A new system is not the answer

The best way to transform India is by making the system work as it should

In a post on his very active Facebook page, Ashwin Mahesh—public policy activist, scientist and politician, all rolled into one—briefly minutes the key theme at workshops he attended in New Delhi: “The basic premise before us now is that the ‘whole system is broken’, so we can’t just offer different solutions that we would like to implement within the existing system. Instead, we need to come up with a new system itself, and that’s where the real hope for the country lies.”

Such sentiments have never been uncommon in India, and certainly not over the last two years, when the confluence of a bad governance, policy paralysis, economic mismanagement and flagrant corruption pushed the middle class out from apathy to outrage. As serious observers have noticed—see, for instance, Anil Padmanabhan’s Mint column today—this churning is due to a gap in what India is and what its crop of politicians think it is. While it is unclear at this time what the churning will lead to, how India’s elite and its middle class act now will determine whether or not the inevitable change will be for the better or for worse.

The quest for ‘a new system’, however, ignores the Indian reality. If it gains traction, it risks plunging us into an even more illiberal system.

Why so? First, contrary to the middle class narrative, Indian democracy is actually working for those who participate in it. Those who find the system “broken” are usually those who are excluded from it, or those who have chosen to exclude themselves from it. Those who are satisfied with the current system are unlikely to be enthusiastic supporters of upheaval. How do we know there are these satisfied people? Because we don’t have blood on the streets despite the immense diversity, social inequality and income disparity. No matter what India Against Corruption and the urban middle classes might say, corruption is not an issue that’ll move the masses into supporting an overhaul. What outrages the middle class, what the middle class says it is outraged by is just one of the many factors in the voter’s mind.

Second, if there has to be a “new system”, then very long established interest groups—with more crowd-pulling power than Arvind Kejriwal—have their own ideas what it should look like. Some of them—like the Naxalites—have guns and do not hesitate to use violence to push their own case. Delegitimising the existing system will create openings for various groups wishing to overthrow the Indian state. The ultimate arbiter in a contest between them will be force.

Third, studying the Constitution and the debates that led to its creation leads one to the conclusion that the founding fathers were far more visionary, liberal and broad-minded than the current lot. Any election for a constituent assembly is going to throw up people who won’t be dissimilar in disposition than the current members of parliament and legislative assemblies. Looking at the way successive generations of MPs have distorted the letter & spirit of the constitution, it is reasonable to assume that the product of their deliberations will be a grotesque assault on liberties. (No, the good people who lead apolitical movements do not have any legitimacy to create a new constitution for an already-functioning democratic republic).

Finally, there’s no guarantee that the new system will work any better than the current one if our attitudes do not change. Our attitudes are the reason why we have bad governance, and not vice versa. If this causal direction is right, even if we acquire a ‘new system’, we’re back to square one. Actually, accounting for the above, perhaps to square minus-ten.

The Constitution and the Indian Republic are India’s best hope. Strengthening the Republic by getting better people into parliament, into government and at all levels of government is the right way. The talent, passion and energy of middle India, its intellectuals and its leaders ought to be directed towards this end.

5 thoughts on “A new system is not the answer”

  1. Why so? First, contrary to the middle class narrative, Indian democracy is actually working for those who participate in it. Those who find the system “broken” are usually those who are excluded from it, or those who have chosen to exclude themselves from it.

    Yes, and these people happen to be the the primary source of revenue for your country as well – taxpaying citizens who do not get their money’s worth of services. And they are excluded intentionally, after being raised on a diet of “sacrifice” and being told that they are the “privileged” few, they let people weaker and less intelligent than them take the reins of power, to plunder the country at will.

    You talk about a change a in attitude – the attitude would change if we could see the potential for trying something new something differrent. There are many different forms of democracy and republic that are yet to be tried in India. How are you so sure we’ve hit upon the right one?

    The reason a Kejriwal has no legitamacy is because the current system will never permit him to get it. Can he run for the highest office of the land? No he cannot. He can at best represent a parliamentary constitutency. Yet if he were born in another country, he could very well run for President. Why is this system not good enough for us? And if the current is broken, what is to stop us from tyring a new one.

