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Is India a reluctant and imperfect democracy?

Democracy is intrinsic to the Indian psyche and polity; it is just that we don’t flaunt it. We are an open book and prefer that friends choose for themselves what they wish to imbibe from us

analysis Updated: May 17, 2019 18:27 IST
Vishnu Prakash
Vishnu Prakash
Indian Democracy
Despite organising a seamless, monumental, free and fair election every five years, Indian democracy does have shortcomings such as: criminalisation of politics; inadequate representation of women; distortions due to caste and dynast politics; rise of money power; and, wastage of Parliamentary time(Bloomberg)

India is a vibrant and thriving democracy. But critics allege that India is also a reluctant democracy since it shies away from propagating it abroad. Does it mean we have a democracy-deficit? Let us examine the factual position.

It is correct that despite being the largest democracy, we have not made it our business to convince the world of its merits. And wisely so, goes the counterargument, as it will merely generate resentment and resistance among our interlocutors.

But neither are we agnostic towards the cause. We have readily joined global initiatives to strengthen democratic institutions. In 2015, we supported the United Nations Democracy Fund and have since contributed $32 million, the second largest amount. We are also a founding member of the Community of Democracies (CoD) since 2000.

India has made an occasional exception to its policy too. In December 1960, we expressed our discomfort at the sacking of the elected government of Prime Minister BP Koirala by King Mahendra of Nepal. But it precipitated a lasting trust gap between us — which is yet to be bridged — and only helped push Nepal into the Chinese embrace.

In another instance, we supported Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, who overwhelmingly won the elections in 1990. The ruling military junta disregarded the results. Our shunning the junta created a void which was rapidly filled by China. The Indian Insurgent Groups (IIG) started operating from Myanmar’s soil freely. Eventually we had to engage the Junta.

In an increasingly globalised world, it is counterproductive to be selective, especially for a rising power such as India. A question then arises: what is this beast called democracy? Where does India figure? Are some societies more suited to democracy than certain others?

Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, had noted: “[A] majority of States in the world today describe themselves as democratic.” Incredibly, even North Korea claims to be one. There are certain fundamental attributes of a democratic polity. These include: vesting of sovereignty in the people and the universal right to vote; the right to equality and freedom of speech; rule of law and separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary. That aside, there is no rigid definition of democracy. The calibre of democratic institutions, therefore, varies widely from country to country.

Despite organising a seamless, free and fair election every five years, Indian democracy does have shortcomings such as: criminalisation of politics; inadequate representation of women; distortions due to caste and dynast politics; rise of money power; and, wastage of Parliamentary time.

The western-style political democracy was bestowed on India by the British. The concept, however, consciously or otherwise, is deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. It is integral to our civilisation, especially the Hindu-Buddhist ethos that recognises and celebrates plurality of thought and belief.

The jury is still out on whether democracy comes naturally to all societies. It is instructive, therefore, to peruse some real-life cases. Egypt’s dictatorial ruler, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted in 2011 in a west-inspired, popular revolt known as the Arab Spring. In the ensuing elections, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. He was eventually sacked by General Abdel El-Sisi, who, in turn, is now tweaking the constitution to hold office until 2034. Next, after the demise of the USSR and the abrupt switch from communism to democracy, Russia was adrift. It lost its identity and confidence. It took the strong-arm tactics of Vladimir Putin to restore order, revive the economy, and rekindle the Russian pride. Russia is once again an authoritarian State. Yet people are happier, and Putin enjoys widespread popularity. Bhutan’s case is the mirror opposite. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk — the absolute but popular ruler for 35 years — ceded power in favour of Parliamentary democracy.

Clearly democracy cannot be imposed on every nation as the failure of the west-engineered Colour revolutions and the Arab Spring have demonstrated. It is moot if societies such as Russia and parts of the Arab world and Africa are less suited for democracy than the others. For the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, “Democracy is a train, from which you can get off upon reaching your destination.”

Democracy is intrinsic to the Indian psyche and polity. It is just that we don’t flaunt it; we are an open book and prefer that friends choose for themselves what they wish to imbibe from us. For instance, upon being requested the Election Commission of India provided technical assistance to Jordan, Maldives, Namibia, Egypt, Bhutan and Nepal. Some States are using Indian Electronic Voting Machines.

It is pertinent to recall Alexander Pope’s prescient observation in the 18th century: “For forms of Government, let fools contest. Whate’er is best administered, is best.”

Vishnu Prakash is former Indian ambassador to South Korea

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 17, 2019 18:27 IST