WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
After years of experiencing so-called democratic rule, I am beginning to wonder whether democracy has failed us—not just in India, but in a host of countries that had opted for this mode of governce as the obvious choice of the people in the 20th century. Ironically, some of the most successful democracies of the world are listed, not as democracies, but as constitutiol morchies. This is something I have referred to time and again, largely because the very focus of democracy, mely the people, is generally lost in some of the more recent democracies. And what is a great tragedy is that politicians who swear by democracy are not in the least concerned that people have completely ceased to matter to them except just before elections.
Colonial rule all over the world could be said to have come to an end mainly after India won independence. The other equally important event that brought about the end of colonial rule was World War II. India’s independence was actually expedited by the fact that our freedom fighters agreed to let India’s armed forces fight the war on the side of the Allies. In any case, India’s independence had a sort of domino effect on a large number of colonies not only of the British, but also of the French, the Dutch and the Germans. Most colonial rulers were obliged to give freedom to the colonies they had held on to for centuries. These newly independent colonies, where the struggle for independence was waged by the people, turally opted for democratic rule, ïvely imagined to be people’s rule. But however idealistic and utopian the aspirations of the people might have been, the general trend observed all over the world is that the leaders of most of the democratic countries that emerged from colonial rule tended to be more unscrupulous than their predecessors and less respectful of the people who had elected them to power. As a consequence, there was very little of either grace or ethics left in what was supposed to be democratic rule. But what was much worse was that the people ceased to matter to the leaders of democracies except just before elections. The age-old expectation of democracy—that it had to be a government of the people, for the people and by the people—was for the birds, and that, in actual fact what so-called democratic leaders really wanted was government of the government, for the government and by the government. And the political executive made sure that just one single leader elected by his or her peers would have all the powers almost like a dictator. We have had such ‘democratic rule’ in Assam for close to 15 years. For almost 15 years, we have had a Chief Minister who regards it his legitimate privilege to do precisely what he pleases without having to ask anyone else about the legality or ethics of such unilateral and often arbitrary decisions. He can unilaterally decide which deputy commissioner or superintendent of police to transfer, how many new awards to create, when to take a gratuitous trip abroad at public expense and how many vehicles to have in his cavalcade every time he steps out of the capital. All that he has to do later on is to get his decisions ratified by the Cabinet. Quite often he does not have to do even that. In other words, he can function like a dictator even though he is supposed to be an elected ruler of a democratic State. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many of the decisions taken by the rulers of democratic countries are really anti-people and run counter to their aspirations and needs. As such, the ruler of such a ‘democratic’ set-up is often no more than the elected agent of the high command of a tiol political party. In the present case, he is the elected agent of a political party that has been more or less wiped out from the polity of the tion. His party is not even content to let the Congress Legislature Party of Assam elect its own leader, but must send an observer from New Delhi to monitor the election of the leader chosen by the party high command. This is called democracy in India.
The other major aberration of democracy that we have decided to live with in India is the kind of election where the first-past-the-post principle operates. An election candidate who wins the largest number of votes is deemed the winner for the constituency. There may be 15 candidates in the fray and the winner might have secured no more than 20 per cent of the total votes and might have won just two more votes than the next candidate. He is declared elected, even though he actually represents only 20 per cent the electorate that voted on polling day. In most advanced democracies, there are two rounds of elections. The first round elimites all candidates except the two who secured the largest number of votes. The second round of election is held between just these two candidates and the stipulation is that the winner must poll at least 40 per cent of the votes cast. Most people would argue that even this does not really succeed in selecting the candidate who represents the largest share of the electorate. Even so, this is far better than the first-past-the-post system that accepts as the people’s representative someone who has secured only 20 per cent of the votes cast by those present on polling day. This is far from being a fair representation of the electorate concerned. This is also a system that generates the kind of arrogance that has become the hallmark of Indian politicians these days. This arrogance stems from the awareness that the winning candidate or his political party can win an election by merely increasing the number of dummy candidates so that even a candidate with 20 per cent of the votes can win an election. But a far worse threat to democracy in India is the fact that elections can be won (and are won) by buying votes. The present scerio is that there is hardly any election candidate whose persol assets are worth less than Rs 1 crore even in the case of State Assembly elections. Those contesting the Lok Sabha seats are far richer. No one seems worried about how they made their money. And the amount of money spent by a candidate on an election is far in excess of what the Election Commission of India has stipulated. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that an increasing number of candidates with crimil records are contesting and winning both Lok Sabha and State Assembly seats. India may well be one of the very few countries where an increasing number of lawbreakers mage to become the lawmakers of the country! In the Lok Sabha, about 43 per cent of the elected MPs have been involved in serious crimes. In certain State Assemblies like Maharashtra, the number of elected MLAs with crimil records exceeds 50 per cent of the total number of State lawmakers. That the Election Commission of India should make it possible for people with crimil records to contest general elections is perhaps the worst known instance of an election authority actually promoting the participation of crimil elements in our Legislature. What we have in India is the perpetuation of a form of neo-feudalism with the rules framed for creating a democratic structure. It is difficult to think of a more cruel irony that works against the people in a democracy all the time.
This is not to suggest that democracy is a far cleaner process in other democratic countries. There are scores of so-called democracies in Africa, where the situation is much worse, and where the electoral system appears to follow the democratic norms but eventually gives rise to dictatorships. And any tion that has opted for democracy has no means of jettisoning the system and returning to other forms of government. And almost everyone realizes that a return to morchy or a dictatorship is far more hazardous than retaining democratic rule. However, all said and done, while democracy is a less hazardous choice than any other form of governce, the fact remains that democracy has achieved very little by way of ensuring genuine progress for mankind. In an interview with the Paris Review, Portuguese Nobel laureate for literature Jose Saramago had expressed the view that democracy had achieved nothing for the world. He said that it was the power of intertiol fince, that had done anything worthwhile. He said that the people associated with the outcome of what intertiol fince achieves are the people who rule the world. He called politicians mere agents who maintain a relationship between so-called political power and economic power that is akin to the role of a co-wife. One may not entirely agree, but none can fail to be struck by the remarkable assessment of democracy by a sensitive soul who has made no secret of the fact that he does not like the world he lives in.