The leaders of India’s freedom movement chose secular democracy over theocracy, oligarchy or communism. They saw it as the logical culmination of a just and peaceful, anti-colonial struggle. For the inheritors of this legacy, there is something innately romantic about a liberal setup, in which the hoi polloi overthrow the high and mighty as a matter of routine, and the transfer of power is always peaceful.
But that is only half the story. The flipside is that our free and fair elections are turning into a wellspring of corruption. Parliament's pivotal multi-party system has degenerated into a scheme of contradictory coalitions. Even the successful village panchayats have a tendency to relapse into grassroots’ bureaucracy.
India’s successful democratic rule of sixty years has clearly reached its hiatus. Our problems are finally coming in the way of our aspiration to become a global power. How else can we explain that a rising economic superpower also accounts for the world’s one-third malnourished children and a quarter of vaccine-preventable deaths? Regardless of its striking stability, the political system has failed to deliver inclusive growth or to contain recurring conflicts.
It is official that the writ of the government does not run in parts of nearly 200 out of its 604 districts. Of these, 185 districts in 16 states are partly run by the Naxalite factions and the rest by extremists of various persuasions in the North East and J & K. As for the soaring trillion-dollar economy, nine out of ten people work in the unorganized sector and a third live on Rs 20 a day, according to a fresh study by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector.
It is baffling that the people whose aspirations aren’t met bring more stability to democracy than the system’s more affluent beneficiaries who seldom bother to vote. It is no coincidence that 1990 onwards, the composition of voters in most elections tends to include more dalits, tribals and women, according to the Election Commission figures. That people have hope is reflected in the fact that the electorate voted for change in about 80 per cent of all elections in the past decade.
The World Value Survey of 192 independent countries finds that Indians are among the world’s ‘most proud’ people in the idea of their nationhood, behind only Americans and Australians. Another South Asia wide survey, led by sociologist Yogendra Yadav of the Centre for Studies in Developing societies, confirms that a vast majority of Indians strongly identify themselves with their country and prefer democracy to any other form of government.
But peoples' faith in their democracy coexists with an utter contempt for politicians. Many academic and media surveys (notably, Professor Javeed Alam's survey data of 1971 and 1996 and Hindustan Times' New Year survey of 2007) have shown that the electorate believes in democratic institutions but its own representatives or corrupt bureaucrats belie these hopes.
Professor Alam shows a decline in the electorate’s faith in its institutions, politicians and political parties. The trend is evident in anti-SEZ agitations in Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal and parts of UP, Orissa and Maharashtra. At many places, people took on the parties and politicians they had overwhelmingly voted to power. One doesn't need to be a sociologist to figure out that the forcible acquisition of farmland is emerging as a countrywide agrarian crisis, subsuming years of pent up frustration. For the rising economy, it is by far the most widespread farmer versus industry confrontation.
At 60, India is grappling with its widening ‘democratic deficit’ roughly defined as the gap between stated policies and the delivery of results. It is not just a case of flagging institutions and exploding demands that could be blamed on excessive population or limited resources. The real concern is about our ability to connect the dots between the crisis of governability and an uninclusive growth.