What freedom really means, and why the rise of the new middle class is the biggest cause of optimism
Mukesh Kacker | February 8, 2013
“Ye dagh – dagh ujala, ye shabgazida seher/ Woh intezar tha jiska, ye woh seher to nahin.” (Light dirtied by stains and daybreak bitten by a poisonous night/ Is this the dawn we waited for?)
As we celebrate the sixty-third birth anniversary of our republic, I am forced by an unexplained inner urge to cry aloud these apparently pessimistic lines penned ironically by the poet of hope, Faiz Ahmad Faiz. The dilemma that confronts all optimists (and I am one of them!) today is that disappointment is the only sentiment that greets them when they look around the present-day India.
We do not tire of incessantly calling ourselves the biggest democracy, as if size were the only meaningful attribute of a democracy. A true liberal democracy has many attributes — freedom of various choices as enshrined in constitutionally guaranteed individual rights, equality before law, equal protection of law, equality of opportunity to all and, most important of all, tolerance of dissent. All the specific sub-attributes like free media, independent judiciary and minority rights are merely derivatives of these basic attributes. If there is one phrase that captures the essence of democracy, it is ‘freedom of choice’. The freedom to choose one’s leaders or representatives is only a part of the wider ‘freedom of choices’ and, therefore, elections are only one of the essential features of democracy. Elections do not define a democracy in its entirety, however, and we have failed to understand this nuance.
Over the years our election commission has done outstanding work and our elections are largely free and fair now, but this alone is not enough to make us a true democracy. Elections are only a matter of process, not content. They are merely the jacket of democracy without being the heart inside. You may have free and fair elections but if the state does not ensure freedom of choices, equality of opportunity, equality before the law, equal protection of law and tolerance of dissent, then your free and fair elections will only end up electing the undeserving.
The present-day India is a state which has mastered the process of democracy without understanding the content or spirit of a liberal democracy. At the macro level, both the society and the governing class are responsible for the failure of the Indian state to be truly democratic. The customs, practices and prejudices of large sections of society deny equal opportunity and freedom of choices either to numerically smaller sections or physically inferior sections, or both — women, children, dalits, tribals and religious minorities. A girl child faces extreme prejudices right from the womb and these metamorphose into teasing, sexual harassment at workplace, harassment by in-laws for dowry, dowry deaths, ‘honour killings’ and rapes. The mere existence of laws is hardly a deterrent here, as law enforcers, too, suffer from the same prejudices.
Dalits, tribals, migrant workers, domestic helps, physically and mentally disabled, trafficked women and children, undertrial prisoners and eunuchs, to name only a few sections, all face different kinds of prejudices, discrimination and exploitation — both by the society and the governing class. Vast sections of children face malnutrition, hunger and exploitation as child labourers.
The list is endless and a million mutinies are waiting only for a trigger.
But let us for the present leave the failure of the state (or the governing class) to provide safe drinking water, sanitation, health facilities and electricity to the population because that would derail the present discussion and limit ourselves to the attitudinal aspect of the state towards the essential attributes of democracy.
Equality before law and equal protection of law, which together go by the name of ‘rule of law’ do exist in the rule-book but are violated every day by the governing class.
The reality is that you cannot file an FIR in a police station, even in the national capital, if you do not have the requisite credentials — of power, position and money. This is the starting point of the administration of justice and each successive process suffers from the same reality. If you somehow manage to get justice it is largely by divine intervention and not by rule of law.
Instead of making the police protect the public, members of the governing class conspire with each other in directing the police, in the name of security, to seclude them from the very masses that have chosen them. Traffic is blocked when the so-called VVIPs pass. The lesser VIPs rush through the traffic, ignoring red signals, beacon lights flashing, and the security guards pointing their guns menacingly at the lesser mortals on the road. Is this equality before law?
The kings and feudal lords were replaced by colonial masters but these modern masters are worse because they do it in the name of democracy. The traffic spectacle is only the visible manifestation of the underlying philosophy of the governing elite to appropriate everything for its own benefit.
Tolerance of dissent is also something alien to India’s governing class. The knee-jerk government response to all forms of dissent is to crush it and treat the dissenters as enemies of the state. Section 66A of the IT Act amply demonstrates the psyche of an utterly insensitive governing class. During the demonstrations in Delhi after the gangrape of a 23-year-old woman and her subsequent death, the protesters, largely young girls and boys, were subdued with water cannons, tear gas and lathicharge. The prime minister, the home minister and other public authorities remained inaccessible to the protesters, who only wanted a few words of comfort and assurance from those in charge of governing India. Can we say that these worthies understand the essence of democracy?
I have always held the belief that ownership of pride and ownership of shame are two sides of the same coin. A true leader and statesman is one who not only feels proud of the achievements of his/her country but also acknowledges the ownership of shame. There is an apocryphal story about Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru which encapsulates this. Readers will remember the despondent song written by Sahir Ludhianvi for the film Pyaasa and rendered so effectively by the peerless Mohammad Rafi: “Zara mulk ke rahbaron ko bulao/ Ye kuche ye galiyan ye manzar dikhao/ Jinhe naaz hai Hind par unko lao/ Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain?”(Please call the guiding spirits of this country/ Show them these streets and spectacles/ Please bring those who are proud of India/ Where are they who are proud of India?) It is said that when Pandit Nehru heard this song his reaction was a mixture of anger, indignation, shame and tears. Here was a man who not only acknowledged that he was the guiding spirit the song was addressed to but also felt ashamed of the country he was so proud of.
Compare the present lot of the guiding lights with Nehru and you will get an idea of what I mean. They do not even acknowledge that they are in charge of ruuning the state of affairs, leave alone taking ownership of shame.
In “Why Nations Fail”, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson show that extractive political institutions (autocracy and empire) lead to extractive economies benefitting elites and cannot create general prosperity save for limited periods. Inclusive political institutions (democracy, rule of law and rights for all) create inclusive economic regimes with opportunity for all, leading to all-round prosperity. Inclusive institutions threaten extractive regimes and are, therefore, sabotaged by them. The Indian ruling and governing class has largely turned extractive and though it swears by ‘inclusive growth’, it has no respect for inclusive political institutions.
The biggest cause of optimism, however, is the rise of the new middle class, the irreverent and vocal urban India, whom the ruling and governing class dismisses as electorally unimportant. Whether India ‘fails’ in the sense of Acemoglu and Robinson or becomes a true liberal democracy will depend upon whether this middle class, supported by the media, will be able to outsmart the extractive Indian governing class.
(The piece appeared in the Feb 1-15 issue of Governance Now magazine)
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