Monday, March 31, 2014

India’s State of Denial

Blaming democracy for shortcomings

India has been in a state of denial for years. It is rightly proud of its vibrant and chaotic democracy which is on show in the current general election and has survived and been accepted almost without question since Independence. But it is in denial because it has not been prepared to recognize that the vagaries of democracy are providing smokescreens that obfuscate many of the negative aspects of how the country works.

Consequently, democracy has become an unchallengeable fig leaf covering what is not achieved. It allows the negative and under-performing aspects of Indian life to flourish. It blocks change and acts as an excuse for ineffective government.

This helps to explain why India punches below its weight, failing to achieve what it could and should be doing with the vast potential of a billion-plus people and abundant natural resources. It constantly disappoints admirers and validates the views of critics. Most recently, with declining economic performance, poor governance and endemic corruption, people have begun to ask, 'Why is India proving such a failure?'

Narendra Modi's answer to that question is of course to vote for him to lead the country to growth and glory. Progress, he implies, will automatically follow. The Gandhis offer repetitive sops and promises, which show that the Congress, and the family, need a time in opposition. Arvind Kejriwal and his collection of broom-wielding Aam Aadmi volunteers offer the basic political upheaval that India surely needs if it is to shake itself free of widespread corruption, crony capitalism, and poor governance - but that is a long-term play with all the risks inherent in necessary but unpredictable disruption.

Modi does not have anywhere near all the answers, and in particular will not dig deep into crony capitalism and political and bureaucratic corruption, though he will presumably have a "cleaner" cabinet than Sonia Gandhi has allowed Manmohan Singh to appoint. He will also do more to project an incorruptible image.

After a time, however, Modi too will no doubt follow the general line and blame democracy for India's shortcomings. Manmohan Singh has attempted to pass off prime ministerial vacillation in policy and questionable decision-making as the inevitable result of the democratic compulsions of coalition government, and has allowed opposition from other parties to become an excuse for years of policy delays. A strong prime minister, supported by adept top ministers and a powerful and persuasive PMO, would do better but coalitions are here to stay.

Democracy has also provided an excuse and a cover for the gradual criminalization of politics that has been allowed to grow for decades to such an extent that election campaigns are distorted, large bribes are paid when coalitions are being formed, and many members of parliament and state assemblies have criminal charges pending against them.

Democracy is also a drag on development because, while it has rightly opened the way for dissent and opposition to changes in land use and environmental concerns, no effort has been made to curb its misuse by vested interests who corruptly manipulate not only policies but their implementation. This has contributed to India becoming an increasingly unpredictable, unreliable, uncompetitive and difficult place to live and do business.

Because of all that, India has given up trying to compete with China's far faster economic development, shrugging its metaphorical shoulders and saying that of course China is ahead, it is not a democracy! The excuse allows lessons that could be learned about China's administrative systems, technological abilities and other pluses to be ignored.

Democracy also creates an environment where jugaad fixes are easy, and where the failures of the system in terms of poor governance and weakened institutions make the fatalism of chalta hai (“it’s okay”) a welcome safe haven. A system that relies on an ability to fix things and then assumes that all will be eventually well whatever is or is not done, surely cannot be a success.

This is not an argument for doing away with democracy, but to recognize and change the negative way in which it operates. Democracy has helped to hold India together since Independence, providing an outlet for people's frustrations and anger, ousting prime ministers, chief ministers and their governments. Though far from perfect, it has given the great mass of the electorate the feeling that they have a say in how the country is run, however faint and rare that may be, and however much they are cheated and maltreated by those they elect.

It is not democracy that is at fault but a lack of leadership and a failure to shape clean transparent systems and procedures that operate effectively without being manipulated and hijacked by vested interests and those who resist change. That is the challenge for the next government.


John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi-based correspondent. This column, which appeared yesterday on the Edit Page of the Times of India Sunday edition , is drawn from the final chapter of his new book "IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality"

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