Dialogue  July-September,  2012, Volume 14 No.1

What ails Indian democracy?

N K Singh

Poor knowledge base, low argumentative power of the masses, negative influences of poverty and resultant ignorance, faulty FPTP (First-past-the-post) election system and society’s perpetual habit of accepting, nay inviting, all-permeable State to control their public and private affairs have rendered Indian democracy a farce. Degeneration in the quality of those who work the Constitution— particularly the political class—has rather exacerbated the process of making ‘pluses’ of democracy sterile in the face of its ‘minuses’.

Indian Democracy typifies what famous American satirist Mencken had said "Democracy is a pathetic belief in collective wisdom of individual ignorance". It pays the political class to keep society ignorant and logically infirm. Post-liberalization India saw a nexus between this political class and market forces. It was in the interest of the political class that franchise exercising population remains wallowing in the trough of ignorance and thereby votes the way political class carry them in the name of caste, community or sub-caste. Similarly, it also suited the market forces to ensure that thought-process of Indian society remains fossilized so that they can sell potato at Rs.400 per kilogram. An unthinking society can be best target for manufacturers of consumer goods and durables. All that they have to do is to create a false consciousness about status-linked consumption.

Faulty election system

The FPTP system is intrinsically divisive. It has a tendency to divide society down to the last available and identifiable identity unit. In 65 years in India, this is the single major reason for degeneration of a healthy political milieu into parochial appeals. It is also responsible for sharpening the social cleavages and developing antagonistic relations among them defying all theories of sociology. All that a political party has to do for its survival is to target a social identity groove and pander it. Mulayam and Laloo’s M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) combination is a case in point. By sheer nine per cent votes of Yadavas Mulayam or Laloo would not have gained seats hence they identified another supposedly underdog category, the Muslims.

It is clear that if BJP sought to consolidate majority Hindus, a Mandal report came in handy to split it into mutually antagonistic groups called backwards and forwards. Backward consolidation was split in several caste-identity grooves. Nitish Kumar (Kurmi), Kalyan Singh (Lodh) Beni Prasad Verma (Kurmi), Sonelal Patel (Kurmi), and a host of other leaders are product of second split.

Muslims were sought to be divided into "pasmanda" and "ashrafs" whereas dalits, who were hitherto a consolidated entity got another identity in the name of `mahadalits’, thanks to innovative though highly cunning idea mooted by Nitish Kumar to hamstring the influence of Dalit leader Ram Bilas Paswan.

Why does it happen? Take a crude example. Suppose there are 26 voters and five candidates. Four candidates got five votes but fifth got six votes. The latter will be declared elected. In the next elections all four will seek to get at least one more votes and for this they will try to make parochial appeals by either identify or create a new identity slot.

In 15th Lok Sabha held in 2009, there were nearly 71.40 crore electors. The Congress got 11.91 crore votes which is 16.68 per cent of the total electors. That is; the party got support of just one out of every six electors. But in terms of seat share it bagged nearly two-and-a-half times more at 37.93 per cent (206 out of 543 seats). Can it be termed as ‘people’s will when hiatus between vote-share and seat-share is so high?

Another fact shows the Congress, in real terms, got less votes in comparison to year 2004 elections. The party had contested 417 seats and received 26.53 per cent of the total votes polled but in the 2009 elections it contested 440 seats (five per cent more seats) but got 28.56 per cent of the votes polled ie only 2.03 percentage point more votes.

Again there are 145 MPs who won by a support of less than 20 per cent of electors—three of them getting less than or barely 10 per cent. (In 14th Lok Sabha there were 95 MPs with less that 20 per cent votes). The question is: Does the House of the People really reflect "people’s will" determined through the doctrine of majority rule?

