Tag Archives | middle india

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.

http://twitter.com/acorn/status/262020843138347009

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Populism, freedom and democracy

Defending free speech is best done by voting

The Indian governments’ second cave-in over Salman Rushdie at Jaipur last week should worry us. The Rajiv Gandhi government’s surrender to Muslim ‘sentiment’ over Satanic Verses triggered the process of competitive intolerance that has created an environment where anyone—citing religious feelings—can have books, movies and art banned, and their creators persecuted. A quarter of a century is usually sufficient to reflect on the follies of the past, realise the consequences of the mistakes made and resolve not to repeat them. The UPA government could have managed Salman Rushdie’s appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival better. Here was an opportunity to not only reverse the tide of competitive intolerance but also secure an unassailable position in the political landscape.

Yet, the Congress regime failed. And failed abjectly. All it could do was to use low cunning to create fear and uncertainty among the participants. Those who believe that the first duty of the government is to protect citizens from violence will conclude that the UPA government in New Delhi and the Congress government in Jaipur have failed. After all, if we are to allow violent people to determine what a citizen can or cannot do, why do we need government in the first place?

“But it’s about UP elections!” comes the reply, as if fundamental rights are subject to the political exigencies of state assembly elections. While it is understandable that political partisans—who see everything through the lens of costs and benefits to the party they support—will offer this as an explanation, excuse and justification rolled into one, there is no reason for the rest of the citizenry to accept this as the ‘logic’.

“But under the Indian Constitution, fundamental rights are not absolute and the government has the right to place reasonable restrictions on them” comes another reply. This is an accurate statement. From the debates in the Constituent Assembly, to the verdicts of the Supreme Court and to the opinion of experts in constitutional law, there is no doubt that the Indian Republic seeks a balance between individual liberty and public order. Ergo, some actions by the government to abridge liberty in the interests of maintaining order are constitutionally legitimate. This is intended to give the government flexibility. It would be ridiculous to argue that the Constitution is so constructed to cause the government to yield to threats of violence. It would be wrong to blame the Constitution for a particular government’s cravenness or failure.

What then should we make of this affair? As Andre Beteille explains in his masterful essay on constitutional morality, the Indian system is prone to swings between constitutionalism and populism, with the former asserting liberty and the latter assailing it. Why, though, should populism be opposed to individual liberty?

Phrased differently, why should the government cave in to the demands of the intolerant and not to demands of the liberal? Actually, this is the same as asking “why is it unsafe for women to walk on our streets, why is it that our courts take too long to decide cases, why is it that we need a scores of licenses to start a business, why is it that it is so difficult for our children to get a seat in a good school, why is it that we don’t have decent drinking water, electricity supply, hospitals and, and, and …?” Given the public awareness and indeed consensus that these issues need to be tackled, why is the government so uninterested in pursuing these goals with any seriousness?

The answer might surprise you. It’s because India’s democracy is functioning as it should and the politicians are sensitive to the demands of their voters. The electorate is getting what it wants. The population isn’t. Public discourse in India is unduly influenced by the middle class, not least because it constitutes the market for our media. Middle India believes that that issues that it is preoccupied with should also concern political parties and the government. And when it observes that this isn’t quite what is happening, it is disappointed and—like a hopeless romantic who hits the bottle—drowns its sorrows in cynicism.

Democracy is a numbers game. Those with larger numbers can use the flexibility in the Indian Constitution to have their way to a larger extent. Now we can wish that we had a less flexible constitution where this wouldn’t be possible. But not all wishes have their Santa Clauses. Or, we could start practising democracy. Explaining the failure of the old Indian Liberal Party (in 1943!) B R Ambedkar drew attention to what he called “the elementary fact”, that “organization is essential for the accomplishment of any purpose and particularly in politics, where the harnessing of so many divergent elements in a working unity is so great.”

Technology has made organisation of large numbers of like-purposed people fairly easy. As Atanu Dey has argued, forming voluntary voter’s associations can make an individual voter more effective. It’s being put into action too—see the United Voters of India online platform.

Ultimately, though, it depends on how much of the population becomes the effective electorate. In other words, it depends on whether you vote or not. If you don’t, why blame political parties or the government for giving voters what they want?

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