Giani Zail Singh Memorial Lecture THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY

Professor M.L. Sondhi

India International Centre, Saturday, May 5, 2001

We are, today, witness to a multiplicity of national crises and to unprecedented decay – and in some areas, even a breakdown – of the institutions of governance.  A regime of incoherence and confusion prevails in the political life of the nation, and the authority and legitimacy of every institution is increasingly undermined by the actions of the very individuals who control them, and were intended to defend them against such erosion.

The failure is not limited to a particular regime or specific branch of the government, but is comprehensive.  The political executive, the judiciary, the legislature, and all branches of government subsidiary to each of these, are equally afflicted, and it is no longer possible even to sustain the fiction that it is the one or the other that is ‘more corrupt’ or ‘less efficient’.  Indeed, even the variation that exists between different parts of the country – regarded as more or less backward, corrupt, unstable, or violent – are essentially a deferred movement along the same downward continuum.  Referring to the anarchy, the unconcealed corruption and the deepening nexus with organized criminal elements in Bihar and the extension of these trends to the rest of the country, K.P.S. Gill has remarked, “What we are speaking of….may well be no more than a time lag, implying no fundamental difference of character.  Bihar, in the most unfortunate sense possible, would then be the trendsetter, the leader, with the rest of the nation a straggling imitator of its past excesses." 1

This must, indeed, be a terrifying image for all of us who have an abiding faith in constitutional democracy and the rule of law.  But optimism becomes difficult to sustain in view of the conduct of some of the highest institutions in the land.  What can be said when Members of India’s Parliament – the source from which the power of all other institutions flows, and in which the sovereign authority of the nation and its people is vested – choose to conduct themselves in a manner that delegitimizes this very institution in the eyes of the people?  The disruption of Parliament in the past weeks shows how deep and urgent the institutional collapse has become, as the actions of its Members contradict and cancel out the very Constitutional rationale of its existence.  This is only the most recent episode in a legislature that increasingly refuses to legislate, to debate critical issues of national interest, and to ensure that the business of government proceeds under the critical scrutiny of its sovereign authority.

It is clear that, in every sphere of public life today, the life-sustaining link between morality and power has been completely severed.  The gravest threat now comes, not from elements opposed to democracy who challenge the authority of the established order from without, through revolutionary or criminal actions, but from within the

decaying system itself.  As one commentator has written, in a different context, “We have now to contend less with a delinquent whose success and energy silence opposition than with the widespread incorporation of delinquent patterns of conduct into the actual structure and mechanism of society.”2

Evidently, we are not the society we set out to be, and the aspirations and objectives written into India’s Constitution have failed, in significant measure, to be realized.  Today, we are confronted with a paralysis of political decision-making in connection with life-and-death questions facing the country – and even a superficial observer of events on our borders both to the East and the West can assess the magnitude and disastrous consequences of this inability to act.  Political power is passing progressively out of the hands of institutional government, and has become increasingly randomized.  The lack of political leadership has relentlessly sharpened conflicts to the knife-edge of violence, and criminal and political terrors are becoming pervasive.  The constitutional structure itself is, in many parts of the country, on the verge of disintegration, and the political processes that were intended to realize the ‘will of the people’ produce aggregate results that do not correspond to the desires or ‘common will’ of any substantial part of the population.

Has democracy, then, failed us? There are many voices today, both to the far Right and the Left, that would seize upon this as the right answer.  The truth, however, is that we have failed democracy – and the first and greatest failure has been that of understanding.

Before assessing the character and magnitude of this failure, it is necessary to identify those who I believe are the most culpable in this context.  It is true, of course, that politicians, bureaucrats and all others in public life have contributed to the reign of political illusion that dominates the national discourse; it is true, equally, that it is, eventually, the citizens of a democracy that must bear ultimate responsibility for the character of the regimes they inflict on themselves.  But, as a social scientist myself, I must concede that among these, it is India’s social sciences that have been guilty of a great abdication.  The academic community has, in the main, reclused itself from research, documentation and reappraisal of issues relating to the more unsettling of contemporary events, and preferred to focus of relatively ‘safe’ areas, meta-issues, and a range of purely polemical discourses within the context of the great ‘systemic’ debates of the Cold War.  Most of these have been sufficiently distanced from the rough and tumble of current political upheavals and conflicts to be of little relevance to public policy.  In doing this, the social science community has neglected a fundamental duty within the democratic framework – the creation of a continuous pressure of reassessment that identifies the range of available policy options, and forces continuous correctives on the body politic even as the ongoing challenges and crises of governance unfold.

