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Indian Democracy – Dynasty to Dynamism

“Well doctor, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy,” asked an eager lady to Dr Benjamin Franklin as he was leaving the Philadelphia Convention which was wrought in secrecy. “A Republic – if you can keep it” replied the founding father of the oldest modern democracy in the World.

One needs hardly say that the founding fathers of Modern democracy were as concerned with the principles of preservation as with the founding itself. Even before the days of the American Constitution James Madison in the Federalist papers notes the existence of different interest groups accentuated by various sentiments and views which had come up out of necessity. Many times these special interest groups gain ascendancy without the citizens’ awareness or concurrence. The deep-rooted partisan one-upmanship which characterizes American politics today proves the apprehensions of founding fathers true.

Reference to rudimentary forms of Democracy is evident right from the most ancient text namely the Rigveda. We also find reference to the will of people upholding the Kings in their position in the Atharva Veda. Democracy as we know today has an ancient and dodgy past with everyone staking claim to its recent success while failures as usual stands orphaned. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russia toyed with the idea of democracy, the philosophical victory of democracy over all other forms of government seemed final. Modern Democracy in the 21st century is, however, facing fresh challenges in the form of a non-democratic superpower who has come up to challenge this shortlived victory.

The oldest modern democracy in the world is no longer as solemn in appearance losing its sheen after the recession years and the upcoming challenge from China. Democracy in India, on the other hand, stands as the biggest role model for the times to come.

Democracy here in India had its fair share of challenges but the great survival instincts in the oldest civilization always saw it through. While our neighbours have gone through an extended period of Army Dictatorship or a tightly controlled media of the Chinese, India had proved to be an outlier in its success with democracy. Even the worst critics acknowledge that the better part of post-independent India has been peaceful at all points of time even while revolts (sometimes even violent) against the ruling establishment has not been uncommon in any region. As the world celebrates International Democracy Day, India stands as an outlier in South Asia for the rest of the world to emulate.

Indian democracy never was supposed to be a success from the western point of view. While the western point of view doesn’t take into account the deep cultural roots binding this country together, their apprehensions did prima facie seem meritorious.

According to pre-independence British thinker Strachey ‘India’ was merely a label of convenience, ‘a name which we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries’. In Strachey’s view, the differences between the countries of Europe were much smaller than those between the ‘countries’ of India. ‘Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like Punjab.’ In India, the diversities of race, language and religion were far greater. Unlike in Europe, these ‘countries’ were not nations; they did not have a distinct political or social identity. This, Strachey told his Cambridge audience, ‘is the first and most essential thing to learn about India – that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing, according to any European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious’.

It must come as a shock to these naysayers that the piece of land which doesn’t seem to have any political or social identity is a thriving democracy today. What these naysayers forgot to include was the cultural aspect which kept this nation together even while facing contradictions inherent in a diverse country. In comparison, the European countries knit together on language basis are facing a crisis in terms of confidence in democratic processes. EU did not exactly prove to be a paragon of democracy when the decision to introduce the Euro in 1999 was taken without any popular mandate. Only Denmark and Sweden held referendums on the matter (both said no). During the darkest days of the euro crisis, the euro-elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats. The European Parliament, an unsuccessful attempt to fix Europe’s democratic deficit, is both ignored and despised. In contrast, Indian Parliamentary proceedings and important debates are telecasted and discussed widely across the nation.

In my opinion, Indian democracy too had its fair share of banes prime among it being the dynastic politics which started as back as during Independence. The one Nehru family which always thought this nation to be a family fiefdom more or less got away with its misadventures in governing this country for far too long. India has been struggling to break free from the clutches of dynastic politics which marred many democracies across the world.

The first major challenge came from the south in the late 60s on the back of language agitation which saw the dynasty losing grip over vast parts of South permanently as the party continues to languish to this day. A few years prior to this, India curiously had the distinction of having the first democratically elected Communist party. It raised several eyebrows across the world but did fend off all communist tendencies till date as communists got ingrained in the democratic process.

