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.