Does India’s Democracy Need a Reboot?: Choudhury
It has become commonplace to compare and contrast the two rising Asian powers. The faster pace of China's growth is attributed to the simpler command chain of authoritarianism and one-party rule. Meanwhile, many bemoan Indian red tape, indecision and chaos, the apparent cost of the state's democratic character and its accommodation of diverse points of view.
But might it be too simplistic to explain the development patterns of the two countries as simply the difference between autocracy and democracy? Might it be that India's growth is slower not so much because the country is democratic per se, but rather because of the kind of democracy it is? To get a sense of its pitfalls look no further than the debate about foreign investment over the past month, which culminated with the government's reversal in one week of the exact steps taken the week before.
Is democracy, the idea, being made culpable for the failures of the parliamentary democratic system set up at the time of independence in 1947 in imitation of models close at hand, but urgently in need of recalibration -- like the very idea of the Indian nation -- today? Might it be that the fragmentation of India's Parliament among more than three dozen big and small political parties has produced not just what the political scientist Arend Lijphart calls a consensus democracy (as opposed to simpler two-party majoritarian democracies) but something beyond it, requiring its own moniker to represent a state of peculiar democratic stasis and entanglement -- perhaps a dissensus democracy?
Over the years, India's Parliament, where no party has enjoyed a simple majority since 1989, has become a minefield of clamor and disruption. Much of this year's winter session, for instance, passed without a single new bill being debated because many of the opposition parties decided to bog down the government over a range of issues, most prominently foreign direct investment and a political scam. Were the spectacle of Parliament in session to be presented to a child, he or she might conclude that Indians were going to enormous expense to fund a drama that was, to borrow from Macbeth, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." A recent study by an independent group, PRS Legislative Research, showed that Parliament consistently fails to carry out its appointed work. In one particularly disastrous session, last winter, it worked only 6 percent of the time. Were the members of Parliament office workers, this record would likely result in them being fired from their jobs. That they represent, between them, the aspirations of more than 1 billion people makes their conduct both tragic and farcical.
Has the Indian system of parliamentary democracy miscast the balance between representation and efficiency, between a legislature that is elected and then also sits atop of an executive that must govern? This was the case powerfully made this week by the writer and member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor in an essay called "Shall We Call The President?" in Tehelka. Arguing that India should consider a move to an American-style presidential system of government that makes a clearer separation between the legislature and the executive, Tharoor offered a catalogue of the problems engendered by parliamentary-style politics in a field as vast and varied as India's:
The parliamentary system has not merely outlived any good it could do; it was from the start unsuited to Indian conditions and is primarily responsible for many of our principal political ills. [...]
The parliamentary system devised in Britain — a small island nation with electorates initially of a few thousand voters per MP, and even today less than a lakh [a hundred thousand] per constituency — assumes a number of conditions that simply do not exist in India. It requires the existence of clearly- defined political parties, each with a coherent set of policies and preferences that distinguish it from the next, whereas in India, a party is all too often a label of convenience [...]
With few exceptions, India’s parties all profess their faith in the same set of rhetorical clichés, notably socialism, secularism, a mixed economy and non-alignment, terms they are all equally loath to define. [...] In the absence of a real party system, the voter chooses not between parties but between individuals, usually on the basis of their caste, their public image or other personal qualities. But since the individual is elected in order to be part of a majority that will form the government, party affiliations matter. [...] It is a perversity only the British could have devised: to vote for a legislature not to legislate but in order to form the executive. [...]
The disrepute into which the political process has fallen in India, and the widespread cynicism about the motives of our politicians, can be traced directly to the workings of the parliamentary system. Holding the executive hostage to the agendas of a range of motley partners is nothing but a recipe for governmental instability. And instability is precisely what India, with its critical economic and social challenges, cannot afford. [...]
A directly-elected chief executive in New Delhi, instead of being vulnerable to the shifting sands of coalition-support politics, would have stability of tenure free from legislative whim, be able to appoint a Cabinet of talents, and above all, be able to devote his or her energies to governance, and not just to government. The Indian voter will be able to vote directly for the individual he or she wants to be ruled by, and the president will truly be able to claim to speak for a majority of Indians rather than a majority of MPs.
There's a good deal of merit in Tharoor's critique of the status quo. Very simply, at a crucial juncture in its history, India is facing a crisis of leadership. Over the last few years, and especially since the general elections of 2009, public confidence in both Parliament and government has been severely eroded. This isn't just because, as Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta write in a pessimistic 2006 report called "Indian Parliament as an Institution of Accountability," the fissures between political parties entrusted to work together in a common space such as Parliament have deepened, so that "the imperatives of electoral and party politics give politicians great incentives to delay important legislation just for the sake of delay." It is also because the government itself has appeared rudderless, with power concentrated in the party at its center, the Indian National Congress, broken up between the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, the president of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, and her son Rahul Gandhi, the Congress's heir apparent.
When Singh's decision to open up the country to foreign direct investment was derailed last week by some of the Congress's coalition partners, neither of the Gandhis spoke in support of the prime minister, displaying what the journalist Dhiraj Nayyar called "the Congress Party's continued, and damaging, ambivalence on economic policy." As the historian Ramachandra Guha wrote recently in a piece called "The West places too much faith in Singh":
There has for some time now been a sharp disconnect between dominant western perceptions of Mr. Singh and how the prime minister is viewed within his own country. Barack Obama called him a sage among statesmen. World leaders and international newspapers have attributed qualities of leadership to Mr. Singh that have been less visible to his fellow citizens.
Within India it was always known that the authority to make senior appointments and to push through public policies lay principally with Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president. Mr. Singh was once admired for his personal honesty; now his inability to dismiss corrupt colleagues has gravely dented his image among the middle classes.
The mood of stasis and crisis in the country was summed up in a recent essay by the political scientist Sunil Khilnani, in a piece called "Why India Is At A Crucial Cossroads":
[T]he gathering pace of history in India has made political judgement more, not less, important. India will have only a matter of years in which to seize its chances.
An India on the move cannot avoid choices. These choices will determine how India handles the daunting tasks it faces. These include managing the largest-ever rural-to-urban transition under democratic conditions, and working to develop the human capital and sustain the ecological and energy resources needed for participatory economic growth.
They will also determine how ably India can contend with powerful competitor states, contain a volatile neighbourhood, and navigate a fluid international arena where capital is fly, and where new, unforeseen threats and risks are facts of life. It's an agenda that would test any society at the best of times. But in India's case, these tasks will have to be achieved under severe time and resource constraints. India will have only a sliver of time, a matter of years, in which to seize its chances. Whether it is able to do so will depend less on India's entrepreneurial brilliance or technological prowess or the cheapness of its labour, and above all on politics.
Yet, at this historical moment when emergent possibilities and new problems are crowding in, the transformative momentum of India's politics seems to have dissipated. It's a troubling irony: political imagination, judgment and action -- the capacities that first brought India into existence -- seem to have deserted it.
Where, then, will a new chapter in India's long tradition of political creativity and imagination, central to so many political movements across the world in the 20th century, come from? It seems hard to expect it from a ruling party in the grip of a political dynasty and a rhetoric of welfarist cant, a main opposition party sunk in an atavistic idea of cultural nationalism sometimes verging on outright bigotry. Nor does it seem likely to arise from a Parliament that has in great measure congealed -- as a striking chapter in Patrick French's recent book on India shows -- into a family business where last names count for more than good ideas (itself a reflection of a country still too accustomed to passing difficult questions through the filters of religion and caste). To be an Indian today is to live in a time that is both immensely exciting and profoundly sobering.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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