Three pitfalls of democracy

A 2013 UN report stated that a third of the world’s poorest people live in India.

Updated: March 16, 2014 9:44 am

India, the world’s most populous democracy, never converges to nation building. A 2013 UN report stated that a third of the world’s poorest people live in India.

Democratic pitfalls in politics: In our democracy, anybody can get a party ticket to become an MLA or MP and wield power. Even a murderous criminal, slapped with court cases, can become an electoral candidate; as also a jailbird who can pull strings to emerge on bail. Political parties are ferreting out silver screen personalities as candidates to woo and gloriously pull in their fan base. They mostly win, but it is not clear whether it is through popularity or arm-twisting the public.

In empowering retired film stars as politicians, their on-screen fame gets transferred to political power. What can a film star deliver to the country? Indian film audiences particularly favour fantastical and theatrical plots, so that’s become the standard output from Bollywood and regional cinema. Short on real social relevance, these films do not project new ideas nor any futuristic social or technology trends. Their documentation of history does not help the public learn something beyond the obvious. Through cinematography, film personalities such as Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Meryl Streep, Georges Lucas, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio Gassman, among others, have incited a paradigm shift in people’s ideation, inspired invention, and shown different dimensions that combine art, socio-cultural change and philosophical debates.

India’s film personalities are yet to be credited with having bought in newness that’s changed society. Their popularity is based on their professional talent of dancing, acting and off-screen love affairs. Most live in a paradisiacal world; they provide low-cost entertainment, particularly to the poor. Non-resident Indians (NRI) also lap up these films of unbelievable, mythical or ideal social life stories not seen in Western society.

Can filmy people solve administrative or development issues through politics? Do they understand the requirements of the poor, of employment, of city infrastructure? Poverty-stricken voters, who have no choice in the way they live, imagine that these film personalities who create miracles in cinema may also create fantasy in politics. They like the idea of unreachable stars being physically visible. Political parties use stars to camouflage that which is unsavoury. It’s almost like FMCG products using film stars in advertisements or as brand ambassador to gloss over the product’s quality deficiencies. Should professionally active stars paint their faces for the studio floor or the floor of Parliament? The answer is part of democratic India’s political science.

In this context, a candidate like Nandan Nilekani is unique in every sense but his party should not use him to hide its defects. I’d earlier written (in October 2009 and October 2013 that India needs high quality technocrats and visionary entrepreneurs to govern. I consider Nilekani an apolitical doer. He has displayed integrity, entrepreneurship with ingenuity, managerial leadership in his business career and successfully devised the mammoth Aadhaar project. Even if his political party does not win the election, whoever forms the government should be obliged to take him in a paradigm changing role. I have seen such an example made by French President Francois Mitterrand who took people from the Opposition as ministers. He played the role of a national president, not a political party’s president.

Underprivileged people’s democratic pitfall: The disastrous way that most of our underprivileged people live —- with no shelter, work, education or food and non-existent social security — seems to be a democratic right. Nobody, least of all the government, has made sufficient effort to educate them practically, provide jobs, improve their living style. The longer they live in such non-empowered situations, the less will they know about how to fight for their rights. Is this their democracy? Political parties enjoy the underprivileged people vote bank, and make promises that are rarely kept after the votes come in. Political dramas pop up on TV nowadays. It’s all about candidates, ink smearing, polls predictions, analysts interpreting poll results, rallies, violence, dynasties and tea-seller politics. Does the underprivileged 80 per cent understand this circus? They know that the day they cast their vote is a ceremonial one; they expect no return.

Social and infrastructure democratic pitfall: Our democratic code is so tolerant that a man can urinate anywhere on the street with no civic consideration and no social respect. He’s oblivious to women walking past him. This act becomes disgraceful because it’s done in full public view, but who cares? Is tampering with public infrastructure another democratic right? Overloaded trucks damage smaller roads they are not supposed to ply on. To place underground broadband or electrical cables, a road contractor digs trench-like holes. Sometimes he does not refill the hole for months, even years. Obviously cars and motorbikes get stuck at night; people fall in, at times even break bones. After one contractor loosely fixes the road, the next, the contractor for drain pipes, starts digging again. There’s just no respite for citizens. The trend is never to finish any work elegantly or on time. This is the continuity of jugaad, an intrinsic part of our democracy.

Comparing pitfalls in our democracy to the Rubik cube puzzle, it’s almost impossible to get the single colour winning pattern. As all political parties in India are looking for coalition partners, perhaps we need to learn from European league football clubs like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Manchester United on how to lease and mix players of different political parties to make an exciting team. World Cup football represents individual countries, but league football very successfully gets the best players from different countries. Should we get a league team coach to train us on how to manage a coalition like European league football?

Shombit Sengupta is an  international creative  business strategy  consultant to top  management.
Reach him at

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