Nullifying the Democracy

India is a functioning democracy – of sorts. It has been one since it gained independence from Great Britain over 60 years ago. On the face of it, this is an impressive achievement in a region that has had its fair share of military coups (Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma) and a civil war (Sri Lanka). As an Indian, I am both proud and mortified, because the democracy we have managed to sustain is flawed, at best; and downright venal at worst. It is also an object lesson to emerging Third World nations that it is not enough for a country to proclaim itself a democracy; it requires vigilance and effort to make it work.

A recent news item reports how the Bombay Municipal Corporation purchased three hi-tech jet-patchers to repair the notorious pot holes on Mumbai roads, at a cost of Rs. 78 lakhs ($160,000) each two years ago; and is yet to put them to use. Even more staggering is the revelation that the corporation then awarded the maintenance contract to a favoured firm for an incredible 68 crores ($1.40 million). In other words, the annual maintenance contract cost is more than 25 times the cost of the equipment itself; a feature that must surely qualify for the Guinness book of records. However, that is not the real issue here.

The Commonwealth Games held in Delhi were supposed to announce India’s emergence as an economic and political superpower. What they showcased instead was India continuing to remain a third world nation. With the first monsoon showers, the roof of a shooting range, collapsed. At another stadium, the false ceiling came down; and leakages were prevalent at most other venues. The usual culprit, of course, is shoddy construction, a result of contracts being awarded at unrealistically low rates – with the contractors groaning under the added compulsion of giving a substantial cut to the babus who hand out the contracts. This is not the issue either.

The Times of India is running a series of articles under the heading “Mumbai for Sale”. They describe how unscrupulous politicians are virtually gifting away prime plots of government land to favoured builders at throwaway rates – and greatly enriching themselves in the process. They have been doing this for decades; and it is one of the city’s worst kept secrets. Everybody knows, but we just shrug our shoulders and get on with our lives. What can we do, after all?

Hardly a day goes by without the media revealing a financial scam, or the Anti-Corruption Bureau trapping some public official accepting a bribe. That’s all very well, but what happens to the perpetrators? They are suspended or transferred; and then quietly reinstated – sometimes even promoted – after the public has lost interest. Even the few who are actually charge sheeted are promptly released on bail. This is virtually the same as an acquittal, since their cases are unlikely to be heard for years. Some deterrent.

The root of the problem with this country is that apathy, callousness and wasteful profligacy in spending public money by government agencies has become so commonplace that it hardly registers on the public consciousness. Even worse, our ‘leaders’ are so shameless that they are least bothered by frequent exposure of their wrongdoings in the media. They carry right on with business as usual. The tragedy is compounded by the reality that we, the people, pride ourselves on living in a democracy without having any notion of what that entails. We accept the sloth and rampant corruption prevalent among our public ‘servants’ to be as inevitable as death and taxes; and something we have no control over.

And therein lies the rub. We do have control. But either through indifference or a feeling of helplessness, we choose not to exercise it. Not only that, we actually abet their nefarious activities. The corruption we bitterly complain about cannot happen without our active participation. How many of us would rather pay a bribe to ‘get our work done’, rather than make the effort to report the corrupt ones and file a complaint? Is it any wonder that our venal government officials regard the receiving of bribes as their due – rather like the tribute Roman emperors used to expect from their subjects.

That is our first mistake. We are not subjects, we are citizens. In a democracy, power is supposed to flow from the people to elected representatives. In India, however, it happens the other way round. The people we elect ride roughshod over us because we let them. The so-called intelligentsia, me included, delude ourselves that we are making a difference by writing articles and letters to the editor; and appearing on panel discussions on television.

However, the only reaction we provoke in those we condemn is mild amusement – even contempt. We don’t hold any threat to them because we don’t matter. They would fear us a lot more if, instead of pontificating to an audience that does not matter to them either, we went out and voted. The only weapon that terrifies them is the ballot box, with its implied threat of removing them from power. And they are experts at nullifying that danger. They cultivate and pamper the people who actually do go out and vote; the poorer sections of society who can be bought for a few hundred rupees. And these are the very people we ‘the elite’ tend to ignore. They are not ‘one of us’. We just cannot communicate with them. And so, we continue playing right into the hands of those who make us tear out our hair in frustration.

