Recently, India celebrated its 75th Independence Day. The occasion provides us a great opportunity to delve back in time when a newly independent nation made its ‘tryst’ with political democracy and how it is faring today on key democratic factors as well as in comparison to other major democracies of the world
What is a democracy?
The word democracy comes from the Greek words “demos”, meaning people, and “kratos” meaning power; so democracy can be thought of as “power of the people”: a way of governing that depends on the will of the people.
No one is born a good citizen, no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. – Kofi Annan
Why choose democracy?
The idea of democracy derives its moral strength – and popular appeal – from two key principles:
- Individual autonomy: The idea that no one should be subject to rules which have been imposed by others. People should be able to control their own lives (within reason).
- Equality: The idea that everyone should have the same opportunity to influence the decisions that affect people in society.
Democracy is good. I say this because other systems are worse.– Pt Nehry
Democracy in India
- Ancient India had a democratic republic even before the 6th century BCE and India has seen democratic rule through ages. Vaishali (in present-day Bihar) is considered one of the first republics around 6th century BCE.
- Republics at that time were called ‘Mahajanpadas’ and Sabhas and Samitis (assemblies) existed. Panchayat systems were also used in some of these republics.
- Anti-colonial movements in India brought democracy into the picture during British rule in India. Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar, etc helped in bringing universal adult franchise, at a time when the literacy rate was very low in the nation.
- Government of India Act, 1935 laid the foundation for democratic rule in India.
- India’s independent modern democratic journey started in 1950 with the full implementation of the constitution of India. The constitution of India declared the nation as a sovereign democratic republic. India granted Universal Adult Franchise under Article 326 of its Constitution effective in 1950 giving a strong base for democracy.
- The general elections of 1951 were the biggest electoral exercise on such a large scale in democratic history. Since then 17 Lok Sabha have been formed, several PMs and Presidents have been elected.
- The Indian Republic at present has a parliamentary system of democracy and a federal structure in which leaders are elected by citizens of various castes, classes, religions, etc.
How Indian Democracy has performed in past?
- India is the world’s largest democracy proving a success in accommodation of group and regional demands in a complex, quasi-federal, polity.
- During the first general election in 1951, India had 54 political parties and now it has grown up to 464 in the 2019 general election as evidence of the deepening of the democratic process.
- In the first General election in 1951, 173 million citizens were given the right to vote.
- In the 16th general election in 2014, the size of the electorate had increased to 814 million.
- The democratic process has brought about a shift of political power from the middle and higher castes and classes of urban society to backward classes who are now the politically most influential ones in the country.
- They have won reservations for themselves in legislatures and government services as were accorded to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes after independence through Constitutional provisions.
- Members of marginalized sections of society and minority communities have reached the top legislative and executive positions in the country.
- India has become the 5th largest economy in the world and is also the fastest growing major economy in the world.
- India has been able to emerge as a regional power in Asia and superpower in south Asia backed by its economic, military and nuclear capabilities.
- The incidence of Poverty has reduced from 70% in 1950 to around 20% at present. The economic well-being of people has improved. Incomes and living standard of people has improved substantially.
- Declaration of emergency- in 1975 was an aberration in India’s political democracy journey and will remain a blot on Indian democracy.
- Period of political instability– India saw the assassination of two of its Prime Ministers in the first 40 years of its democracy. The last decade of the 20th century witnessed high political turmoil due to unstable coalition governments. In this period, India saw 5 PM’s in 10 years.
- Low women representation: the number of elected women representatives in the Indian parliament is just 16% even after 75 years of independence.
- Continuing ill social practices– like caste-based discrimination, manual scavenging etc point towards continuous breaching of fundamental rights of citizens of India. It also shows that we are still to achieve Social democracy.
- Low per capita income– An Indian’s per capita income is one the lowest in the world, even lower than a Bangladeshi national.
- High poverty and inequality: India still has one of the world’s largest populations of poor in the world. In addition to this, income and wealth distribution is highly unequal with the top 1% of wealthy people owing 70% of the wealth in India (Source- World inequality report)
We must not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life that recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. – Dr. BR Ambedkar
Present situation of Indian Democracy
- Still continuing democracy: The Indian democracy is still continuing opposite to what was apprehended by British PM Winston Churchill at the time of independence of India.
- Public trust: The enthusiasm and trust among the Indian masses for democracy is still continuing as evident from high voting turnout during elections as compared tp developed democracies where voting percentages are declining.
- Respect for constitution: The original constitution is still intact, continuing and greatly revered by all political parties and sections of the society.
- Global reputation: At the international level, India has carved its own space as a highly diverse and largest democracy in the world,
(B) Negative Aspect
- Weakening of political democracy: Several constitutional experts have pointed toward a decline in democracy in India. It is evident from the dropping rankings of India in several key indices like the Democracy index (labelled India a ‘flawed democracy’), V-Dem report (called India ‘Electoral Autocracy’)
- Decline of Parliament: Parliament as a democratic institution is underperforming. The ability of Parliament to seek accountability of the executive has been severely hampered. Productivity of Lok Sabha in the 2021 monsoon was just 22% due to disruption by Opposition. Informed debates in parliament have also been reduced. There is high usage of ordinances and voice notes to make decisions inside parliament
- Non-Attainment of economic democracy: As evident from high economic inequality among masses [the debate of INDIA (Urban India) vs BHARAT (Rural India)], low women participation in the labour force, economic backwardness in several large states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha etc
- Weak social democracy: As evident from recent communal clashes in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, continuing of several secessionist movements like Khalistan, demand for Nagalim, high crimes against women etc this has hampered the creation of true ‘Fraternity’ which Preamble of Constitution talks about.
