Dialogue July-September, 2012, Volume 14 No.1
Indian Politics: Positives and Negatives
Subhash Chandra Kashyap
This, perhaps, is not the best of times to take stock of the positives and negatives – achievements and failures – of Indian politics. The nation is passing through a critical phase. Our polity is under severe strain. Democratic Values stand considerably devalued and representative institutions largely deinstitutionalized. A process of churning is on.
Our founding fathers adopted for us, what may be called, the system of parliamentary democracy. The term ‘parliamentary’ refers specifically to a democratic polity wherein the supreme power vests in the body of people’s representatives called ‘Parliament’ or known by some similar name. Parliamentary system is one in which Parliament enjoys a place of primacy and pre-eminence in the governance of the state.
It is a myth that we adopted the British system of parliamentary democracy in India. What we actually adopted and are operating is the colonial model that the British developed for their imperialist purposes in India.
Sixty-five years is not a long period in a nation’s history but it is long enough to take stock of the achievements and failures of our political system. The early decades after independence were the most eventful. Developments moved at hurricane speed. Centuries got compressed into years. The nation faced a succession of grave crises, internal and external threats, natural and man-made calamities and challenges of terrifying magnitude. India can take legitimate pride in that – some temporary aberrations like the 19 months of internal emergency apart – whatever problems we faced were resolved within the democratic framework of constitutionalism. Indian parliamentary
* Dr. Subhash Chandra Kashyap, is Former Secretary General, Lok Sabha and a Constitutional expert. He has written extensively on the Indian Constitution and Politics.
democracy had to its credit many achievements. On the political plane, by far our greatest achievements were to (i) bring about and maintain the unity and integrity of post-partition India, and (ii) preserve freedom and democracy. Representative institutions thrived and we remained a vibrant, functioning democratic polity.
We were fortunate to have had at the helm of affairs in the Government and in Parliament some of the tallest men and women endowed with sagacity of mind and nobility of character and devoted to the nation and to democratic ideals. They helped in strengthening the foundations of parliamentary polity. The period 1950 to 1962 when Nehru was at the helm of affairs and in full control could be said to be the golden period of parliamentary democracy in India.
Every time during the fifteen general elections for Lok Sabha and the few hundred for State Assemblies, the people have exercised their franchise to elect the Legislatures and the Governments of their choice and given ample evidence of their inherent and innate democratic qualities. By now, there have been several instances of peaceful, constitutional transfer of power between political parties or alliances and societal classes both at the Union and State levels.
Parliamentary democracy as it evolved in India and the experience of working it repudiates the belief that democracy can be successful only in relatively more homogenous societies. India has shown that democracy can survive and succeed in a highly pluralist society as well. In fact, the Indian model of diversity may be said to have proved to be the greatest strength for democratic polity.
In India’s traditionally multi-religious, multi-racial, multi-lingual plural society united by a common history, civilisational identity and territory, ethnicity may cut across the dividing lines. In fact, the vast majority of its citizens have multiple identities. The same person may belong to different groups depending upon the distinguishing criterion of religion, language, community, etc. Since society thus gets divided both horizontally and vertically, there are hardly any monoliths left. Every religion has its sects, languages and dialects, and castes and subcastes. Members of almost every religious group would be divided by language, region and caste just as members of every linguistic group may be divided by religion, region, caste, etc. Almost every Indian has identities in terms of his religion, caste, language, state/region etc.
Under the special variant of Indian pluralism, the majority-minority syndrome does not apply to ethnic groups. In states like Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, for instance, the tribal populations are in majority but for that reason, they cannot lose their ethnic group status. Also, there are no ethnic monoliths in India and the same person may belong both to a majority and a minority, e.g. one may be in majority by religion and in minority by language or vice-versa. What divides, also unites.
Indian democracy has been widely hailed as the most stable in South Asia – the only one where the democratic system and the Constitution have stood the test of times and have endured and functioned. Despite once being labeled as a "soft state" or a "functioning anarchy" by Galbraith and Myrdal, the performance of India’s democratic institutions has been widely acknowledged as the best in what continues to be called ‘the third world’.
Indisputably, in India, the judiciary has remained independent, the press free and civil authority supreme. Right to Information and Right to Education laws have been really the most revolutionary measures after the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments giving constitutional status to local self-government institutions of Panchayats and Nagarpalikas and moving closer to making Indian democracy more participatory by providing for compulsory periodic elections, gram sabhas and representation of women, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. It is unique in the history of democracy anywhere to have 3.6 million elected representatives – more than a million of them women – as active participants in governance.
