Friday, 30 December 2011

Indian democracy? What a good idea

When asked about Western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi sardonically replied, “I think it would be a good idea”. If he were around today to ask the same question about Indian democracy, I think his answer would be much the same. Indian democracy? What a very good idea.

The rise of the Indian economy – alongside that of China – is purportedly a threat to Western hegemony. Unlike China, however, India is ostensibly a democracy.

According to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, democracy is government “of the people, by the people and for the people” – but the definition of “people” has changed throughout time. In Ancient Greece – the bastion of direct democracy – the franchise was restricted to male landowners whilst, in the UK, women didn’t get voting equality with men until 1928.

In India, despite full suffrage, government is certainly not for the majority of the people. Testimony to its growing economic power, only the United States, China and Russia have more billionaires than India.  Conversely, 80% of India’s population lives on less than $2 per day  and, according to a report by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, 8 Indian states have more poor than the poorest 26 African nations combinedNearly half of India’s children are malnourished  and, following the worldwide recession, a further 100 million people were plunged into poverty.  The rise of India as an economic powerhouse has been meteoric, but its growth – in terms of socio-economic groups, regions and rural/urban areas – has been uneven and has encouraged gross inequality.

India’s Undemocratic Credentials

A key indicator of Indian’s undemocratic credentials is the composition of its parliament. According to Patrick French, author of India: A Portrait, political influence in India is hereditary and “the principle of nepotism, of politics as a family business, is now more deeply entrenched than at any point since independence”.

Last year, French did a study of India’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, and discovered that the younger the politician, the more likely they were to have “inherited” their position: 
Nearly half of all MPs aged 50 or under are hereditary, selected to contest a seat primarily because they are the children of senior politicians. No MP over the age of 80 is hereditary; every MP under the age of 30 is hereditary
As well as political parties becoming family fiefdoms, nearly all MPs are millionaires or billionaires. This situation creates a crisis of representation and further erodes the legitimacy of India’s democratic institutions. Politicians are drawn from an increasingly narrow economic elite and this disenfranchises the vast majority of Indians outside the political and economic aristocracy. 

Indian political life is permeated with widespread corruption which further undermines confidence in the political establishment. In April this year, senior politician Suresh Kalmadi was arrested on charges of embezzling millions in the run up to last year’s Commonwealth Games whilst former communications minister Andimuthu Raja stands accused of defrauding the national treasury of $40bn.  Corruption – like the prevalence of hereditary elites in parliament – is the symptom of a society where inequality reigns supreme.

Democracy and the Caste System

A key cause of ongoing inequality and its threat to democracy is the continuation of the caste system. K. M. Panikkar, in his 1933 essay Caste and Democracy, characterised the caste system as the “perpetuation of class predominance” as the priesthood sought to preserve their power by subjugating the lower castes.

Panikkar believed the caste system was underpinned by three core pillars: “inequality based on birth, gradation of professions and their inequality, and the restrictions on marriage outside one’s own sub-group”.  It survived because it withstood various challenges – including the rise of Buddhism and Islam – by evolving and adapting. As Panikkar described it, “caste is social Imperialism, perfected by experience and maintained by religious sanction”.

Panikkar anticipated the withering away of caste with the advent of democracy. “Since caste and democracy are opposed in ideals, contrary in methods and fundamentally different in results, they cannot co-exist in any conceivable set of circumstances ...  the caste system is bound to break in the mere attempt of the society to adjust itself to democratic ideals”

Yet the caste system and democracy continue to prevail in tandem. According to Rikke Nohrlind, Coordinator of the International Dalit Solidarity Network: 
The caste system may be outlawed in India, but legislation is poorly implemented, and the country’s 200 million Dalits – formerly known as ‘untouchables’ – continue to suffer appalling forms of discrimination. Murder, rape and other crimes against them are mostly committed with impunity, while many Dalits experience forced prostitution and other forms of modern slavery   
Affirmative action – including introducing quotas for government jobs, parliamentary seats and university admissions – has been employed in an attempt to uplift the social standing of Dalits and ensure they obtain proportionate access and political representation. In a society where the caste system is outlawed, however, positive discrimination can be counter-productive and further entrench group divisions whilst fostering resentment from outsiders. Moreover, whilst the underlining causes of social and economic inequality go untreated, any changes will be only cosmetic. Therefore, the adoption of affirmative action can be seen as part of a narrative of selective concessions relinquished by India’s ruling classes to perpetuate their control.

A further example of this is the myth of social mobility as a democratising and levelling tool. The example of Mayawati – leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh – is often cited to demonstrate the equality of opportunity in India. Mayawati was one of nine children born into a family of Dalits in Delhi – but now she is one of the richest women in India and, according to Patrick French, “represents a grass-roots, democratic revolution”.  

Although it does represent a challenge to the fatalistic philosophy of Karma embodied in the caste system, social mobility is still based on a system of winners and losers and the idea of social mobility – so loved by liberal progressives in the West – is another way of reinforcing power structures. It is a tacit acceptance of inequality and hierarchy as people can only migrate up the class system if others remain exploited and downtrodden. Furthermore, as Wilkinson and Pickett demonstrate in The Spirit Level, social mobility is stunted in countries – like India – with profound wealth inequality. Hence, the idea of social mobility – by co-opting members of the lower classes into the ruling class to create a semblance of access – further entrenches exploitation and inequality. 

In his 1956 article Prospects of Democracy in India, Dalit activist B. R. Ambedkar stated that “the existence of the Caste System is a standing denial of the existence ... of democracy”. He argued that, “Stratification is stunting the growth of the individual and deliberate stunting is a deliberate denial of democracy”.  Over 60 years since British colonialists left India, and the country is still riddled with deep, ingrained inequality and struggles under the yoke of elite rule. The growth of the middle-class since India became a free nation in 1947 has been spectacular – but this acts to obfuscate the real issues because, under democracy, traditional structures of exploitation have been combined or replaced with more subtle methods.

Social mobility and affirmative action create the illusion that democracy is working towards equality and the abolition of the caste system. In reality, it means the structures of oppression – because they are not overtly based on birth, marriage or occupation – are more sophisticated and therefore more powerful. The esteem in which we hold democracy creates an impression of authority and legitimacy which justifies ongoing injustice. As poverty continues to devour rural India whilst wealth and influence is concentrated in the hands of a select few, it is clear that this ‘democracy’ is still marred by brutal social imperialism.

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