The Communist continued to have vast parts of India under its stranglehold via the democratic process. The democratic process continued to be undermined by the Emergency declared which saw the arrogance of the family coming out in the open in its most brute form. Indian democracy reacted and the people voted aggressively dealing a body blow to the party in the long term by creating strong regional rivals which could join along with the newly formed BJP in 1980. Indian democracy was slowly coming of age when began the phase of blatant appeasement which continues to this day.

After the Shah Bano case where minorities were sought to be appeased, the nation erupted to right the historic wrong of not having the Ram Temple at the birthplace of Lord Ram. Political alignments changed and all who indulged in this sort of appeasement bit dust as many non-Congress governments came up across the country eventually leading to the first full term government without the ruling dynasty in it. There has been no looking back since then when India finally voted a humble man with poor origins to the highest corridors of power. It is of utmost importance to politicians like us that every man is an equal citizen with equal stakes at the highest corridors of power regardless of where he is born in.

With nothing to show but a proven track record, sheer oratory brilliance and an intent to serve Mother India, Narendra Modi a man from a humble background came to power defying the powers that be. Indian democracy had won again – a big victory this time bringing the best out of democratic tradition.

It has crossed a major hurdle where dynasty has become a bad word and all parties actively seek to disassociate itself from the tag. Unfortunately, another ailment grips this democratic system as we celebrate Democracy day – The single one family dynastic rule at the national level is replaced by a host of dynastic families cropping up in all regions of the country. I think a trend of a dynasty for each region has off late gained ground right from PDP in Kashmir to DMK in South. Most of the younger members of both the houses are by-products of one or the other families. As things stand today, India despite the dynastic tradition which it finds hard to shake off is still a beacon of hope in the world.

Independent India has conducted elections which were largely free and fair and at regular intervals in line with the founding fathers. While elections alone don’t make a democracy, it helps that each citizen has a political stake in this nation and exercises his franchise at regular intervals. This, in my opinion, has been the biggest success of India even while suffering from dynastic politics.

Mature democracies like India just like nascent ones require appropriate checks and balances on the power of elected government. Indian judiciary has time and again proved to be the appropriate check right from the days of Emergency. The same however can’t be said of media which has more often played to the tunes of the ruling family. When asked to bend, they drolled dealing a body blow to their credibility which got worsened with the advent of social media where everyone can raise a voice. As democratic institutions get strengthened and accountable under the present Modi Government, the trend of dynasty staying in the limelight looks bleak as an increasingly educated population asks questions of them.

Globally, the Chinese with their supposed success story has burst the American myth of democracy as being the answer to all the ills of mankind. The founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.

While China with its stunning growth figures in recent decades can continue mocking the Democratic traditions, it conceals a far deeper problem. The 50 richest members of China’s National People’s Congress are collectively worth 60 times as much as the 50 richest members of America’s Congress. The inequity is far too glaring for a country which prides itself on communist traditions where the bourgeois needs to be dealt with. The bourgeois clearly seems to have taken over and the working class is ruled upon. It also needs to be seen whether the Chinese model of muzzling free voices and repeated brutal violation of human rights can be sustained over the long run in the modern world. Till then, the verdict on the non-democratic one-party rule will remain open. Democracy will continue to stutter, stumble and start but will not be easily out for technology will enable democratization of power and the requirement to be on the right side of public opinion.

To conclude on a positive note, Alexis De Tocqueville once remarked that “Democracies always look weaker than they really are: they are all confusion on the surface but have lots of hidden strengths. Being able to install alternative leaders offering alternative policies makes democracies better than autocracies at finding creative solutions to problems and rising to existential challenges, though they often take a while to zigzag to the right policies.”

I am surely not letting disillusionment with the political system grip me while incessantly working towards a better and stronger India. Let’s hope that the Great Indian democracy and the deep-rooted democratic traditions ultimately lead each one of its citizens out of poverty by the next decade even while it may take a while to zigzag to the right policies.

(The author is a BJP Spokesperson, Advisor to CM of Maharashtra and Executive Director of Maharashtra Village Social Transformation Foundation (VSTF), an initiative of Govt of Maharashtra)

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