International Gypsy

Friday, August 17, 2012

India 65 years later - a proud but flawed democracy

On the eve of India's 65th 'Independence Day' I am filled with Pride as well as concern. Proud for the fact that India has survived as a democracy in a neighborhood brimming with communist and military regimes and concerned for the rapidly declining morality of the same democratic system and lack of civility that typically follows economic development.

When India gained Independence from the British empire in 1947, she was a nation divided along religious and caste lines, extremely poor and uneducated and  faced a mountain of humanitarian challenges following partition of Pakistan. When India therefore decided to be a parliamentary democracy, it was no surprise that most of the leading experts of the time wrote India's obituary as a united nation. No Nation as big, diverse, uneducated, fragmented and poor had ever experimented with a universal adult franchise. All the Western democracies of the time had evolved against the backdrop of considerable cultural, religious and linguistic homogeneity. India not only proved the experts wrong, she evolved as a leader in advocating democratic principles and provided nations coming out of colonial rule with a democratic example.

Ever since the first Parliemantry elections held in 1951-52, India has been holding fair, independent and peaceful elections at national, state and municipal levels. Approximately 150 million Muslims (second highest population of Muslims in the world), 24 million Christians, 22 million Sikhs continue to peacefully coexist with c. 820 million Hindus and and exercise their voting rights without fear, often influencing elections disproportionately. Politicians representing an electorate that speaks more than 100 languages (India has 22 languages spoken by at least a million people and 114 languages spoken by at least 10,000 people) debate and vote on policy issues. Constitution continues to grant civil liberties around freedom of speech (restricted to an extent by defamation laws), freedom of religion, universal adult franchise and protection of property rights. It is a truly remarkable achievement. India's democratic achievements are supplemented by her considerable economic development (fourth largest economy in PPP terms) and entrepreneurial successes globally.

In India's strength and pride however lies her biggest weakness. India was categorized as a 'Flawed Democracy' by the Economist magazine in its Democracy Index. In the 2011 edition, India ranked 39 with a score of 7.3. While India got stellar scores on 'Electoral process and pluralism' and 'Civil Liberties', score on 'Functioning of government', was low and score on 'Political participation' and 'Political culture'  was exceptionally poor.  Political Participation and Political Culture are two correctly identified areas of weakness for Indian democracy.

On political participation front, voter turnout has declined in India since independence and consistently remain significantly lower than the desired 70%. 61.16% of registered voters voted in the 1952 Parliamentary elections while only 58.19% voted in 2009 elections. Numbers below demonstrates how India's voter turnout is significantly less than some other large emerging and developed countries.

Country Voter Turnout*
India 58.19%
Indonesia 70.99%
Malaysia 75.99%
Sri Lanka 61.26%
South Africa 77.30%
Thailand 75.03%
US         64.36%
UK          65.77%

*in last Parliamentary or equivalent election
Source - Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

Lower turnout is largely a reflection of dissatisfaction of a large section of population with the political process. A majority government elected by 58% of people effectively represent the choice of less than 30% of registered voters which is not healthy.

Score on the political culture largely reflect the dissatisfaction of the people with their parliamentary leaders and democratic process. It manifests in a growing frustration with the system that makes a large section of people inclined to accept a technocratic rule rather than a democratically elected government. Indian politicians have failed miserably in providing the most basic of infrastructure to the public. Even in the metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai that have considerable wealth, public transport, sanitation. environment and law and order situation remains woefully poor.  Both Mumbai and Delhi were in the bottom 30 cities for liveability according to the Economist Intelligence Unit liveability ranking in 2011.

This failure is further compounded by widespread corruption in all aspects of public life. Corruption has become a way of life for everyone - bribes are common place from every day services like getting a driving license or passport to getting mining leases and telecom licenses and spectrum. Elections campaigning involves truck loads of black money and it is rare for the political leaders to debate issues around infrastructure, poverty, law and order and education. Election campaigns are all about appeasement of minorities and continued repression of those minorities post winning the elections to perpetuate their misery so that they remain a loyal vote bank.

Given the inefficiency of the legal systems and political capture of investigative agencies and police, criminal cases drag on for tens of years that allows alleged criminals to enter and further pollute the political culture (Indian law only bars convicted criminals from running for office) India's current Parliament has 150 members out of 543 with serious criminal charges against them. This number increased from 128 in the last Parliament. This explains the rot that has set in the entire political process.

Political participation and political culture form a vicious circle of cause and effect that is very difficult to break; Because participation is low, political culture has little incentive to improve; Because political culture is so deeply rotten, there is lack of participation. How this circle can be broken is what would define the future of democracy in India as the present situation is clearly not sustainable.

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