Mohan Guruswamy | What kind of society are we, how much of a democracy?

The Asian Age.  | Mohan Guruswamy

Opinion, Columnists

We were always a hybrid democracy, direct democracy at the local levels and representative democracy at the regional and national levels.

When we have a clan democracy, issues pale and the capture of power becomes the sole driving force. (PTI Photo)

The test of what kind of a society are we and what kind of a system we have today comes in times of a grave crisis. We have shown what we are when stranded Gujarati pilgrims in Haridwar and stranded Uttar Pradesh students preparing for the IITs, etc., in Kota were sent buses to ferry them back across Covid-hit India to their homes, while tens of millions of migrant workers are left locked in their tenements in our big city slums, penniless and hungry. We should have no illusions left that we are a vastly unequal and unjust society. Income inequality can easily and self-servingly be attributed to individual merit. But what about the equality promised in our Constitution? Without equality, there is no democracy.

We were always intended to be a hybrid democracy, combining direct democracy at the local levels and representative democracy at the regional and national levels. To facilitate the installation of a direct democracy at the lowest levels, we needed to dismantle the traditional institutions of local government.

While in most parts of the country institutions such as the khaps, jaati sabhas and gaon sabhas continue to stubbornly exist, their powers and influence has been considerably whittled down by the state systems in anticipation of a new system of government called panchayati raj (PR), a system based on elections by equals and not based on tradition and birth. The PR system, however, never did take root. As a matter of fact, local government even in the big cities never took root.

Now what happened? Though the founders of this Republic never used the term “political party” even once in the Constitution, from day one we were intended to be and are a party-based democracy. When people elect representatives, they are in fact choosing parties.

How the parties function then becomes critical to our democracy. If the parties did not function or are not required to function in a prescribed constitutional and democratic manner, their leadership inevitably migrates into the hands of an elite, as we have seen in almost all our political parties now.

These political parties now have factions that come together on the basis of a shared region, religion or caste.  We migrated from a system where parties consisted of equals sharing a common purpose and sometimes goals to one where power passed into the hands of a self-perpetuating political aristocracy.

This system is in fact akin to the democracy of the “Kouroukan Fouga” of the great Mali Empire, where clans (lineages) were represented in a great assembly called the “Gbara”. We had a similar system in the form of the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan. Even the “Lichavi” democracy in the post-Magadhan period was akin to this.

Clan democracies are implicit with the concentration of power with a few and the manifestation of dictatorial tendencies. The bottom-up system thus transforms itself into a top-down system. Power then flows from a position of power. There is another consequence to this. When we have a clan democracy, issues pale and the capture of power becomes the sole driving force.

Since issues have to be dealt with, we quickly get an ideological consensus, as we see in India now. The clans are quite satisfied with a system that gives them a share of the power and pelf that goes with it.

The errant ways of our political leadership at the national and state levels is a matter of grave concern. The lack of intelligent and sensible debate in Parliament portends bad days for our democracy. Even the relatively few who care to attend Parliament seem to be increasingly doing so more with the intention of making propaganda by deed by taking resort to unparliamentary, and mostly unsavoury, ways. No party seems to be without some blame attached it, for this seems to have become the norm these days.

Even the treasury benches, who ought to know better and do better, seem to be caught up in this frenzy to make small points at great cost to our democracy. Is it any wonder that few matters get discussed in depth and at length in Parliament these days? The Union Budget, for instance, gets very little attention. The finance ministers say more to the CII and Ficci before and after the Budget is announced, as if the Budget is only intended for them.

Since more importance is given to this constituency, more important and vital constituencies such as the farm sector, the rural poor and the educated young get little attention and commitment in terms of State resources. A State that ignores the majority, especially a needy majority, and an increasingly angry and restive majority at that, does so at its own peril.

The stresses and strains are showing everywhere all around us. Not a day passes when some long-felt demand for attention doesn’t result in an explosion of fury. Coercion begets more coercion, and soon the mob and the State are fused together by paroxysms of violence.

All restraint is thrown to the ill winds and with it goes any semblance of democracy. The ill winds have torn to shreds the sails of democracy that are meant to take the ship of state towards prosperity and national unity.

There is little purpose in citing instances, but even by the deplorable standards prevailing in the nation, the now almost regular happenings in the Lok Sabha are a disgrace. The House hardly meets. Good and qualified people no longer want to be part of a leadership that has made loot its prime purpose and does not care for political niceties and social courtesies any more.

Social justice has become the justification to perpetuate injustice, as if injustice in the name of one caste will set right all earlier wrongs, socially sanctioned or otherwise.

The result is a government that does not care about economic development and growth any longer, forgetting that that alone can bring change to our society. All recent economic trends point towards accretion of wealth and the benefits of policy by a small minority. We not only have one of the highest income inequalities in the world, but the regional imbalance indices are even worse.

In a true democracy, the concerns and wants of the majority will be the focus of the State. Then we must wonder: how much of a democracy are we really?