Ram Rajya: In Search of Democracy CD set and MP3
subconsciously or not, many Westerners tend to identify democracy with the
West and assume that it is somehow alien or a recent arrival in other less
economically developed parts of the world.
In the case of India, news reporting that concentrates on the pathologies of a country- human rights abuses, secessionist movements, corruption, assassinations, communal or caste violence- naturally leads most people in the West to be surprised when informed that India is both a functioning democracy and one in which a democratic tradition is deeply embedded in its culture, may hundreds of years before such thoughts and ideals ever crossed the mind of Western man.
That said, Indian democracy is under severe strain. But then, what democracy isn't? In the West it's voter indifference or the failure of democratic institutions to seriously tackle problems other than the cosmetic or the peripheral. In India, it's all the pathologies we read about along with that failure to put long-term national goals above short-term party of individual gain. But what is not yet in doubt is the visceral attachment of the ordinary literate, poor Indian to his or her vote. They know it still makes a difference, that it offers them a chance to pass judgment, to throw the rascals out. It's their one recourse against the mighty and the powerful.
IN many ways the problems of Punjab or Kashmir or Assam are soluble. They require massive decentralization of power- economic as well as political- and a true federal system. At the moment India is a federation of twenty-six states pretending to be a federation when in fact it's a highly centralized, if inefficient state. Decentralization and true federalism would also be very much within Indian democratic culture.
Let me explain a little bit why I say India has a long cultural tradition of democracy. I'm not referring to some Golden Age, although there were plenty of Indians who insist such was the case. It's rather that the very diversity of India- caste, religion, ethnic groupings of all shades and sizes- dictates that people accommodate, compromise, take into account the views and interests of others if the whole is to survive. This doesn't mean that social and caste divisions aren't rigid. It means that those units don't push their rigidities to the point they erupt into a thousand civil wars. When these claims do erupt in violence, you know something has gone badly wrong.
V.S. Naipaul called these a 'thousand mutinies' and saw cause for hope. He may be right, although events in Punjab or Kashmir show how easy it is to turn a political myopia into bloodshed and potential secession. The same probably holds true for caste and communal tensions, which are at the moment held within check, even while created, exploited and exacerbated by politicians for their own immediate gains. But without statesmanship these sores too could fester and become gangrenous. Democracy, like marriage, must be nurtured if it is to survive and thrive and give its undoubted benefits to the many.