India enters 75th year of independence: Hits and misses of democracy

Security check at Red Fort ahead of India's Independence Day celebrations on August 15, 2021 (Photo: PTI)
Security check at Red Fort ahead of India's Independence Day celebrations on August 15, 2021 (Photo: PTI)

Westminster model democracy takes a long time to strike its roots deep in the psyche of the people. The British democracy is more than a millennia and the American democracy is nearly 250 years old. The survival of democracy, as we glean from the example of two countries mentioned above, depends on how pragmatic these are with the inbuilt capacity of adjusting with new imperative that appears rapidly in an age of scientific and technological advancement.

The beauty of the system is that it has the capacity of an assured mechanism in the form of parliamentary debates and vote. The usual practice is of obtaining a majority vote in favour or against a tabled proposition. To go by the majority decision is a vital attribute of democracy.

The much debated aspect of the Westminster module of democracy, which India chose after her independence, is under intensive debate in the political circles and the intellectual class of the civil society. No governance module including the Westminster type of democracy is without a flaw. Everybody thinks so. But the module of democracy which we have borrowed from Great Britain is the one that is less harmful to the governed in comparison to other arrangements. In other words democracy is the lesser evil.

The decisive factor for the Constituent Assembly to opt for the Westminster type of democracy in 1949 was the heterogeneity of the Indian nation. That is why some political scientists call India a mosaic and a sub-continent. Extensive debates on the nature and depth of multi-faceted diversity of our society has taken place among the historians and political scientists in our country. The British colonialists invariably threatened the senior leaders of the Indian freedom movement with a warning that the type of democracy they visualized for free India was bound to lead to the fragmentation of the country at the end of the day. Pandit Nehru countered this unhelpful trend by secularizing the vitiated politics of divide and rule, and Sardar Patel, taking strength from a clear vision of united India consolidated the fragmented India bequeathed by the colonialists.

At the root of India opting for secular democracy lay the rich civilizational fund inherited by the Indians from their illustrious forefathers. The ancient philosophical literature of India, in whatever form it is, in reality is the storehouse of wisdom, compassion and peaceful coexistence. In a lucid and objective article titled ‘Beware Zombie Democracy’ (Print Magazine of 12 August) Ram Madhav has summed up in a beautiful paragraph the concept of democratic culture conceived by the Buddha 2,500 years ago.

The socio-political aberrations that sadden us today are not because of any shortcoming in the inherited moral and ethical fund but because of our inability to bring about acceptable synthesis in our socio-political cum economic dynamics in an age of science and technology.

The nagging issue confronting contemporary democracies is that of “majoritarian-ism”. It has taken an uglier turn in India in particular though as a matter of principle no democracy in the world can be called uniform on cultural, religious or other counts. Believing that the democracy is the game of numbers, all political parties focus their attention on how to win a majority vote on national or regional level. In India, as of today, this has given rise to “mobocracy” and the disillusioned populace has begun to overlook the distance between democracy and mobocracy. Shaheen Bagh episode and the “fish-market” of  Rajya Sabha are the examples. 

A majority vote means power and authority over the state organs and finally the institutions. The question, no doubt ugly and embarrassing, lies in the behavioural evolution of democracy and democratic mindset. We are not showing maturity and sensibility. In normal conditions, the political parties and especially the mainstream parties make their selves as the beneficiaries and not the people in whose name they want to become attain popularity.

An Indian educationist once happened to visit UK where he was scheduled to interact with the students of 8th standard. Out of curiosity he put a question to his pupils seeking their views on democracy and democratic form of government. One among the students stood up and said, “Sir which democracy are you referring to, the British or the Indian”? That is the crux of the issue.

It is right to say that our democracy worked but it is not right to say that it worked without tensions and irritations, genuine or not.

The reason why the early stalwarts of independent India did not pay full attention to the latent irritants was that subsequent to hard-earned freedom the element of moral imperative supervened in all major policy matters of governance. The nation at that time was not only responsive but also responsible. The plank of morality and ethical conduct in this country are of long standing and service. Satyagraha, an ideology anchored in our moral ethos had become an article of faith with Gandhi Ji and its spirit percolated down to various political and social spectra.

Somehow not too serious an attention was paid to the fallout of the advancement of scientific and technological age from which India could not remain distanced any more. When Nehru said that the dams and hydropower generating projects were the temples of new India, it meant there was a vision of future development and that did happen even if it was not on a mind-bogging scale as we find in China. India could not divorce her civilizational fund and make a violent shift to modernity because it is an agricultural country with agriculture as its mainstay. And Indian farmers are conservatives of a type. That is the reason why when the tractor was first introduced, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the then President of India cautioned the country about the possible negative consequences of mishandling the soil. Today, we are faced with the problems of blind use of chemical manure and pesticides.

With the onset of the era of advanced scientific and technological activity with deep and wide impact on life pattern and life standard, there gradually surfaced the idea of identity in its various forms and manifestations. As India began to wriggle out of abject poverty and illiteracy through a massive programme of bringing education literacy and scientific temperament to the masses of people especially the rural India, the urge for assertion of identity became sharper. The downtrodden classes and the economically weaker sections of population anticipated a new world opening before them. The question was to provide conditions that would help them absorb the impact of a changing India. In due course of time a clash of interests began to shape and the elements that lent support to emerging aspirations. Indigenous cultural traits began receiving a fillip and people of India, who had known one leader and one party throughout the freedom movement, now pandered to local leadership, local issues and local solutions. Emergence of regional parties with regional agenda should have been dovetailed to the mainstream politics and political trends in the country. Skill and deftness were needed.

A very peculiar phenomenon of contemporary Indian political scenario is that the voter draws a clear line between his regional and national perceptions and votes accordingly. Not wooing the regional parties by the mainstream parties is unfortunately becoming a bane for the health of our democracy. Most of the ills that we find today steering into the eye of nationalist leadership are the misuse and misguidance of regional vote banks. This is a clear indication of degraded political ethics.

In final analysis all that we need to think about seriously is that should we work for ourselves and our parties or for the nation. No service is sincere and honest if it is not accompanied by a strong ethos of renunciation. Now that we are entering the 75th year of our independence, we must make some introspection and say with frankness that we have faltered and fallen. We need to rise, gave our stereotype a shaking and move forward with all India embracing vision.

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