Dr Manmohan Singh actually went to extent of favouring a single party system. "A single party state has many advantages in managing Centre-state relations smoothly as opposed to a multi-party system, or is a multi-party model, with national parties dominating the political scene, superior, where one can hope that all of them will take a national view on policy issues and help to reinforce the unity of the federation?"

Two years later, Dr Manmohan Singh remains as skeptical of India's success as a functioning democracy as he was then, and as many right-thinking individuals have been for a long time.

That a damning criticism of our democracy and apprehension about its success have come from the Prime Minister himself, is a serious indictment of not only the political class as a whole, but also of the analysts and commentators hogging prime media space and singing praises of what is increasingly appearing to be a sham that has only widened the gulf between the rulers and the ruled. No one can place his hand on his heart and say that our model truly gives us a government of, by and for the people. While politicians may have forgotten the real purpose of democratic politics, thanks to the dynasties and the muck they have created, others have no justifiable reason to feign such amnesia and blindness. Unfortunately, many of them have been so corrupted by the very politicians they are supposed to keep a watch on, that the dividing line between the two has, ethically and practically, all but ceased to exist. The cancer of a fearless and shameless politician-bureaucrat-criminal-police-media nexus has spread deep into all institutions that define any state.

Parliament has become such a joke, nay, a national shame, that even former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee had, on more than one occasion, to tell MPs that they were working overtime to finish democracy. Elections are now held at various levels almost nonstop around the year. As a direct result, proceedings of Parliament have started to look like more like 24/7 news channels, as all political parties expend their energies in scoring sensational political points over their opponents as part of preparations for the next elections. They have neither any time nor inclination to talk about governance and the many very serious issues facing the country, in a responsible, bipartisan manner. The focus remains on petty politics of the worst kind, no matter what.

Ironically, to the poor voter, the real 'sovereign' on whose behalf his so-called representatives shame the nation again and again, this democracy means little more than the freedom to cast a vote once in five years; sometimes even that small freedom of choice is usurped by his 'leaders'. For 850 million Indians still living a sub-human existence on Rs 20 a day, it has not had any meaning whatsoever for 63 long years.

The only thing that really energizes our politicians are gutter fights for the petty political power they are desperate to physically experience and enjoy as individuals and parties, just as spoils of war are in a foreign land. Morality is not even a factor any more as politicians of all parties willingly rip apart every single norm of civilized behavior in their unbridled greed and lust for perverse, personal political power. Hypocrisy, corruption and falsehoods have become so pervasive that they are not issues that disturb any longer or discussed any more except when politicians are throwing blame at each other or scoring pathetic political points in TV studios. Regional and sectional ideologies and aspirations are little more than convenient tools exploited without a care for the larger societal and national consequences, just for the sake of getting power in the next elections or to vent frustration at having lost the last one.

Our founding fathers had adopted the Parliamentary form of democracy of England, where this system suited for governing a tiny island had evolved over a number of centuries to suit its specific requirements. Many of India’s states are larger than that Atlantic island, and the diversities are enormous. Unfortunately, just freed from the yoke of colonial rule which influenced them deeply, our founding fathers failed to realise then that in this country comprising of many ‘Englands’, democracy would not develop into the comfortable two-party avatar that they had seen there.

With numerous regional, sectarian and ideological strains at work, governance has become incidental, an unpleasant chore that has per force to be performed as the byproduct of power, getting which is increasingly becoming unpredictable and slippery. Ironically, in this model of democracy, a party or a group does not even need to get the mandate of the country to come to power. Even when the nation or a state collectively finds none of them fit to rule, a hobbling arrangement can be cobbled up with quite disgraceful methods and compromises to run a virtually non-functional government, blackmailed at every breath.

Democracy is no more than a system of governance, a means to take a nation and its people forward. It is not an end in itself, as many romantically believe, to be placed above national interest, which they don’t understand. It can, and should be, discarded for a better system, if it does not remain responsive to the ever changing internal and external dynamics that a nation has to deal with.

The multi-dimensional failure of our multi-party democracy is something that should be of concern to not just our Prime Minister. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that others who are happily enjoying the fruits of its many failures and distortions are willing to make even small personal sacrifices for the common good of all. That is why with every passing day, we hear of more and more things going from bad to worse. Those who should be having sleepless nights about the direction in which things are going, are having sleepless nights alright, but partying.

That is perhaps why Dr Manmohan Singh is worried that India will not remain a functioning democracy for long, unless radical changes are ushered in, in time. He also knows that our leaders will not make even a small change that is crying to be made till they are pushed into a corner from where there is no way out. He was brought in to save India's almost sunk economy only after India had to pawn 47 tons of gold to stay afloat and had absolutely no idea about how to get out of the deep shit hole that its leaders and bureaucrats had put it into.

Then the failure was uni-dimensional and could be rectified by a brilliant economist. Now the failure is along nearly every dimension and goes well beyond just the fatally flawed model of democracy. An isolated fix here and there is not going to help anymore. Since there is no effort to attempt even that as of now, one wonders whether Dr Manmohan Singh, who has the best view in town, is actually seeing it failing in the foreseeable future. I certainly am.