    The system has failed us, and not just by a little, it has failed immensely. To believe that we have to work ‘within’ the system represents a surprisingly naive point of view about how the current system works. It cannot but cause you make compromises in ethics, viewpoints, and lead to inevitable corruption. This is why a large swathe of the population has “excluded” itself from democracy – and this is precisely how our leaders want it – they do not want us exercising our rights, in fact they fear it. India as a banana republic, India as a poor country suits them just fine. They don’t want our country to progress.

    We need a new system to bring about this very change in attitude that you’re talking about. If people see it can be done, they will ensure that it will be done. But if you prevent somebody from even trying a new way, what hope is there?

  2. Thanks for writing this Nitin, this is exactly what people need to read. Rejecting the system as being completely useless and just demanding a complete overhaul is clear sign of misdirecting the blame. It is governance and leadership that has failed, and the right idea to pursue to fix this is obviously to educate a new generation of leaders and change makers who can better the strong foundation already laid down in the form of our constitution. Sadly people are way to impatient and demand quick fixes which they think will result from discounting the system completely.

    Therefore it is here where the point of people who have marginalised themselves from the system, mainly the middle and upper class, have to step in. They need to stop their age old tactic of blaming the system and turning it into actions to help iterate to a better democracy.

    As you mentioned in your article, our constitution was built up through time and effort of some of the greatest Indians to have lived. As we hopefully enter a new era of our democracy, hopefully we will have people willing to sacrifice just as much to construct a India 2.0.

  3. Defending the indefensible is always going to be hard.

    1) You claim that the system works for those who participate in it. But for whom does the system work? And what percentage of the population/interest group are they. Take dalits. No matter how much more representation that they do have and how many laws try to protect them and how much reservation that they have been given, there is no upward mobility. Even a narrow political base which does participate actively hardly sees upward mobility for its majority. Only a small sliver of people (as a percentage of dalit population) benefit from the system – which was built to help them

    2) “corruption is not an issue that’ll move the masses into supporting an overhaul”

    Corruption has been the main undoing of many a government across many elections across the country. Ask Jayalalitha about her foster sons wedding or Karunanidhi about the effects of a 2G scam, Or Shiv Sena about 2004. There are some “corrupt” governments which have survived… But that is because the alternative is not much better or much cleaner and they have not been embroiled in a “scam”. Many a time corruption as an issue has lost the war for the narrative, being diluted into “The Anti incumbency factor. To wish away corruption as an election issue is wrong. Corruption as an issue always exists and exerts influence but there are also other issues which come into play. A Telengana coexists as an issue along with corruption. Such is the nature of any democratic system

    3. The system people want to wash away is the one which has accumulated 65 years of junk. Even a revert to a purer form of Ambedkar constitution would be pretty revolutionary at this point. As has been pointed out – the junk started with the first amendment itself which removed freedom of speech … Therefore even a revert to Ambedkar inspired constitution will nto be achieved without a sort of revolution…

    4. There has been a need for a stronger system against corruption – even before Anna fasted as evinced by the many many versions of lokpal which were under consideration. Yet none – none have ever passed. A simple law which steadily reduced corruption would have been preferable. Yet it never passed. Not because the system worked for the people who participated in it but because of schaudenfraude. When this accumulates – you end up having mass agitations . It is not ideal . But when the system does not steadily evolve. Revolution happens.

    India as we have seen does not seem to move in steady forward progress but only by revolutionary leaps ahead – 1991 being one example, Mandal being the other. This is not by design but by laziness. Moving ahead steadily would have been ideal but seems to be against the reality of the system. Hence the pressure cooker always ends up bursting and along with the unintended consequences.

  4. Over years the governance in this country has shifted to states. Center’s role and ability to make policy meaningful at regional level is eroding. The economic agenda is best dealt at the state. The situation might not have sounded so bleak but for the politics and governance of the heartland is still overly-occupied by New Delhi

  5. article is poor in content and doesn’t add much value. It is playing on semantics (new system or changed system) & focuses on a non-issue. I haven’t heard anybody talking about a completely new system(or constitution) bereft of any remains of the old system. It doesn’t offer any solutions, just aims to criticize based on non-nonsensical opinions.( (like risks plunging us into an even more illiberal system(probability of .0001%?)… and out attitudes are the reason why(system shapes the individual as well. Indians do in Rome as Romans do…Changed system changes people…)). It would be much better if we got views on how to bring out the required change that is desired. Criticism for the sake of voicing 2 cents is looked down upon in my books.

Comments are closed.