David Lyons observes, we must “remind ourselves of the rationales of our rules and principles if we do not want them to become ineffective dogmas.”3  The intellectual community in India has substantially failed to prevent the rules and principles of a vigorous democracy from lapsing, over time, into reductionist slogans and ‘ineffective dogmas’.  Over the past more than five decades, social scientists have played little role in defining public policy or in reforming the processes and practices of the various institutions of governance.  It is this intellectual defalcation – certainly among a wide variety of other factors – that has led to the confusions that proliferate regarding the basic nature of democracy, and the range of actions that are prescribed and permitted within the scope of constitutional governance.

One of the most devastating misconceptions, in this context, has been the idea of democracy in India as a sort of ‘soft option’ for governance; a system in which everyone can get what they want, with no one paying the price; one in which we can negotiate the future of vast regions in this country with terrorists and criminals, and that can give such men an honourable place in the State and national legislatures, and still hope to uphold the rule of law in the country; a system that, as long as the quinquennial ritual of elections is in place, will secure all the concomitant benefits of a democracy, and fulfil ‘collective aspirations’ without any further effort on sacrifice on the part of the leadership or the masses; and finally, a system under which all freedoms are guaranteed in perpetuity once they have been enshrined in a written constitution.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Democracy, indeed, is the most difficult from of governance known to man, and one that demands the most extraordinary participatory effort from every citizen.  Indeed, it is not even a particularly efficient form of government and one needs to remind oneself of Winston Churchill’s wry dictum that democracy is the worst form of government; apart from all those others that have been tried from time to time.  In the same vein, Churchill also commented that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Those who fought for and built India’s democracy were not unaware of these systemic failings, and long before independence, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that, “It (democracy) will bring out the best and the worst in us.”4  He also wrote:

The risks of the experiment are admitted.  There is likely to be impersonation.  Unscrupulous persons will mislead the illiterate masses into voting for wrong men and women.  These have to be run, if we are to evolve something true and big.5

Here, then, lies the hope for the future of Indian democracy, and the reasons for many of our past and current failings.  In the rough and tumble of quotidian crises, in the petty

scramble for partisan privileges, in our misleading obsession with the politics of caste, of community and of charisma, we have lost sight of the greater goal – “to evolve something true and big.”

To restore the idea of, and quest for, this ‘something’ is the role of the nation’s intellectual, political and economic leadership.  It is a role that has obviously been neglected, and the checks and balances, the dynamism and efficiency, of the institutions and instrumentalities of democratic governance have gradually been eroded through our own negligence.

There is a great air of cynicism and despair in most contemporary discussions on India’s public life.  Such pessimism is barren.  To fault the current or past regimes; individual leaders of political parties; the bureaucracy, the judiciary or the legislature, or any other institution of governance is both easy and fruitless.  Systems far worse than our own have been lifted out of their internal collapse by the initiative, the commitment and vision of a handful of men, often drawn from the most unexpected walks of life.  Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement that dismantled a brutal dictatorship and brought Poland to democracy have important lessons for the modern world and its obsession with the seizure and significance of the instrumentalities of state power.  Adam Michnik, one of the leaders and ideologues of the Solidarity movement proposed a reversal of the classic revolutionary strategy of seizing state power to effect desired social change.  The Polish people, wrote Michnik, should simply ignore the state and proceed to live their own lives, take over their own destiny, and “live as if we were free.”6  

It is an interesting notion, and one that places the burden of freedom and of democracy precisely where it belongs – on the people themselves, and among them, pre-eminently on men of ideas who possess the courage of commitment that is needed to challenge an oppressive order, and to restore the dignity of man within a truly democratic framework.

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