The yin-yang of Indian democracy


Why has anarchism become a fashion statement? Is it an early warning sign of the fracturing of the edifice of liberal democracy, built up over the last century?

Parliaments are held in contempt now with their membership dominated by lumpen elements that are there to expropriate public resources for private gain. Citizens trust nothing except the decisions they take themselves. Representative democracy is passé. Direct democracy is in. Parliamentary democracy and cabinet functioning is out. Strong man rule is in.

If political architecture is under stress, economic management principles are in severe distress. In the bastions of Western liberalism there are deep reservations about the sustainability of the smart economic solutions of the last five decades. Jobless growth is not what was targeted but it is the reality. Increasing inequality was an unintended outcome of rapid growth. The unmasking of limitless human greed continues to shock. The moral turpitude of those paid handsomely to be in positions of financial and political trust seems to have no bounds.

In the 1950s and 1960s we put our faith in planned public expenditure financed by foreign aid and debt to pull us out of the poverty trap. Poverty remained with us.

In the 1970s we fingered big business as the villain and put our faith in public enterprises to provide jobs. Instead we built a small molly coddled labour aristocracy and stamped out India’s entrepreneurial exuberance, whilst distributing the stagnant economic pie in ever thinner slices.

In the 1980s we put our faith in dismantling the complex system of government controls which were strangulating industry and trade. We found that whilst this was an adequate strategy to give “escape velocity” to small, island countries, large economies like India needed deeper domestic reform.

In the 1990s and 2000s we tried to jettison structural inefficiencies and segmentation in the labour and financial markets, liberalized the external account and kick started private infrastructure development and this worked well. In the 2010s we tried to do more of the same and it stopped working, partly because the world had slowed down, partly because we had run out of reform steam.

We are drifting now into an electoral storm in 2014, bewildered, lost and directionless, stumbling over the discarded political shibboleths of the past and feeling our way across the new crevasses in liberal economic thought.

The rise of Modi and of Kejriwal illustrates this discontent with established doctrine. The appeal of both leaders cuts across traditional vote banks of caste and class, though Modi is more constrained by his “Hindudtva” image on the issue of religious pluralism.

Elites are not comfortable with either leader because they sense in both the desire to smash the status quo, built assiduously over the last six decades, ensuring elite appropriation of public resources for private gain.

It matters little to Modi’s supporters that he does not pay lip service to “secularism”. Similarly it matters not a jot to Kejriwal’s supporters that he defies established principles of good governance in economic management by subsidizing energy and water and generating regulatory uncertainty for private industry and finance.

Neither set of supporters really care that both leaders are openly autocratic and self-opinionated and that neither has much time for the niceties of bureaucracy and traditional political decorum. The bottom line for their supporters is that the established doctrines have not served them well and so they are willing to dive into the deep end with their eyes closed.

There is a new, harsh political reality out there. Gandhi’s principles have been spurned and today the ends justify the means. Gandhi’s instruments of social mobilization however are much in demand; personal contact with citizens, effective communication in a familiar idiom instead of hectoring; a heavy reliance on personally walking the talk and never getting too far from the “nautanki” format of public discourse, so popular in India.

Cynics would call this “lumpenisation”, the demise of all that was good and proper in Indian democracy. Realists would argue that till the masks are ripped away and the ugly reality underneath revealed, there can be no reconciliation and no change. In politics, genuflecting to liberal democracy in public whilst working to deepen the roots of mutually exclusive traditional identity groups, as captive political vote banks, has been the hypocritical norm.  

Liberty is achievable only when the masks we habitually wear, of caste, class, religion and culture are ripped off and an honest conversation started, amongst ourselves, of how we can get ahead.

As the battle lines are drawn for 2014, it is useful to be mindful that every Modi juggernaut needs a Kejriwal to keep the collateral damage of an overwhelming majority in check. The rule of the multiple of 10 can be useful. If Modi corners no more than ten times the seats Kejriwal gets, it will ensure that the rest will group themselves around these two nuclei; both of whom are progressive and compatible yin and yang.


2 thoughts on “The yin-yang of Indian democracy

  1. This article explains the situation both current and historical with great clarity.

    However the probability of AAP getting 10% of the NDA seats is low. AAP’s probable tally will be nearer 10 seats. Kejriwal has joined the political games by resigning and hopes to come back with a majority in the Delhi Assembly but a significant tally in the Lok Sabha is doubtful.

  2. A well written thoughtful article. I was horrified today when I read that Kejiriwal withdrew. I thought he and his party would be good to be nipping at Modi’s heels to keep him on the straight and narrow. Do you think that Arvind was just not strong enough or was he pushed out? Either way , he was too sensitive and weak to lead. A pity!

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