- Weakening of civil society: There has been a continuing phenomenon of weakening of civil society including NGO’s, academic institutions where these institutions are finding it difficult to uphold accountability of the govt.
- Growing gulf between public and their representatives: Today, elected representatives are more representatives of their political parties than the people who have elected them. Also, Older MP’s are representing young India (Average age of Indian MP’s-54) and Crorepati MP’s are representing poor Indians (88% MP’s are crorepati).
Causes of lacunas in current democracy
- Authoritarian attitude of the regime– The government due to Weak opposition and civil society, as they are failing to uphold the Government’s accountability inside and outside parliament.
- COVID-19 crisis– parliaments stopped working during the crisis which further led to reduced accountability of the executive to parliament
- Criminalization of politics– there has been a growing trend in the number of parliamentarians having criminal records with the current 17th Lok Sabha having the highest ever (50%) of MP with criminal records of them. Thus, lawbreakers are becoming lawmakers.
- Decreasing ethical politics- The political morality and ethical conduct of elected representatives have been decreasing rapidly as evident from the frequent shifting of politicians between different political parties (‘Resort’ democracy, where the governments are being formed in resorts rather than in parliament), use of unethical language and unparliamentary conduct inside parliament.
- Strengthening of identity politics– Identity politics have been rising in India for the past few years where people are being polarized to vote for their caste or religion only.
- Democratic backsliding or democratic deficit– all of the above causes have led to democratic deficit/backsliding which there has a growing gulf between preaching and practice of democracy in India.
- Spillover effect– with the growing power of the executive and weakening of democratic institutions like parliament, the pressure on the judiciary is increasing as evident from the fact that almost all major bills passed by parliament are being challenged in the supreme court. This is leading to Judicial activism.
- Weak social mobility and human capital development– Because of all this, the economic growth of the nation is suffering which is further leading to slow social mobility and human capital development.
Comparison with thy neighbors
- Though both India and Pakistan started their political journey under a democratic framework, both countries after 75 years stand at opposite ends. While India is considered a vibrant democracy, Pakistan is considered a failed state.
- In India, 70% of the population believes that democracy is preferable to other forms of government, whereas in Pakistan, only 37% population, believes that democracy is preferable.
- Pakistan witnessed three dictatorships regimes under different military generals and multiple suspensions of its constitution while India continued on its path of democracy and constitutionalism.
- Even during periods of civilian rule, the Pakistan army and its powerful Inter-Intelligence-Services have retained the right to set the country’s foreign and security policy.
Comparison between Bangladesh and Pakistan
- Bangladesh chose the secular democratic route after independence, but its flirtation with the secular government was brief. It soon followed in the footsteps of Pakistan, opted for authoritarian military rule and made Islam the state religion. However, under its current Sheikh Hasina regime, Bangladesh is regenerating its democracy and economy.
- Bangladesh outpaces Pakistan across all standard economic indicators, including nominal gross domestic product, GDP per capita, GDP growth rate and foreign reserves. It has now become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
- A GDP of $411 billion, compared to Pakistan’s GDP of $347 billion, makes Bangladesh the 33rd largest economy in the world. Experts forecast that the economy’s size could double by 2030.
- Bangladesh has also made more progress in human development in some areas compared to Pakistan, for example in the infant mortality rate. In 2018 there were 22 deaths per 1,000 live births in Bangladesh, compared to 57deaths in Pakistan. The current life expectancy in Bangladesh is 73, compared to 67 in Pakistan,
- Opposition: strong democracy requires strong opposition. Without an alternative choice, the very objective of election to provide a check on arbitrary power gets defeated.
- Need to bring in Constitutional Morality: It also makes the governing institutions and representatives accountable to the people.
- Promoting Good Governance: Good governance enables to reach out government schemes to the needy and it entrusts the desire to do well in life. It also helps to realize one’s duties and rights and boosts confidence in government.
- Welcoming criticism: The Government should hear criticism rather than reject it out rightly. Suggestions on eroding democratic values need a thoughtful and respectful response.
- Equality in the society: If redistributive public welfare policies are effective, the inequality in society would be reduced. Thus, it must be the priority of the government to maintain social and economic equality and inclusive growth.
- Parliamentary oversight: It is necessary to hold strong checks on the executive through parliamentary committees, question hours, etc. Separation of powers is the most important thing for a healthy democracy.
Until and unless we don’t realize the real sense of Democracy we can’t live with dignity. Only with people’s participation, it can be achieved.
It is important that all the government organs work in harmony to uphold the trust people of the country have held in them and ensure the objectives of true democracy.
In the upcoming “Amrit Kaal” (2022-2047), we must ensure that by the end of this period, India should have achieved its “Tryst with Destiny”- A Social, Political and Economic Democracy in the true sense.