There, however, is another side also. Current thinking and vision are badly battered by the unprecedented spate of corruption scandals of considerable magnitude both at the Union and State levels, the distress of the people at the sky-rocketing prices of essential items of daily need and almost total governance-deficit on all fronts.
Faith of the people in the quality, integrity and efficiency of governmental institutions stands eroded. The disconnect and alienation between the people and the politicians have assumed alarming proportions. Representative parliamentary institutions threaten to become dysfunctional.
There has been a steep fall in the standards of conduct in public life and administration. There is a crisis of character and values in politics and public administration. Instead of being govt. of the people, by the people, for the people, present day govts. seem to have become govts. of the corrupt, by the corrupt, for the corrupt. What we witness is naked politics of loot. Not only did the many scams involve alleged swindling of billions of public money by persons in high places, but these also had the effect of eroding the credibility of all the known institutional pillars of parliamentary democracy. One cannot underestimate the negative impact potential of the scams which overshadowed all the great achievements as also the new challenges confronting Indian politics.
Nothing can conceal the truth that our democratic processes are still largely dependent on caste and communal vote-banks and criminals and are run with substantial amounts of black money generated through crime and corruption. No wonder, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh himself was constrained to express sadness and say that he was worried about the future of parliamentary democracy in India. More than half-a-century earlier, the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru had asked whether with the demands of the people and the problems of Government having multiplied many-fold, the political structure and procedures of parliamentary democracy had become "out of date and may have to go" and "how far can parliamentary democracy be adapted to meet the new burdens and functions of government satisfactorily, effectively, and in time?" Answering the questions himself, Nehru had concluded that "our parliamentary system of Government, with all its failings" was better than all the others "which lead to some measure of authoritarianism". But, as Nehru said, "it does not mean that we should close our eyes to the grave problems we often have to face in the country and the disruptive tendencies that raise their heads and challenge the democratic process…"
The founding fathers had hoped that parliamentary democratic polity will build a strong nation, remove poverty and illiteracy and bring prosperity, economic growth and human well being for all. The National Commission on the Constitution in its Report said in 2002:
"We find that justice—social economic and political—remains an unrealized dream for millions of our fellow citizens. The benefits of our economic growth are yet to reach them. We have one of the world’s largest reservoirs of technical personnel, but also the world’s largest number of illiterates, the world’s largest middle class, but also the largest number of people below the poverty line, and the largest number of children suffering from malnutrition. Our giant factories rise out of squalor, our satellites shoot up from the midst of the hovels of the poor. Not surprisingly, there is sullen resentment among the masses against their condition erupting often in violent forms in several parts of the country. Tragically, the growth in our economy has not been uniform. It has been accompanied by great regional and social inequalities. Many a social upheaval can be traced to the neglect of the lowest of society, whose discontent moves towards the path of violence".
Democracy implies attention to the development and well being of the poorest of the poor citizens of the nation. It must provide to the most marginalized and deprived sections of society equality of opportunity and right to live with dignity and in freedom from want and fear. The U.N. General Assembly had set some Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These included:
India is far behind many of the other countries in achieving any of those goals by the stipulated 2015. Economic liberalization and freedom to market forces has led to erosion of the workers’ rights and to competitive consumerism with no thought given to the need for sustainable levels of consumption. The truth is that unemployment has increased, droughts and floods continue. While the granaries may be full, the poor continue to farmers face starvation or commit suicides in increasing numbers.
The number of landless labours has increased. No body talks of land reforms now. Tribals are being deprived of their land and forest rights through surreptious means in the name of development. More and more agricultural land is being acquired for setting up industries, building shopping Malls, industrial townships, fancy housing complexes and tourist resorts. SEZ’s displace farmers by taking away their land which provided them sustenance for centuries. The poor and the deprived are the worst sufferers.
After more than six decades of democratic rule and all the much bandied about programs, we have some 300 million people below poverty line. In absolute terms, we have more poor people today than at the time of independence. Also, we have the largest number and the majority of the poor of the world. The same is true of the illiterates. More than a lakh of villages still do not have drinking water. According to recent U.N. statistics, majority of Indians – men and women – are constrained to defecate in the open as they lack toilet facilities. Lakhs of children of tender age, laws notwithstanding, are subjected to high levels of insanitary conditions and work or beg in sub-human conditions. As for national integration and unity, today we are more divided than ever before. Emotional divisions – differences and lack of mutual confidence in the hearts and minds of men – are more dangerous than the dividing lines on maps.
