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  Opinion   Columnists  19 Dec 2023  Mohan Guruswamy | What ails our democracy? Power flows from the top

Mohan Guruswamy | What ails our democracy? Power flows from the top

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Dec 19, 2023, 2:38 am IST
Updated : Dec 19, 2023, 2:38 am IST

No party seems without some blame attached it, for this seems to have become the norm these days

We in India have equality in the sense implied in a democracy. We have periodic free and fair elections — at least reasonably free and fair, an independent media, an independent judiciary and all of us enjoy all the freedoms we believe to be essential to be a free people.  (Photo: PTI/Representational Image)
 We in India have equality in the sense implied in a democracy. We have periodic free and fair elections — at least reasonably free and fair, an independent media, an independent judiciary and all of us enjoy all the freedoms we believe to be essential to be a free people. (Photo: PTI/Representational Image)

The manner of anointment of our party leaders should raise concerns in our mind as democratically functioning political parties were meant to be the bedrock of our democracy. But they don’t. It is now the way of all parties, where inner-party democracy is dead. The exception, and this is the great irony, is the CPM, a party committed to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the end of liberal democracy.

We in India have equality in the sense implied in a democracy. We have periodic free and fair elections — at least reasonably free and fair, an independent media, an independent judiciary and all of us enjoy all the freedoms we believe to be essential to be a free people. But why then are we unhappy with the system of government we have? To begin to understand this, we must first understand what kind of a democracy we have evolved into.

We were 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 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 state systems in anticipation of a new system of government called the panchayati raj, a system based on elections by equals and not based on tradition and birth. The PR system never did take root. As a matter of fact, local government even in the cities never took root. The proportionate distribution of government salaries tells this tale vividly.

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

These political parties are now factions that come together on the basis of a shared region, religion or caste. Take each of our many parties. The only party that claims a pan-Indian appeal has long ceased to be anything but an old feudal order presided over by an aristocracy. None of these parties has a formal membership, a formal requirement for membership, forums for participation and articulating aspirations of their communities, facilities to choose leaders by any formal process other than general and often simulated acclaim.

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 in the hands of a very 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 the 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 do care to attend Parliament, seem to be increasingly doing so more with the intention of making propaganda by deed by taking resort to un-parliamentary, mostly unsavoury, ways.
No party seems 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 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 resources.

A State that ignores the majority of people, 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 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 the semblance of democracy. The ill winds have torn to shreds the sails of our democracy that are meant to take the ship of state towards prosperity and national unity.  

The result is a government that simply 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 the accretion of wealth and the benefits of policy by a small minority.

We now not only have one of the highest income inequalities in the world, but the regional imbalance indices are even worse. In a truer democracy, the concerns and wants of the majority should always remain the focus of the State.

 

Tags: indian democracy, indian political history, indian politics, indian political parties