Democracy, as we understand today, was a notable feature of colonial rule which itself was exploitative in nature. But prior to that, the idea of democracy was not alien to India. The Mallas and the Videhans had experienced republican polity in the ancient period. The Constitution ensured democratic polity on the basis of a process that dates back to the Indian Councils Act of 1861 and continues through the Morley- Minto Reforms of 1909, the Montagu- Chelmsford Reforms of 1919, and the Government of India Act of 1935.
Contrary to the claim recently articulated by some leaders of a national party, it can be asserted that the credit for developing a democratic structure in India does not go to a single leader. It is the outcome of the collective effort of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Azad, Ambedkar, and others. It is with the framing of the Constitution that the democratic structure was built up and consolidated. Indian democracy is unique for its ideals, institutions and democratic practice. Compared to many countries, India has done well in terms of democratic institutions.
The Constitution ended feudalism and laid the foundation for a modern secular democracy. The constitutional amendments from 1950 have further extended its scope and consolidated its structure. But Indian democracy has certain limitations in terms of practices. On many occasions, the praxis has been compromised. Elections are claimed to be ‘free and fair’, but the fairness gets disrupted by ‘nepotism, the criminalization of politics, and hooliganism’.
Even the institutional structure is not flawless. In some state legislatures and also in Parliament, many of the contestants with criminal cases against them get elected. Village panchayats are often controlled by the politically and economically powerful. Democracy in India encounters serious challenges in different fields of civic administration and public life. Its reputation is being undermined by the unethical practices of politicians, civil servants, and the police.
Corruption poses a serious threat to the concept. Ambedkar apprehended corruption in the early 1950s and suggested some measures for its prevention. But the succeeding leaders were hardly bothered. The Election Commission of India has been successful in its task to hold elections every five years. But democracy at the local level is so corrupt that the tryst with democracy becomes a farcical exercise. For the country in the larger perspective, this is a shame. The political parties tend to nurture corruption for their own benefits.
There are a few ministers who dodge the charge, irrespective of whether it relates to defence deals or bribing MPs and MLAs. The people’s money is being looted, whether it is the Bofors scandal or 2G spectrum or coalgate or petrogate or the fodder and chit fund scams. Thus, what was once the country of honest and courageous youth has degenerated to a country of immoral and greedy politicians who have influenced society, economy, and the polity.
However, it would be wrong to infer that all Indian politicians are corrupt; they are in fact a ‘microscopic minority’. Democratic institutions are found to be less effective when the political leaders, civil servants, police officers, judges, and others act in defence of private interest through illegal inducements. This unholy nexus undermines democracy in several ways. Even the press often acts as a ‘critical collaborator’. The Congress ruled India for the longest period of time and it cannot escape its responsibility for the corruption and degradation of democracy.
Nehru appointed ‘reactionary’ and ‘corrupt’ ministers. He asserted the primacy of his office, even disregarding the challenges from the President and the Congress party. He ruled at the Centre and exercised his influence in the states through considerable political manipulation. Ambedkar’s principles of social democracy were hardly heeded by Nehru and the rest. The Congress was plagued by widespread corruption, ineptitude, and factionalism during the Nehruvian era.
This period did not witness greater people’s participation in the political processes except in the form of election. The Centre used its powers to undermine the position of the dissidents and Opposition parties, particularly in Punjab and Kerala. After his death, the Congress effectively became the personal turf of Indira Gandhi, given her populist and demagogic leadership. Subsequently, the party was controlled by the members of the Nehru family who could not display any leadership qualities, compelling ideas or even a strong organization that could have checked corruption.
More importantly, democracy and discipline are intertwined. Regretfully, the sense of discipline often disappears in Parliament. The white-haired members behave like beardless youth. They do not even bother to show political courtesy. They bicker frequently and demonstrate uncouth manners. What will the young politician learn from them? The nature of parliamentary debates has drastically changed from what one had heard earlier. The debates are seldom inspiring. Lack of discipline and morality spoils the sanctity of parliamentary democracy.
The leaders hardly provide any innovative ideas and convincing programmes for the advancement of democracy. They are on the contrary involved in the politics of mud-slinging, squabbles, and humiliation. They are least bothered about courtesy and generosity even when referring to the Prime Minister. For the Opposition, to identify the Prime Minister as a chaiwala (tea maker) is a matter of shame for the entire nation because a Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of the country elected by the people’s mandate, whatever might have been his profession.
This is an illustration of the political humiliation in a democracy, such as it exists in India where the leaders of the ruling party had once respected the leaders of the Opposition. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee first entered his office as external affairs minister in 1977, he identified on the wall a blank spot where Nehru’s portrait was once hung. He immediately told his secretary to bring it back. (Ramchandra Guha, The Last Liberal and Other Essays, 2010, p. 77). Vajpayee had reason to dislike Nehru, but he showed respect to the first Prime Minister of independent India. It is time to rescue Indian democracy from degradation. Further delay in so doing may cause irreversible damage to the country.
(The writer is Professor of History, University of Burdwan.)