Why Democracy Is Struggling in Asia was the cover story of a recent issue of TIME magazine. It described how democracy was paralysed in Thailand,with protestors blockading Bangkoks airports and laying siege to the Prime Ministers office. South Korea,despite electing a popular government,has witnessed noisy mass protests. Pakistan got rid of General Musharraf,but all it now has is military-controlled democracy. Japan and Taiwan are powerhouses of technology-driven prosperity,but both have extremely unstable governments. Democracy has been restored in Bangladesh recently,but during the semi-military rule that preceded it,its two sparring former prime ministers had both been jailed. China,which is Asias most populous nation,is far from embracing democracy. Its communist rulers are so uncomfortable with freedom and openness that they actually censored parts of US President Barack Obamas inaugural speech that were critical of communism.
The magazines otherwise bleak survey of democracy in Asia had a good deal of praise for India. The praise is no doubt well-deserved. When our country elects the 15th Lok Sabha in May,we can be sure that the transition of power will be smooth and New Delhi will not witness any protests or blockades. The military will be firmly under the control of the elected government. And no government in India will dare resort to censorship of the kind routinely seen in China. Witness how the UPA government beat a hasty retreat last month after its own ill-conceived move to control the electronic medias freedom was widely criticised.
Yes,we can be justifiably proud of our democracy. But if take a closer look,we will be able to see the infirmities and deformities within our system. Some of our present rulers have done everything to devalue institutions of parliamentary democracy. Some of the salient issues associated with the Rashtrapatis election in July 2007 still remain unresolved. The Election Commission has become the centre of an unprecedented controversy. And we have a prime minister who is not even directly elected by the people. He prefers to play second fiddle to an extra-constitutional authority that has nominated him.
Now the Congress has projected Rahul Gandhi as its future leader and prime ministerial candidate. Ateet ke neenv par/Bhavishya ka nirmaan (Building a future on the foundation of the past) say Congress posters showcasing Rahul. The very first principle of democracy? equal opportunity undiluted by birth-related privileges? has been violated by this blatant hardsell of dynasty. The assumption that a member of the Nehru family need not have governmental experience or any record of service to the nation to be projected as the future prime minister of India is an insult to the logic of democracy.
But many will ask,Hasnt America elected Obama,a single-term senator,as its president? What is wrong in Rahul,a single-term MP,becoming Indias PM?
The comparison doesnt hold. In fact,it negates the case for Rahul as PM. Obama was not privileged when he entered the race. In contrast,Rahul is overprivileged. Obama came with the handicap of race,religion and class,which he overcame with a brilliant campaign that focused on issues that were anchored in a powerful message of change. Rahul comes only with the proverbial political silver spoon. He has so far not articulated his views on any issue with any degree of originality. And what plank of change can he offer? Change from Dr Manmohan Singhs plank in governance? Change from his mothers plank in politics? If Rahul does have an agenda of change,he has mysteriously kept it under wraps. Rahuls rise to the top is a triumph of the slavish mentality,not only on the part of the Congress but also of a section of the media that has refused to do its job of questioning,scrutinising and criticising.
While an obsession with dynasties has certainly blighted democracy in India,the blame cannot be placed at the doors of the Congress alone. It is slowly creeping even into the BJP at lower levels. My fear is that a time may come when ordinary,committed and hard-working political workers with no pedigree will have no place at the top in most parties.
Democracy in India is also required to battle other threats,the most toxic among them being the growing hold of money power over the political,governmental and electoral processes. The amount of money spent by each candidate and party in recent state assembly elections was of a magnitude that makes a mockery of democracy as peoples rule. The harsh truth is getting harsher: the poor may vote,but only moneybags rule. Even after the passage of the anti-defection law two decades ago,our MLAs and MPs are being lured to switch sides and thwart peoples mandate. All this has a direct impact on the quality of governance and development. For example,at the time of the Cash-for-Votes scandal in Parliament last July,a regional party from Jharkhand was bribed to support the UPA government and its leader was installed as the chief minister of the state. It was a move so unpopular that the CM tasted defeat in last months by-election to the state assembly. Democracy in Jharkhand has been repeatedly molested in the past five years,often with the collusion of the Governor. Not surprising then that Jharkhand continues to be one of the poorest states in India,in spite of being one of the richest in terms of mineral and natural wealth?
If we want to make Indias democracy failure-proof,let us raise our voice against what we think is wrong,even at the risk of suffering hardships. Let us campaign for a leadership culture that promotes merit and does not privilege birth. Let us demand far-reaching electoral reforms,including state funding of elections,whereby money power cannot steal or subvert peoples mandate. Let us force greater accountability upon our political leaders. And let us be vigilant in safeguarding the sanctity of our democratic institutions. If we fail democracy,democracy will fail us.