Tuesday, March 17, 2009

India - a democracy in denial?

Post extensive legislative and executive efforts, India has now managed to have negligible electoral violence and rigging. Power changes hands peacefully and the national media is free. India is a pluralistic, tolerant society and minorities too enjoy significant rights, often holding even the highest offices, including those of the Prime Minister and the President. The rule is as per the constitution and there is separation of powers among the judiciary, the executive and the legislative. The political leadership is largely tolerant of criticism and dissent and has tremendous ability to negotiate and compromise. India is also one of the first few nations to have electronic voting. So, this is a pretty good implementation of the processes of democracy.

India does deserve credit for making reasonable enough success of a system where many have failed. But in more than 60 years of its earnest implementation, where has it taken the nation? Even today, 41.6% of India’s population estimated to be below poverty line and 34% s also illiterate. Further development is restricted to the already overstretched metros and large towns and rural comprises 72% of the population. The nation faces deep challenges and problems. Yet you may say it must count among the few developing nations where people feel free to opine and criticise. So, democracy is a mixed bag. Then why is it on trial? It is on trial because in terms of end delivery, it meets higher order "aspirations" like freedom of thought, speech and assembly but has thus far failed to meet basal "needs" like food, water and shelter for a vast "majority" of people..

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Let me start with an anecdote.

Once while doing some sort of research in rural Eastern UP in India, people were asked what does freedom mean to you. One group's response was freedom means death. Upon probing why, the people said yes only when we die, we will be free from this wretched existence. We pray to God, please, in the next birth, make us a dog, a cat or a cockroach, just don't make us a human being.If you could see their "wretched existence" with your own eyes, you would understand what they mean.

However, "Freedom of expression" has, nowadays, come to mean the entirety of what it is to be free. In reality, people living amidst violence or extreme poverty would hardly consider themselves free even if they have freedom of speech, free elections and free media. Freedom needs to be understood from citizens' life perspective, based on how free a person really feels. At the first level, people ought to feel free to exist. If there is widespread crime and violence in a society, no one can feel free. Next is economic freedom. People living amidst poverty are helpless and not free, even if they have freedom of speech. Only upon fulfillment of these basic freedom needs does a higher order need like freedom of expression become relevant or meaningful.In reality (not how it is all supposed to be, in theory), democracy has enabled freedom of expression but not economic or physical freedom in the developing world. In that context, would you not say that an argument for democracy (in the developing world) is elitist, not the one against it?