Flailing state, fraying democracy

RAJ LIBERHAN

back to issue

INDIA is a young nation but an ancient culture. In the evolution of its cultural journey, it has all along tried to experiment with social arrangements within which all different people could be held together. Indeed, India’s choice of forming a secular society through its constitution was embedded in its cultural heritage and not merely a political philosophy enunciated at the advent of its journey as a free republic in 1947. There is a supportive historical text to show that its secular fabric goes beyond mere tolerance of the other’s existence. Indian culture gives ample evidence of rejoicing in diversity and celebrating the enriching experience of differences in cultures that form part of the social fabric.

This genetic framework can, therefore, be considered to be a desirable heritage for the adopted underlying political ideology. But this is the 21st century and the country – independent for 66 years and a functioning democracy for most of this time – is struggling to negotiate a host of economic and social challenges as the much celebrated diversity is threatening to burst the natural seams with alarming regularity. Even though the state’s responses have been effective in containing fissiparous tendencies, the situation is far from settled or reflecting stable social dynamics.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but principally it is the nature of politics which has evolved in the subcontinent that incessantly drives the seeming turbulence, further exacerbated by the intrinsic logic of our economic policy. The number of millionaires have grown, but so have the malnourished and the very poor. Access to the benefits of progress has remained limited for a variety of reasons, in part because the arms of the state have proved inadequate to reach the poor and backward segments of the population.

The political system in India enshrined through a constitution envisages a federal structure, with the political executive drawn from the legislatures exercising authority on the state list and the central government over the central list. An independent judiciary functions as a generally respected umpire. The practice of politics, however, is another matter. The general approach has been to create political constituencies, sometimes on caste affiliations, sometimes on religious affinities and at other times on common grievances. This has generated a competition among social groups to seek preferential benefits from the state without having corresponding preferential obligations. Historical deprivation or current economic status has been singly or jointly used as the basis for obtaining state patronage in return for a promised voting block.

One consequence of such competitive politics is the death of ideology. The pursuit of political power has become a quest for its own sake and all the philosophical claims that were once couched in ideological terms to demonstrate public spirited motives have lost their appeal. Hence, what we now witness is an open jockeying for political power through fetchingly attractive manifestos which specifically appeal to sectional interests.

 

How has this phenomenon impacted on governance in the country and consequently on economic development? Every functioning democracy needs an enormous amount of patience to out-line its agenda of governance involving a process of consensus building among a host of players: opinion makers, and opinion influencers – academics, activists and interest groups, as well as articulate members of the citizenry. The silent majority too has begun to play an important role and their perceptions are integral to the formulation of national goals. And the anchor of this process, that is the political party in power, has to contend with these perceptions while simultaneously trying to moderate them in accordance with the macro framework of economic and social factors. Democracy demands debate even if it appears chaotic, for it is only on this platform that solutions can be negotiated and not imposed. This, however, requires that our leaders are respected and carry credibility.

Let us pause for a moment to look at the magnitude of the governance problems in India. The statistics quoted below are taken from a paper by Sanghamitra Bandyopadhya, a research associate at the London School of Economics.

‘India’s income per capita ranks at 149 in the world and the country is home to the largest number of poor in the world… Living on less than one dollar a day, there are at least 300 million extreme poor… Individual income inequality measured by the Gini index has also consistently risen.’ According to Sanghamitra, the wealth that India creates is not evenly redistributed.

 

The full spectrum of governance assumes a larger dimension when we consider our population, currently at 1.2 billion. So India not only has to grow, but in a manner that helps provide decent jobs for the many millions who will join the labour force, while reducing poverty. Simultaneously, as stated in the Economic Survey for 2012-13, ‘India needs macroeconomic stabilization to bring down inflation, and reduce the fiscal and current account deficit.’ Quotes and statistics can be multiplied but the equation is stark: 1.2 billion Indians divided into different religions and social groups, ranging from extreme backwardness to a burgeoning middle class, covering a land mass of the size of a subcontinent have to be governed democratically to create a cohesive, vibrant and a prosperous geography. This is the challenge, clearly a monumental one.

No governance structure begins on a clean state. Every political executive is expected to improve and add momentum to the system. Equally, the political executive may act otherwise and thereby thwart the systems of governance. This is what political power is about – the power to do something and at the same time not to do anything. The point is that it is a continuing dynamics of social, political and economic play and it is the responsibility of the political executive to navigate this conundrum through interlinked steps that can help evolve national policy in different arenas.

Any predictive analysis has to assess the capacity of political practice and the evolving nature of society to ascertain the sustainability of the political system. In the Indian context, the cumulative effect of social and economic factors has bred a politics driven by visible partisan interests. Can this politics deliver a wholesome nation and who will trigger that moment when institutional integrity will overcome human frailty and capriciousness, especially in situations where oversight processes are weak? According to Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘The dance of democracy has led to a convulsion of the institutions.’ A severe indictment indeed of the current state of affairs of governance.

 

A critical development is the technological change in the medium of communications, enabling connection with different sections of the citizenry on matters of public interest at virtually no cost. This has led to an enormous increase in capacity to send out comments and impulses on a range of issues to vast numbers in a short time. The other, even more transformative development, and one whose impact cuts across all economic barriers, is the use of cell phones equipped with cameras. This has made every citizen a kind of an empowered witness to events in real time. The impact of these two developments on democratic governance has resulted in revolutionary changes in the exercise of accountability.

