During the last few years, the two most noticeable aberrations of democracy in India have been (a) widespread and rampant corruption and (b) veiled attempts to replace democracy with a form of oligarchy or even a dictatorship of sorts in different parts of the country. Both these aberrations of democracy are possible only in an ambience where the demos or the people are sought to be replaced by just a group of undesirable and law-breaking people who strive to usurp political and economic power for their own gain. This is certainly not to suggest that in even the most ideal form of democracy we can have all the people involved directly in the business of ruling the country. It is because this kind of a direct involvement of the people in governance is not possible that we have a system whereby the people elect their representatives to Parliament and to the legislative assemblies of the constituent States. It is when the representatives of the people and their cronies decide that it is far more profitable for them to work for their personal gains rather than to represent the people that the real trouble starts in a democratic set-up.
It is important to bear in mind that none of the earlier philosophers had indicated a preference for democracy as an efficient means of governance. On the contrary, philosophers like Plato had clearly indicated that democracy was an unsuitable form of governance. However, the popular will of the people was clearly in favour of democracy vis-à-vis oligarchy even in Plato’s time. Perhaps one major constraint that impelled people to continue with democracy was that once any society had rejected monarchy, dictatorship or oligarchy it was virtually impossible for that society to revert to any form of governance other than democracy. After all, it is not possible for any society that had rejected a monarch to say later on that they would like to have him back because democracy was not working very well. The same thing held good for dictatorship as well as oligarchy. No society could possibly think of going back to a former dictator on bended knees and saying, “Look, we made a mistake in throwing you out. We would like you to come back and rule over us.” In the present-day world, democracy becomes an irrevocable arrangement for governance. Once a society has decided on democracy it becomes the only remaining option for that society. And yet, it is important not to forget how democracy can be subverted even to create a dictator. This is precisely what Hitler was able to do with the rules of democracy and within a parliament: he was able to make the elected representatives of the people give him the powers of a dictator! What Adolf Hitler was able to do in Germany quite openly is being done in India in a surreptitious manner all the time. And while this is being done, the charade of total faith in democracy goes on just to hoodwink the people.
There is now a well-entrenched vested interest within our polity that is geared to the task of marginalizing the people of the country and concentrating power in the hands of smaller groups both at the Centre and in the States. In the States, this activity is most noticeable in the way State governments arbitrarily suspend or dismiss statutorily constituted bodies and substitute them with a bureaucrat who is given sweeping powers to do whatever he or she is instructed to and to increase local taxes and levies arbitrarily. The people can complain about such things, they can agitate, demonstrate and bring out rallies. All this is unavailing because any government that has embarked on the path of opposing the people just to placate small groups of people who matter, also has a ready means of crushing dissent with the brutal use of the police force. True, people can go to court. But they know how slow the pace of the judiciary is when it comes to deciding issues that affect all the people, even though it can at times prove quite expeditious in deciding issues that concern small powerful groups.
One outstanding example of how unscrupulous coteries of people can totally suspend any democratic functioning of public bodies is the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC). Four years ago, on May 27, 2008, the Assam government dissolved the GMC and appointed an administrator to run the affairs of the GMC without the elected body of councillors. Since then the GMC has hiked municipal and urban property taxes arbitrarily and selectively by several times so that it has become quite impossible for many people to pay such huge taxes and levies and retain their properties. In addition, instead of improving and augmenting the water supply system of the city, the administrator of the GMC has chosen to issue permits to small companies to ‘purify’ and supply ‘drinking water’ to the residents of Guwahati in small tanks of 750 litres and 1,000 litres capacity. For a city like Guwahati, with the mighty Brahmaputra flowing by, there should be no difficulty at all in setting up a few water filtration and treatment plants for the greatly enhanced population of the city. But this is a measure that will benefit all the people. The government and the GMC in its present avatar are looking for a means of benefiting just a small coterie of people and not all the people. Hence this primitive and retrograde manner of supplying ‘drinking water’. What kind of people constitutes this powerful coterie that the government must placate at all times even at the cost of going against all the people? It stands to reason that in a corrupt society this small group of powerful people cannot be the most respected citizens. This group can comprise only the unscrupulous, greedy, self-serving and corrupt lot that can ensure kickbacks to all the people who matter. The worst part of what is happening to the GMC is that in these four years of the elected body having been dissolved, the development funds of the Centre under schemes like JNNURM have been spent without any transparency or accountability and on the whims of a single individual and his masters. This is the very antithesis of democratic governance.
This obsession of the government to look after and placate smaller groups of people in preference to the people at large is on display in every State as well as at the Centre. There is hardly anyone in India who is not aware of the first list of Indians with astronomical hoards of black money abroad that WikiLeaks published a few months ago. This list of 29 names (mostly of politicians and powerful middlemen) was supposed to have been followed by another list of 995 names in the next few days. This never happened because the Union government found ways of ensuring that it could never be allowed to happen. Television channels and newspapers that had access to the information were powerless to do anything because they were aware of the consequences in the world’s largest democracy. Everyone, including old columnists like me, is aware that there are around 9,920 Indians with hoards of black money abroad. There are also about 38,828 people who have similar hoards of black money within the country. The government is well aware of this. The government is also aware that the bulk of this group constitutes criminals and lawbreakers. But the government is determined to protect this group against the larger interests of the country and against the people of India. We have in New Delhi a government that is never tired of proclaiming its intentions of tackling corruption head-on. But we have seen that not only is there no sign of any action against corruption, this government has been unable even to pass the Lokpal Bill. It is clearly demonstrated how powerful these 48,000-odd people are. They can compel the government to refrain from publishing any such lists that go against their interests.
It is therefore quite obvious that in this world’s largest democracy we have governance that is of some people, for some people, by some people or perhaps of the government, for the government, by the government. The people of India have no place in a democracy where elected governments are in place solely to protect the interests of just some people who are certainly not the best people that the country has. And it is difficult to believe that such subversion of a system and such an anti-people stance have supplanted the true ideals of democracy without huge material gains to those who have chosen to derail democracy with the very rules of democracy.