Our leaders, many of whom come from humble or outright criminal backgrounds, tend to behave like mini-emperors as soon as they are appointed to ministerial or legislative positions. They brazenly make it apparent that one set of rules applies to them, which is quite distinct from those the rest of us are forced to live by. They have been doing this for decades and we continue to allow them to get away with it. What is the explanation for this phenomenon? Is there some marker in the genetic make-up of Indians that makes us content to be subservient? Have we been so conditioned by centuries of existence as conquered people, that we expect, nay need, masters or ‘mai-baap’ to lord it over us? Why do we accept is as the natural order of how things are?

Even in countries like the Philippines, Romania and Poland – to name just a few – which went through a long period of dictatorial rule, the people reached a tipping point of tolerance and rose up to overthrow the despots. But here in democratic India, where the people have been given the constitutional power to keep our elected representatives in check, we choose not to exercise it. We endure instance after instance of skulduggery, brazen criminality and sheer incompetence on the part of our leaders; and we just let them slide. The intellectuals and others who profess to be the conscience of the nation do not even bother to vote.

It is not as if there are no men and women of integrity and honour in India. There are hundreds of thousands of them; and they exist in every section of society. Unfortunately, for our politicians, they hold the same value as an illiterate labourer, or even a common criminal. The fault lies with our system of universal franchise. Our founding fathers no doubt had noble intentions when they proposed that the vote of each Indian would have equal value; and that every eligible Indian would be entitled. Perhaps in their idealistic fervour, they overlooked the reality that there is no one India, but several. Each is defined and bound by factors such as poverty, caste and region; and they have virtually nothing in common with each other. Only a fraction of the country’s population has the luxury of independent thought and reasoning. The rest are fully occupied just trying to survive. They are eminently susceptible to false promises and negligible handouts, because when you have nothing, even a pittance can seem like manna from heaven. Not surprisingly, it is the second, larger group that is targeted and cultivated by the politicians. They pay lip service to the so-called elite, but secretly deride us, since we are no threat to them.

Ever since the end of the era of stalwarts like Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, who fought for India’s freedom and provided its first government, the quality of our ‘leaders’ has been steadily deteriorating. Not that the first lot was without flaws. Nehru institutionalized inefficiency and sloth in the working of government officials and, with his irrational partiality for socialism and the Soviet model, almost bankrupted the nation. But there was no denying that he, along with his cabinet colleagues, was a man of integrity and a genuine desire to improve the lot of the people.  Ever since then, the venality of India’s political class has increased exponentially – and the less said about their notion of public service, the better. The reason is obvious. Their aspiration to hold political office is motivated solely by their intention to make as much money as possible in the shortest feasible time. Everything else, like servicing the portfolio they ostensibly hold, is secondary. That is why decisions are inordinately delayed and public works are almost never completed on schedule and under budget.

So can anything be done to make the people we elect to govern us actually do so? Can we make them accountable for their misdeeds? Can we get rid of the blackguards and get a political class we can actually trust and look up to? On the face of it, it seems an uphill, almost impossible task. Yes we, the people, have made a tentative start by forcing the government to establish the Right To Information Act, although experience has taught us that getting any worthwhile information from official agencies is like squeezing blood from a stone. Yes the mainstream television and newspaper media regularly exposes the various scams and shady deals politicians indulge in. But it seems to make no real difference on the ground. At most, the political parties dispatch their designated spokesmen to participate in television debates which generate a lot of sound and fury, but achieve nothing. Indeed, the favourite tactic for answering charges against a particular political party is to point out that a rival party indulged in a similar malpractice. In their lexicon, two wrongs do indeed make a right.

Why are our efforts proving to be so ineffectual? Because we are targeting the wrong audience. As I have already pointed out, it is the masses that the politicians fear. They are the ones who have the actual power to get rid of the ‘leaders’. And the masses don’t read mainstream newspapers. After a gruelling 16 hours of manual labour, if they watch television at all, it is limited to the occasional movie or soap opera – not the news and talk shows. So while the pundits and experts pontificate in their rarefied environment, they are not communicating with the people who matter; the people who can make a difference. Until that happens, mediocrity, mendacity and corruption will continue to rule the roost. In the final analysis, we get the government we deserve.

Garima Obrah

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