An unexpected but definitely desirable outcome of these developments has been a dilution of social barriers of class. The power to highlight injustice strengthens demands to address the injustices and artificial inequities across all social divides. Arguably, the politics of the country will be influenced by the social media and the internet in a decisive manner, altering both the substance of political promise and its fulfilment as a contractual undertaking, with the giver and taker deciding the satisfaction quotient at the time of elections.

IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India posit that the social media will hugely influence the outcome of the next elections in this country in at least 160 odd constituencies. This has the potential of opening up the ‘profession’ of politics to even non-politicians, who would otherwise need to search for godfathers or other influential helping hands.

 

A second key development is the increasing demand for transparency regarding government actions and policy, challenging the cover of ‘secrecy’ or ‘confidentiality’ of governance decisions. At the same time, the rigid division of powers amongst the executive, judiciary and the legislature has suffered a kind of a meltdown. Wherever there is a vacuum in governance, it gets filled by the proximate and willing arm of the judiciary even if the constitutional framework places them in another silo. In particular, an increasingly assertive judiciary, riding on the faith of the governed in contrast to a lack of faith in the political executive, is moving into newer spaces, thereby challenging the executive’s credibility. These developments are demanding a change in political attitudes and forcing government to meet its obligations towards citizens in as fair and impartial manner as publicly justifiable.

A third noticeable change relates to the assertiveness of the news media. True, its choice of issues is selective and at times motivated; yet, it has demonstrated an ability to capture the prevalent sentiment in a reasonably balanced manner. Even though successive governments have tried to curb media freedom, or manipulate it, yet in the main it has played its role with credit, particularly at critical times in our political journey. The various public institutions are constantly under its gaze and most citizens regard it as an important ally in calling its rulers to account.

This impact has renewed the vigour of the news media and firmly established its status as the ‘fourth estate’ in the evolution of democratic governance. Despite criticism, and there are many, its credibility is considerable and a positive influence on the functioning of the other organs of the state. To be sure, its propensity for only ‘newsworthy’ subjects places occupational constraints, but on the whole it has been reflective of societal concerns and sentiments.

 

Notwithstanding positive intimations, the fragility of the Indian state remains worrying. The extent of poverty presents a great danger to the political and social fabric. The Planning Commission of India has accepted that around 37% of the people are below the poverty line. The World Bank in 2010 reported that 68.7% live on less than US$ 2 a day. The instruments of the state have failed to address the challenges faced by this segment for various reasons. Bureaucratic lethargy combined with inefficiency and rent seeking has compromised the effectiveness of all welfare programmes, giving rise to an anxiety about survival in vast numbers.

Coupled with the anger of the ‘aspirational’ middle class comprising a majority of the young population, the inadequacy of the governmental systems and the absence of initiatives to address these deficiencies has bred a restive population. This restiveness is taking the shape of violent groups challenging legitimate governance systems. Every agitation for rights or justice cannot be addressed by the penal code of the state mindlessly enforced by the law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, the political leadership, generally regarded as representing narrow interests, appears unable to negotiate public interest issues in a convincing and credible manner.

 

At the same time, the problem is compounded by the fact that the integrity of public expenditure remains low. Affirmative actions undertaken over the years by governments at the state and Centre would have made a significant difference to both infrastructure and redistribution of economic advantages had the instruments of delivery been ethical in their performance. True, there were policy deficits in the choices made, yet the performance of state machinery should have helped to reduce inequities. Whether India’s economy grows at night, or despite the government, the fact that there is a parallel economy, half the size of the legitimate one, represents failure. Whichever way one looks at it, there is now a question mark on the state’s capacity to anchor a fair and just society. Nor do we know where the triggers of change will come from.

By any reckoning, the course of the future will have to be choreographed in the present. The impatience of the young, presently around 65% of the population, will be a key driver of change. A look at the sportspersons emerging in the country shows the will and ambition to overcome infrastructural disadvantages to make their way on to the world stage. Equally in evidence is the determination of the youth to beat the odds, the biases, the barriers and break glass ceilings.

There is simultaneously a story of the resilience of many households who are overcoming their circumstances which is shaping the life of small cities and these claimants will assert their equality on their own terms. Yet, this so-called demographic dividend can easily become a liability if not backed by a reformed environment of governance. Moreover, there remain vast segments in the extreme margins of society who continue to struggle for existence. And that is why India’s story is one of long haul, even if the economy grows at a healthy rate of 7-8% annually.

 

The totality of factors suggests that even as our macro-framework is strong, it is the micromanagement issues that remain major bottlenecks. This will need a reorientation of the instruments of delivery of programmes and policies of the government. Even good policies, so far, have delivered only partial results because of the structural weaknesses of the delivery system. What might have been the solution has instead become a part of the problem.

Nevertheless, the compulsion to change will trigger the replacement of the outmoded structures of delivery of public goods and services. Technology can help to harness the volumes and this is the way of the future. This is the medium that will insulate citizens from the vagaries of a personal interface with the dispensers of public goods. And since technology is impersonal, it should lead to enhanced standards of accountability. The goals are achievable but the journey is long and arduous. However, if the political catalysts fail to rise to the moment this distance can become an extraordinary stretch.

 

* The views expressed in this article are personal, and do not represent in any manner the India Habitat Centre.

top