Friday, September 4, 2009

Ji Huzoor Democracy

India recently celebrated (or is it observed?) its 62nd independence day and the Prime Minister dutifully addressed the people from the Red Fort. Another few months, it will be Republic day time and we will up celebrating the installation of democracy. And yet we find that democracy in India, while better evolved than many others in the neighborhood, is still rooted in feudalism. How else can we explain or understand the fact that the Rajasthan government is demanding that bureaucrats and other employees stand up when public representatives, including MPs or MLAs, arrive. “Officers (IAS, RAS) should get up from their seat when Member of Parliament (MPs) or Member of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) visit their chambers and see them off with great respect and dignity,” sources said in Jaipur on Tuesday (September 1), quoting an official order issued by the Administrative Reforms and Coordination Department. A government order threatens that if they don't, adverse entries will be recorded in their annual appraisals.

Feudal traits in our democracy obviously have other and perhaps more sinister manifestations. If Narendra Modi was able to ban Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah simply because it allegedly contains “objectionable remarks” against Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and reaches “whimsical conclusions” about the Freedom movement, this is because other parties and other state governments have banned works of history on grounds that were equally capricious. In 2004, the Congress-NCP coalition in Maharashtra imposed a ban on James Laine’s scholarly biography of Shivaji. This after goons, who obviously had the protection of the state establishment, had vandalized the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune where Professor Laine had done some of his research. Elsewhere in India, uber-regionalists, hyper-nationalists and religious fanatics pose as self-appointed guardians of literary, historical or religious icons and threaten violence on authors, playwrights, actors, artists, poets and musicians who do not conform to their hagiographic standards. The slightest deviation from the norm in representation or analysis is treated as blasphemy, defamation. And, in the absence of the rule of law being properly enforced, writers and cultural workers are forced to appease their extremist detractors.

62 years after independence during which we have only seen a steady consistent decline in the quality of our politicians, it has now dawned upon them that respect needs to be demanded rather than commanded. Isn't it a shame that the very politicians whom we elect as our representatives are more concerned about the treatment and the respect meted out to them by the government babus rather than keep an eye over the work that the bureaucrats are entrusted to carry out in public service. Lord Meghnad Desai has an interesting take on this. Writing in the DNA Newspaper, he observes that the Indian State has actually regressed over the last 60 years and observes that India was a modern polity in the 1950s and even before Independence had a well functioning legislature but has now become a feudal democracy with legislators behaving like minor rajas and nawabs.

Not that the rest of the world isn’t noticing. The Economist Intelligence Unit has developed a Democracy Index in 2007 and has been tracking the evolution of democracy worldwide since then. India is placed along with many others – Israel ,Sri Lanka , Indonesia, Philippines for instance as a country with a flawed democracy with a ranking of 35 out of 167 countries surveyed ( North Korea hits the 167th spot , Sweden the 1st and India’s bĂȘte noir – Pakistan the 108th spot in the 2008 ranking). While our relatively high ranking may be of some comfort, the fact remains that we are still considered a flawed democracy and that is something to worry about.


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