For the past three years a conference has been jointly organised by the Election Commission of Mexico and the Organisation of American States (OAS) and its principal theme has been how far the countries of Latin America have travelled down the road towards a polity and society that is truly democratic in both its ethos and functioning.
What is unique is the Election Commission of Mexico’s desire to assemble a host of remarkable women and men to debate various issues that arise in the political spaces between elections. A host of statesmen and thinkers, former presidents and current politicians, academics and scholars, Press and civil society members, civil servants, social scientists discuss issues and seek answers as to whether countries in Latin America, with comparatively high per capita incomes of $10,000-15,000 or more, can truly qualify to be called democracies in the face of major social and financial inequalities.
While there is emphatic agreement that there is no alternative to democracy, there have been many voices raised that voting in elections at regular (or sometimes not so regular) intervals is not enough.
The argument put forward by many thinkers (and remarkably even the odd practitioner of politics) goes something like this: Where patronage and corruption structures exist, where vote buying and arm-twisting measures are rampant, is it not essential to debate the restoration of democratic cultures in spaces of broad social inequalities that include poverty, unemployment and the politics of exclusion?
The minister of social welfare of Mexico, who spoke at last year’s conference, questioned whether democracy could be limited to voting alone. She spoke passionately of a Latin America where 170 million women lived in poverty, where women were still abused and where their votes were determined by others. She spoke of the politics of exclusion and questioned whether democratic behaviour could be coupled with hunger.
When many children had no access to schools and where large-scale unemployment bred an umbrella of insecurities, was that form of democracy acceptable? She said what was needed was a change in priorities and a new, more wholesome framework of democracy. Social scientists and academics present said that democracy must surely also mean an absence of vote buying and vote coercion.
A great deal of what has been spoken at this conference over the past three years finds resonance within our own polity and social structure. It is true that we are the largest democracy in the world. (China, whose population exceeds ours, does not claim to be a democracy.) We have an election commission, of which our people are justifiably proud. We hold elections on time, each time.
The democratic world is in awe of the manner in which the Election Commission of India can handle an election involving 816 million voters, and deliver credible results within a few hours of counting. (There are occasional doubts about our EVMs raised by a few of those who lose, but they fail to object when they win.)
Importantly, India has invariably seen orderly transfers of power. In no small measure this has been because of our unique struggle for independence led by Mahatma Gandhi, and the architecture of non-violence and satyagraha that he created to fight the British Empire. By contrast, a number of countries in Latin America witnessed the convulsions of often the most violent of revolutions on their paths towards democratic governance.
Having said that, we need to take our own vast inequalities into account. The recent Human Development Report places India at 135th position out of 186 countries. Some of our economists have variously drawn distinctions among abject poverty, poverty, marginal poverty and the vulnerable. Some have sought to draw a line between Below Poverty Line (BPL) and Above Poverty Line (ABL), with a one and a half dollars equivalent as a dividing line.
But whether we estimate the figures of our poor and vulnerable to be 200 million or 300 million, what is inescapable is that the overwhelmingly vast majority of our people go to sleep hungry or undernourished, are deprived of adequate medical care, are unemployed or underemployed, and have no security net whatsoever.
The index also places us dismally on gender inequality, at 127 among 148 countries. Clearly, on the democratic scale, the position of women is, for the most part, still subservient to men. In 67 years after Independence, we have failed to create adequate delivery mechanisms to ensure that the welfare schemes and plans for affirmative action are not mired in inefficiencies, leakages and corruption. We have a long way to go before we can lay claim to the concept of a welfare State.
Yes, we are the world’s largest democracy. We enjoy vital freedoms denied in many countries. Each vote is equal and enjoys the power to retain a government or effect change.
But the deeper questions that linger can perhaps be summarised in the words of the famous Mexican writer and humanist Carlos Fuentes when he said, “No democracy can stand on the frail platform of inequality.”
Navin B Chawla is former Chief Election Commissioner
The views expressed by the author are personal