Four fundamentals on which any democracy thrives are: Majority rule; recognition of minority rights; constitutional government; and governance by discussion. In India the very first fundamental—majority rule— has remained flawed since independence— more so in recent times

Again, it leads to another question: In India is it possible to carry out psephological predictions in the name of pre- and post-poll (exit poll) surveys in view of multi-variable situation. There are more than 50 registered political parties which function as variables. Each of these variables impinges on the other. Besides, a major fallacy lies with our existing voting system known as first-past-the-post (FPTP) system? The Lok Sabha fails to reflect people’s will on account of faulty FPTP and many other complex factors.

What is more disquieting is that since 1990s in most of the elections a party may have got more vote share but less seats because of faulty FPTP and on account of multi-variable election scenario.

In the general elections of 2009, a leader of a socalled secular national political party made frantic calls to a TV channel head in the last phase of elections. What surprised this channel chief was a bizarre request by this leader. "Since morning your channel has been showing visuals of long queues of Muslim women in Burqa (black veil) at the polling station". In what could be termed as an obvious reaction, the chief extended his greetings saying "Good, it means you are going to perform well in the state, my congratulations. I believe you want that this footage is run till polling ends?" The jittery voice of the leader responded "No, no, I request you to please stop running this visual immediately". Confused by this request the TV channel chief asked him in bewilderment "Why, I believe Muslim voters support your party only?" "Yes", howled the leader saying "this message is damaging us no ends as in reaction Hindus are drawing to the polling booths in unprecedented number to favor the opposite party".

Social cleavages have drowned the basics on which democracy is believed to be thriving into gutters.

Another factor that restricts the poll prediction is the lack of political education of voters on real issues that concern them. I will revert to it a little later.

In erstwhile princely era it was a taboo to say "the King is wrong". Today it is a taboo to say "the people are ignorant". Unfortunately this thumb rule that forbids analysts to say "the people are ignorant" has done more harm than good to the health of democracy in countries like India. Wailing in the trough of ignorance, hundreds of millions of Indian voters do not know what is good for them. Perpetual poverty and sustained ignorance are sure solvent of democracy.

Political thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, Alexis de Tacqueville, John Stuart Mill and James Bryce insisted that in the last resort it is public opinion that makes democracy work. Enlightened public opinion, according to them, was the fulcrum of a thriving democracy. The two institutions that were assigned the job of making people enlightened are political class and the media. Ironically both have abdicated this responsibility or have lost the credibility that is required to carry out this task.

De-politicization of Indian Society

In the past one decade there has been a subtle move to de-politicize Indian society. Media organizations which were responsible for creating public opinion have replaced news with trivia. The net upshot of this change in trend was that the role of the media in opinion building started diminishing. Suddenly we find TV channels more into entertainment—in most of the cases vulgar entertainment. Like an opium dose that transports the consumer into different world away from present concerns, the entertainment programmes in televisions have made people completely de-politicized and unconcerned with what is happening around them.

Thus overnight film stars are found at the hustings attracting crowd albeit for a reason different altogether. Thus for the past 11 years, every 25 minutes a farmer commits suicide but it does not evoke serious agitation and does not become an election issue. Thus growing rich-poor divide (at ginni-coefficient) fails to register in the minds of those who go to cast their votes. Thus CAG report clearly charging the Government officials of Odisha of looting NREGA (rural employment scheme) funds in the names of the dead (in most-poverty stricken Kandhamal) does not become an issue but an attack on a Sadhu or on a Church Father does. It pays the political class to ensure that people are less awakened and are little aware of the issues that affect their lives.

This precisely is the reason why political parties had an apprehension that if dates of IPL cricket matches clashed with polling dates there will be abysmally poor turn-out.

Era of Coalition politics

Three major characteristics determine whether a coalition is good or bad. They are (a) minimum element of discord, (b) conflict resolution mechanism and (c) credibility of sense of purpose behind such coalition. In post 1991 Indian politics, coalition politics has come to stay in India, seemingly, for good. Scholars and institutions are devoting the better part of their attention to give a formal legal framework whereas political parties are busy getting social sanction for this new phase. Coalition has emerged in two forms. One is pre-poll cohesion with common manifesto while other is post-poll arrangement.