Good governance is necessarily democratic, participatory, transparent, accountable and citizen centric. Administration has to become clean and citizen-friendly. Things will not even begin to improve unless the power returns to the people at the grassroots where it belongs.
There must be fundamental change in the mindset and attitudes of Ministers, Members of Parliament and Civil servants. They must cease to regard themselves as privileged masters and honestly behave like servants of the people.
We glibly talk of the ‘transfer of power to the people’ or ‘decentralization of power to the grassroots’ as if the power legitimately belonged to the bosses in Delhi or the so called ‘centre’ and now they were condescending to transfer bits of it to ‘we, the people’ at the grassroots. In a democracy all the sovereign powers belong to the people and it is for them at the grassroots to hand over some of these to higher tiers in the wider interests of the larger society and national and individual security. There is a strong case for curbing the tendency of this centralization of power and ensuring greater autonomy for the states and from the states to the local units, even though the record of the state govts is no better.
The only way to make the Union secure is to make it lose extra weight and to shed its tendency to dominate the states and to monopolise power. With economic liberalization, political power and management rights must be restored to the people at the grassroots. The Union must concentrate only on the essentials. To preserve India as a Union of States, it is necessary to build it as a federal Union or Union of autonomies with multi-tier government and sharing of power from the lowest grassroots levels to parliament and GOI. Government at each higher level may be chosen by and remain answerable to the lower level. Government at the higher level should have no power to remove or supersede a duly elected Government at a lower tier.
The colonial model of administration and the colonial mind set have continued with the people being still treated as the subjects and not as the citizens of a sovereign, democratic republic. While it has become a fad to blame the politicians for all our miseries, very little is done to educate and awaken the citizens in the matter of their citizenship obligations in a representative, participatory, democratic polity.
In a democracy, the people govern themselves under a system they choose and through the representatives they elect. Elections therefore are the bedrock of democracy. Our electoral system unfortunately has proved to be highly divisive of society. It is afflicted by the maladies of 4 Cs – Corruption, Criminalization, Casteism and Communalism and 3 MPs – Money Power, Muscle Power and Mafia Power. In fact, electoral system and parties are at the roots of corruption, criminalization, casteism and communalism. Recent efforts of the Election Commission have inproved the situation little, but the eletoral reforms the Election Commission has suggested is still incomplite.
With majority of members of the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies elected with minority of votes cast, the representative credentials of the representatives themselves have come to be questioned. When more votes are cast for others, how can the winners be called representatives of the people. Almost all parties and candidates are busy building their vote banks on the basis of caste, communal, linguistic or other such identities as with 15 per cent or so votes they can hope to win. There is all the advantage in the power game in playing divisive politics and building separate identities.
The most tragic development for democracy has been the sharp decline in the strength and credibility of its institutions. The Legislature, the Executive, the Judiciary and even the fourth estate – the media – have suffered an image deficit. The Union Government tries to dominate and dictate to States, undermines democracy at the State level and does not enjoy the normal regard and esteem from the State governments. The collective responsibility of the Council of Ministers at the Union level has become a sham. What the Prime Minister calls the constraints of coalition politics create a situation where to remain in power the Prime Minister and the larger coalition partner have to agree to be blackmailed by small parties demanding their pound of flesh, creamy portfolios and freedom to make money. Ministers speak in different voices in utter violation of the concept of collective responsibility and disregard even the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister himself is not an elected representative of the people. He is not the Leader of the House, not even the Leader of the party. He is a representative of the State of Assam in the Council of States and a nominee of the Leader of the Congress Party in the seat of the Prime Minister. The Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at its head is not, in practice, the supreme executive of the country. It is believed that the National Advisory Council is in the nature of a super-cabinet. The institutions of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers were never so devalued or deinstitutionalized.
As the Constitution Commission (NCRWS) appropriately put it, an assessment of the Constitution at work involves an appraisal of the performance of all the three organs of the State, viz. the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary.
The balance sheet contains a long list of significant failures on various fronts. These inter alia include:
On an overall assessment, the Commission said that there were more failures than success stories, making the inference inescapable that the working of the Constitution was substantially "a saga of missed opportunities."