The India democracy show

We are now only days away from the start of the greatest democratic show on earth. It is hard to challenge India’s claims to be the world’s biggest living, breathing dynamic democracy. The 814.5 million Indians who will cast ballots at 930,000 polling stations from April 7 to May 12 are the proof of that.

Unfortunately it is a flawed democracy, too much of a tamasha (a show with much singing and dancing) and not enough serious substance. For that, I do not blame the voters: They play their part faithfully enough; the problem is that the message does not get through to those running the country day by day.

There is plenty of the tamasha, including the loud rallies and colorful posters proclaiming that their chosen candidate is going to change life for the better. Trading of insults — with Congress leader Sharad Pawar declaring that opposition candidate Narendra Modi needs mental treatment for talking rubbish — is reminiscent of Victorian British hustings. There is a profusion of party symbols and — above all — the glorious uncertainty about who is going to win, both in the individual constituency and state and in the country as a whole. This is an election with a lot hanging on it, especially the question of who will rule India from May.

Most pundits and opinion pollsters believe that voters will turf out the tired government of Manmohan Singh. Many big business leaders, both in India and abroad, hope that they will instead choose the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, in the belief that he has a track record of success and will make India more like China, open for business, dedicated to getting things done.

But it is by no means certain, and both Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party, supporting the common man and railing against ubiquitous corruption, and the “third front” of regional parties hope to be more than mere spoilers, with a real chance of grabbing some of the spoils of power.

That is one of the underlying issues of course — that the politicians regard the voters as unlocking the box of power so that they can help themselves to the riches that come from it.

Elections are a necessary part of democracy. That is why totalitarian rulers, fascist and communist alike, take great pains to cloak their legitimacy with an election in which they triumph by 99 to 99.9 percent of the vote, not understanding that such a majority is not achievable by a truly democratic vote.

Indians should hold their heads up high. This is a truly democratic election, where the result may be predicted by all and sundry in the press, radio and TV or by fortune tellers and other pundits galore, but they may all be wrong.

Indians should take a proud bow toward Hong Kong, one of the richest places on Earth, where 17 years after casting off the British colonial rule, they are trying to work out the procedures for the first “democratic” election of the chief executive. Beijing insists that there should be no surprises, and the rules must be devised in advance to ensure that whoever wins is loyal to Beijing.

No such careful cooking of the results is possible in India, where a glorious cacophonous confusion of voices will be heard until the final result is declared. Then there will be a scrimmage of wheeler-dealers to create the alliances to form a new national government.

Democratic elections are necessary but not sufficient for a true democracy. This is where India, and many other countries, fail and fall.

The legislative process is a problem, as it is in other countries. In places like the United Kingdom and Japan, the danger to democracy is that the party that wins often has a stable majority to do anything it wishes for the next four to five years without worrying about opposition. Today, David Cameron’s uneasy and mutually suspicious coalition with the Liberal Democrats has held together even though the government has overridden key liberal principles.

The problem in Britain, and in Japan today, where Shinzo Abe commands both houses of the Diet, is that individual members of Parliament are whipped to obey their party line slavishly to the extent of sacrificing their own judgment. This all too often makes for bad or woolly laws, which can then be interpreted in worse directions by civil servants.

India’s parliament, as in the U.S., tends to be one of querulous, conflicting voices that make it difficult to maintain a majority to get anything done.

The problem is compounded in both countries by a weak leadership which neither shows vision nor has the political skill or skullduggery to put together majorities for particular causes. It is further exacerbated by self-seeking members of Parliament who show no respect for traditional rules of the game, and who are quite prepared to put personal interests ahead of party or country.

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was admired for his great leadership, learned from his days as a leader of the senate, in pressing the flesh and, in the popular saying “knowing where the bodies were buried,” to strike deals and accomplish legislation. Some of his supporters speak the same way of BJP’s Modi. But closer examination of Johnson’s record and methods show a pattern of brutal behavior that would not be tolerated in today’s America. Perhaps it would be in India. It should also be remembered that when Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975, she took great powers to operate without criticism, but she did not achieve much.

In both India and the U.S., and spectacularly in India, the third branch of government, the judiciary, works too slowly and proves the old adage that justice delayed is justice denied. Judges could make a start by dealing with criminal charges against corrupt politicians.

Then there is the fourth branch of government. The press is another important potential safeguard of democracy, which, sadly in today’s India, works less well. When I first went to India many years ago, the press was too narrowly political, following every word of politicians uncritically. These days, too many media have become part of show business, and some have been captured by big business. The Indian media — not alone, since the same tendency has been shown elsewhere — has forgotten that its principal role should be to support the interests of the common man and to shine its light into dark corners as well as to uphold important principles.

This lofty role led Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, to proclaim: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

He also declared: “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” He would probably not be so bold today, certainly not in India.

Kevin Rafferty, a professor at Osaka University, was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group.

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