Democracy in India – Ignoring the naysayers

The Rise of voices criticizing democracy in India

Throughout my school and college days – ever since I have been old enough to understand the meaning of such things, I have heard several criticisms of Democracy in India. A recent post by Rajesh Kalra on the Times of India blog on “The Chinese think big – we don’t”, attracted lots of comments basically saying the same thing – that India is not ready for a democracy. There are several reasons that are put forward to support this view such as:

  1. People must be educated for Democracy to work
  2. Democracy results in a slow decision making process
  3. Look at the caste system – democracy hasn’t been able to wipe even that out yet
  4. Democracy has resulted in poor infrastructure and corruption

Even my father used to wax nostalgic about the emergency and say that trains used to run on time and that everything went like clockwork. So it seems that this criticism isn’t new and the evidence is clear. There are lots of people in this country who wish it to be a dictatorship – or at least they wish it was an authoritarian regime. Most of the time these people look and compare India with China and proclaim that they’re pulling ahead of us in the “race’

I find this line of thought disturbing. There are many reasons why I feel that we have the best setup possible and to wish it to be any other way is foolishness.

The Miracle of India Democracy

Even though it’s not relevant to my case, I can’t help but start off with recognizing what we have done till now. There are people who feel that India is an utter failure. That we haven’t achieved anything in 60 years. They feel that India consists of self serving people who don’t care about society as a whole and that it’s each man for himself. Doubtless they feel this way due to their own experience with what they have seen or heard, or been told. And while I’m not here to discount their experiences, I would like to draw their attention to another side of India. And there is indeed another side. A very large and powerful side.

When I look at India, I see a nation that has survived against all odds. I see a country where there is so much bewildering variety that it boggles the mind. There have been other countries that have been compared to India in terms of variety. America being one of them. I’ve lived in America for about a year, and I can tell you, there is absolutely no comparison. In India, we have different native languages for just about every state. Each region has it’s own cuisine. Each area has it’s own sense of dressing.

People in India, look different when you travel from place to place. We have a Sikh Prime Minister, almost had a foreign born Prime Minister who couldn’t speak Hindi, and a Muslim president. Is it possible to name even one other country that would allow a foreign born woman to be it’s leader? Even the US hasn’t had a female president till date.

With such variety, everyone expected India to fail as a democracy. Till that time, democracy was tried out only in countries that had a homogeneous environment. It was a huge social experiment, and we have survived where no one expected us to survive. We have had election after election (with a 2 year hiccup in the middle) and now our way of life is firmly established. Political parties humbly accept the verdict of the people even when it means that entrenched powers must be displaced. The BJP moved over without a squeal in 2004 after losing despite being a “hardline” party. Something that by no means happens around the world. Look at Zimbabwe last year.

Also, it is a widely held belief that democracy is best sustained when the surrounding regions are democratic as well. In this aspect too, India has been an enigma. Surrounded by neighbors whose governments are either powerfully compromised, or not democracies at all, India is a glimmering example of holding onto ideals. A diamond in the rocks.

Democracy at work in India

Democracy at work in India

As Obama proclaimed a few days ago, “India is a shining example to us all.”

Comparisons with China

Most people when condemning India’s democracy point to China. The general drift of their logic goes something like this: “China is not a democracy. Look at them. Look at their growth. They have vision. They have long term policies. They are a growing power. The world is afraid of them etc etc.”

My only answer is: “So bloody what?”

Correlation does not equal causation. There are plenty of countries that are not democracies who are not doing well. Why don’t we look to our western neighbor Pakistan and praise their military for having taken over the country innumerable number of times? No. That we will not do. But we look at China and want to be like them. Also, we must realize once and for all, that the purpose of the government is for the people. The people cannot be used to serve the goals of the government or country. So if the country as a whole is successful and the people within it are not happy and don’t have the right to speak freely, then such a state is a failure, not a success.

China’s state and future

Each country is different. China as a country is much more homogeneous than India. They have a shared common history, a largely common language and similar ethnic origins. Nowhere close to the diversity of India.

Moreover, history shows that far from being an open and close case, China is extremely complex. There is evidence that as people in China get more prosperous, they will be less likely to want to submit to authority. Heed my words. In the next few decades, there will be an upheaval in China as more and more people start wishing for democracy. And it won’t be a peaceful transition. No one likes to give up power. There will be chaos as the country’s entrenched institutions try and hold onto power.

If what I say doesn’t happen, then well and good. No one wants misery and suffering. But the chances are that sooner or later, China will become like India, and not the other way around.

False choice between Freedom and Development

Another frequent argument that I hear all the time is that there are more pressing issues in India than freedom of speech and civil liberties. Proponents claim that the Indian government has better and more important things to do than to ensure that women can party at night, or to debate the legality of homosexuality. There are two major flaws in this logic. The first is that of the false dichotomy, and the second is to assume that without civil liberties, things like infrastructure matter a great deal.

The false dichotomy

It’s foolish to say “Concentrate on clean water, not on free speech.” Does the government have only one hand? Is it composed of only one person who can only do one thing at a time? Is it possibly conceivable that when the ministry for infrastructure is trying to get clean water to villages, the home ministry has to stop functioning? Beware of the false dichotomy.

My feeling is that when people say stupid things like this, they mean something else. These people I suspect have a sense of guilt that they’re living comfortable lives when others are not and in order to try and cope with this, they want everyone else to suffer as well. Be that as it may, that is their problem and not relevant to this discussion.

Which matters more?

Those who claim that they would prefer India to be a dictatorship or an authoritarian state if trains ran on time and the roads were clean, either need a history lesson, or they’re in the wrong place.

Such individuals should have lived in Nazi Germany. Clean roads, potable water, economic security, nice cars, food for everyone – what more do you want right? Why not get a taste of Stasi’s East Berlin then? Sure, you never know if the man next to you is a government agent who can put you behind bars forever if you so much as utter word against the government. Or I suppose it’s completely irrelevant that you’re not supposed to hold any political views other than what the government wants you to have. Oh and did I mention that the news you read is “approved” by the state before it comes to you? And books? You can only read those sanctioned by the government – of course.

Oh and remember the free and fair Internet? – it’s a myth. There’s no such thing.

But hey – there were clean roads! And clean water!

Ok, enough of the heavy sarcasm. The bottom line is that people need to read up a bit of history. They need to know and imagine what it’s like to live under a state that has no freedoms. They need to get a taste of the feeling that you just want to scream out something abusive against the government – just for the sake of being able to do so.

There are people who have given up their very lives for freedom. Our Indian Freedom struggle is the best example. Who the hell cares if the Britishers were fantastic administrators? Did we sacrifice our lives and drive them out only so that we could have our very own home brewed dictators? Are we saying that only Indians have the right to be dictators over Indians?

It’s an insult to the memories of the freedom fighters when people say they would rather have a dictatorial government. Let them go to some other place where they can have their clean roads and towering skyscrapers – Democracy in India was bought with the blood of tens of thousands of people. It’s a national treasure, and one that every Indian must at least acknowledge if not respect.

Shining examples of India’s Democracy

For those still not satisfied with India’s remarkable achievement, here are some facts that should make you feel proud:

Congress got voted out after the Emergency

If people were so thrilled during the emergency with an orderly government and trains running on time, why did they boot the Congress government out immediately after? This shows that people love their freedoms and that the fabric of democracy runs deep.

Inquiries after atrocities

Atrocities happen in every country – in India, America, as well as China. What matters is how they are handled afterwards?

In China, what happened after the Tianmen Square massacre? Never mind that even the most corrupt Indian party wouldn’t dream of opening fire on unarmed and innocent protesters consisting mainly of students merely for voicing their frustration with the government. But what about the aftermath? Would you believe that the Chinese government doesn’t even allow it’s citizens to discuss the incident? Chinese history has been rewritten to ensure that people never learn about the massacre of 7000 people. The link that you find at the beginning of this paragraph is unaccessible in China. Children born afterwards don’t even know that it happened since it’s not mentioned in any textbooks. Their “progress” has been bought at a heavy price – such an incident if allowed to remain in people’s consciousness would destabilize the country. This shows that the Chinese way of life has deep problems that are only kept under the surface temporarily – waiting to come up to the surface. History has shown us that humans after all, eventually like to be free.

Image Credit: Grant Neufeld

Tiananmen Squaure Massacre Protest - Mind you, this is outside the Chinese Consulate in Canada. Such a protest would not be allowed within China itself

Tiananmen Squaure Massacre Protest – Mind you, this is outside the Chinese Consulate in Canada. Such a protest would not be allowed within China itself

On the other hand, atrocities in India always come back to bite their perpetrators years later. There is no public misinformation campaign. No changing of textbooks. The Anti Sikh riot protests in 1984 still return to plague the Congress. Advani is still tainted with the demolition of the Babri Masjid and Narendra Modi will never be free of the black mark of the Godhra riots and may even go to jail for it. Such a thing could never happen in China where there is no free press and the government prevents any official inquiry into the matter.

Right to Information Act (RTI)

Things move slowly in India, but they do move. The RTI act was a huge step forward and while it’s implementation is not very satisfactory, there is at least the intention. The implementation will come in time. Can you imagine such a thing happening in China?

Public Debate

Remember the Indo US nuclear deal which almost brought the government down? Remember the debate? The news coverage? The analysis? None of that would have been possible in an authoritarian state. The government would have just done whatever it wants.

An Independent Judiciary

This is nothing to be sneezed at. The Supreme Court of India has proved to be a wonderful institution with its concept of the PIL and the “Basic Structure” doctrine. Only in a democratic country like India, can a private NGO like NAZ file a case against the government for the criminalization of Homosexuality (Article 377).

Give it time

The people of the country shouldn’t be in a hurry. 60 years is a very short time for a country of the size and diversity of India. America has been a Democracy for around 200 years now, and it was only 30 years ago that discrimination against blacks was removed – similar to our caste system, but legalized. That way, we are even better off than they are.

Countries in the EU have had upwards of 400 years to practice and perfect their democracy and none of them is as diverse or as large as India. Given what we’ve achieved after 60 years, it’s a bloody miracle. So cut some slack. You’re living in a miraculous country that has defied every single prediction made about it. You’re free.

Don’t compare India with China. Let them be the “greatest.” Let them be “feared.” So what, even if it is true (Debatable – how do you define “great”)? It’s not worth the price of freedom. Our own growth is nothing to be sneezed at. We’re a democracy, and we’re headed in the right direction.

The very same charge that people level against India, is actually it’s greatest strength – it’s complacency. We’re relaxed. We pose no threat to anyone. No one cares so much that they’re willing to sacrifice themselves for radical change. The common man doesn’t like the extremism that can accompany “progress”. We’re content to let things take their own sweet course. And we’re happy. So don’t worry. Everything will be just fine.

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  1. 'There are two major flaws in this logic. The first is that of the false dichotomy, and the second is to assume that without civil liberties, things like infrastructure matter a great deal.'

    Yes, yes, oh so yes! My argument against Modi made succinctly. Civil liberties AND development will be what 'We the People of India' deserve and demand. And shall get. Hopefully in my lifetime.

    Was talking to a friend from Switzerland about exactly this a couple of hours ago and she talked about how Switzerland had made a deal with Hitler (why else would he leave this plum prize without an army all alone?!) that was found out in the 80s. And anyone who spoke of it after the war was spied on just like the Stasi did. In my book, this is worse – at least you expect it as a resident of East Germany!

    Thanks for the comment and post. Lately, have been feeling that while the idea of India sustains, the reality of India is falling apart. Kashmir to Maoists, North East to CWG, Ayodhya to fundamentalism….we have the important part right, we allow people to speak (most of the time). And that is already way more than what others with a 'developed' neighbourhood in dictatorships have. Do wish we would be cleaner as a country though. That part matters! Thanks, dude!


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