Democracy beyond ballots: Threats to secularism, socialism & federalism


Let me start with my favourite question. Why is it that, of the thirty/ forty nascent nations which emerged from the yoke of imperialism in  the first half of the twentieth century in Asia, Australasia, Africa and  South-America, India comprises the only country of its size and  diversity to have remained a vibrant functioning democracy, while innumerable contemporary wrecks and ruins of constitutionalism  litter the global landscape? 

No doubt the first answer is possibly sheer good luck. But a close  second is that while Gandhi and his atomic weapon of Ahimsa was  vital to attain independence, India has remained a functioning &  vibrant democracy because of Nehru as India’s first Prime Minister.  India was singularly fortunate in getting its sequencing right: Gandhi  first and Nehru later. 

Nehru, intuitively, typified and practiced Voltaire’s famous dictum  (also the essence of democracy) : “I disagree vehemently with you but  defend to death your right to disagree with me”. 

Three of the five tenets which he considered to be foundational to  India’s destiny remain a vital part of the less visible non-institutional  pillars of Indian democracy ( the other two being Parliamentary 

Democracy and non-alignment). They are Secularism, Socialism and  Federalism. 

SECULARISM has been the heart and soul of Indian democracy from its  inception, though it found express Constitutional expression much  later. There is no more diverse spot on earth than India: the world’s  largest democracy, the second most populous, the seventh largest in  terms of area and the fourth largest by national GDP measured on  purchasing power parity (PPP).  

Its diversity is manifested in 22 scheduled languages, over 700 mother  tongues, over 2000 dialects, the world’s largest population of 4  religions (Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and Parsi), the world’s second  largest population of Muslims, and a significant number of other  religious adherents. Every major racial grouping is present in India and it has thousands of bewildering rituals, foods, smells,  sounds, music in all forms, dances and so on. 

With such pluralities, Secularism is a self-protective mechanism for  India. India has had a remarkable record of secular, non theocratic governance, but if truth be told, the more one lets go in  India, the more India binds and holds together. Conversely, the more one pulls or tries to bind or impose any uniform ethic, the more India  is likely to break apart. 

Secularism has been an effective vehicle to manage diversities. It has  generated a sense of reassurance and security to India’s multiple  diversities and provided a crucial underpinning for democracy. It is  meant and intended to convey part ownership of democracy. Without this sense of belonging to and ownership of democracy by each Aam  Admi, democracy cannot succeed.  

As usual, the threats are almost entirely from within. There is a  sinister and sustained attempt to impose a uniform ethic, to  paternalistically decide what a citizen can wear, sing and eat, how he  can behave, what he must think on certain occasions and what he  must say on others. Instead of celebrating diversity, we mourn it as the  biggest obstruction to nationalism.  

We distort the idea of India by redefining the India of our dreams as  the India of our demands. We live by a new ethic of suspicion and  distrust, of glee at the fellow citizen’s discomfiture and of fear of  speaking up in his favour when he is being tormented.  

FEDERALISM: A second non-institutional pillar of democracy is  federalism. It is vital for managing diversities. Federalism operates as  a safety valve for the three Ds—-dissent, discomfort and  dissatisfaction. It channels these three Ds into relatively manageable  outlets of constitutional structures, whether they are provincial  legislatures, district level autonomous councils or models of local  governance like Panchayati Raj. Indian federalism has quarantined  conflicts within states or sub-state units and thus successfully  prevented national conflagration. 

Five significant developments have transmuted, over the last 70 years,  the heavily unitary, quasi federal India at inception into a significantly  more federal entity in operation, rightly resulting in it being called  “accidental or inadvertent” federalism. Linguistic diversity resulted in  creation of new states on the principle of linguistic contiguity and the three-language formula largely quietened the language riots of the  1960s. 

Secondly, vigorous judicial review by the apex court since the new  millennium has repeatedly quashed Article 356 incursions into federal  autonomy. Thirdly, Panchayati Raj and local self-government, has  created a humongous diaspora of elected local Panchayat officials  (including 1.5 million women) who administer local self-government  in the world’s largest model of fiscal and administrative  decentralisation. Fourthly, economic liberalisation since 1988 and  1991 has considerably diluted the stranglehold of the central  government in decision making. Finally, fiscal federalism, results in  almost 45% receipts of the centre being transferred to the state either  as the sharable tax revenues or as Central grants.  

Threats to federalism include Central government discriminatory  practices in fund devolution, selective waivers of financial demands  according to matching or differing political colors of the Centre and  the state concerned and a clearly Presidential style of central  governance focussed on micro managing everything. Catchwords or  “jumlebaazi” like competitive or cooperative federalism cannot  camouflage these aberrations. 

SOCIALISM: Modern arm chair critics who retrospectively criticise  Nehru’s belief in socialism–a third non institutional pillar– by saying  that it consigned India to a low so called Hindu rate of growth between  3.5. to 4.5%, fail to realise that it was socialist philosophy which laid  a firm foundation for the public sector in India and resulted in India’s  solidity and self-reliance in core sectors like steel, chemicals, textiles, indigenous defence manufacturing and banking. It gave us both a self reliant as well as a competitive edge, though, concededly, it  overstayed its welcome. Our ability to weather the 2008 global  financial crisis with minimum pain and regain the 8.5% annual trajectory of growth within one year owes a lot to these foundations. One contemporary counterpart of Nehru’s philosophy of socialism has  been the world’s largest social welfare scheme, MNREGA, which  despite opportunistic criticism when in opposition, has been largely  followed and reluctantly lauded by the right wing successor  government. 

This “vituperative criticism when in opposition and ready adaptation  without attribution when in power” model has been perfected by the  present dispensation. Manifested across the board-from Aadhar,  MNREGA, Food Security, GST to many others–these compliments,  albeit left handed, say it all. 

In conclusion, India’s amazing diversity is its best insurance  against degeneration of democracy or institutionalisation of  dictatorship. To that must necessarily be added the intrinsic nature  of India and of Indians viz. absorbent and highly  argumentative. 

Democracy in India has many miles to walk and many promises to  keep. If it cannot be fairly castigated as an imperfect democracy, it is  certainly also nowhere near being a perfect or near perfect democracy.  It is difficult to quantitatively calibrate whether we have covered half  or more than 75% of the journey from imperfection to perfection. We  have not achieved, for example, the more capacious concept of democracy beyond the narrower view of seeing democracy exclusively  in terms of public balloting and not as “the exercise of public reason”  i.e. the larger concept of providing opportunities for citizens to  participate in political discussion and, more importantly, to informed  public choices in methods that transcend the ballot box.  

Personally, I have no doubt, that we are well past the midway mark in  the journey and that we will get there in the fairly proximate future.  But the story has never been only about the destination or the result.  It has been, as much, if not more, about the journey and that has  undoubtedly been exciting and unusual.  

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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