Indian Constitution does not talk about any of the two. Instead, it only says that the Prime Minister will be the leader of the House. There is a total confusion about how this new phase of coalition politics should be made more effective with stability being the basic objective.

As two broad national formations –the Congress and the Bhartiya Janata Party—have failed to prove their utility as all-encompassing political forces, their support base started dwindling. The emergenc of regional parties ostensibly in the name of social justice forces in North India and in the name of regional considerations in the South has led to political instability. Since these parties had in fact very narrow or almost no ideological base and were highly caste-ist, the adage "power corrupts" was proved right in their cases.

With corruption cases slapped against majority of the leaders belonging to these regional parties, a sordid drama started. If the major national parties want their support they will have to instruct the ace investigating agency—Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – not to proceed against them. Conversely for the national parties leading a ruling coalition, such vulnerability of the allies came in handy. They too started twisting the arms of regional leaders. In the Disproportionate Asset (DA) case against Mulayam Singh Yadav the CBI had changed its stand five times in two years. Same was the situation when UP Governor refused to accord permission to prosecute Mayawati. In Bihar the CBI did not move the Supreme Court against the judgment of High Court in a case against Lalu Yadav. Only in 2012, the govt. have decided not to file an appeal against the Supreme Court judgment to quash the FIR against Mayawati (ex-CM UP) in DA case as it needs her support.

Poor collective consciousness

One can easily fathom what could be the quality of democracy in a society where women suffering from psychiatric ailments are stoned to death by villagers on the presumption that "she is a witch who has been exported by the rival village to eat up their village and its people". Kids are subjected to tortures in the name of treatment by a "ojha" who claims to exorcise the kid of the evil effects of some "pret". Entire village watches the scene in rapt attention and perceptible admiration.

It obviously comes in handy for political class to ensure that consciousness level does not go up. If Indian parliament today boasts of 163 members facing criminal charges, it is difficult to know how they could make it this otherwise apex institution of democracy. Some of them carried Robinhood image. "He may be a criminal but he does not trouble the poor, rather he helps them financially when their daughters get married" is the stock refrain in the upcountry discourses.

A young female post-graduate from some Institute of Pune walked into my room to seek a job in TV journalism. She was speaking English. I saw black ink mark on her left index finger. I asked her, "how is a chief minister elected?" Her innocent, nay, to some extent condescending, answer was "Sonia Gandhi elects them". My glance at her in utter disbelief made her `correct’ herself a moment later. She said "No, no, prime Minister elects them".

In tribal areas of Chhattisgarh when a visiting reporter asked a woman who she would vote for, her answer was "Indira Gandhi kai".

Both are Indian voters in whom we see great wisdom, and therefore, we claim 2009 mandate is a watershed in democratic history.

Four fundamentals on which any democracy thrives are: Majority rule; recognition of minority rights; constitutional government; and democracy by discussion. In India the very first fundamental—majority rule— has remained flawed in the past over 60 years, more so in recent times. In the just constituted 15th Lok Sabha, on an average MPs have won by getting support of just one quarter of the electorate. That means if out of four voters you have the support of just one voter you will be in the Lok Sabha. There are 145 MPs who won by a support of less than 20 per cent of electorate—three of them getting less than or barely 10 per cent. The question is: Does the House of the People really reflect "people’s will" determined through doctrine of majority rule?

It was not the situation three decades ago. A post-graduate young man very well knew how a Chief Minister was elected. In the past one decade there has been a subtle move to de-politicize Indian society. Media organizations which were responsible for creating public opinion have replaced news with trivia. The net upshot of this change in trend was that the role of the media in opinion building started diminishing.

On November 25, 1949 i.e., just a day before "we the people of India adopted, enacted and given to ourselves this Constitution" Dr. Ambedkar had said "The working of the Constitution does not depend wholly on the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of the State such as the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The factors on which the working of these organs of the State depend are the people and the political parties. Who can say how the people of India and their parties will behave?"


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati