Models of democracy

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century the issue that dominated the political debate of the late 1940s — the system of government best suited for India — is being raised again in certain intellectual circles.
The main problem before the framers of the Constitution was how to devise a Constitution best suited for both stability and accountability and also one which would help lift the vast masses of people stuck in ignorance, illiteracy, ill-health and poverty as a result of a century-and-a-half of colonial exploitation.
B.R. Ambedkar had explained to the members of the Constituent Assembly that they had two options before them: one, the presidential form of democracy as prevalent in the US, and the other the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy as prevalent in Britain.
The Constituent Assembly came to the conclusion that the Westminster model was the best suited for effectively tackling the problem of underdevelopment and at the same time providing for accountability and gave us the present Constitution, which in spite of a 100 amendments retains its basic features without any change. Let us examine how far the objectives of the founding fathers of our republic have been fulfilled under this Constitution.
While assessing the progress made in poverty eradication we have to acknowledge the fact that the lot of the poor today is much better than what it was at the time we achieved Independence. But what should cause serious concern is the fact that a large number of people still live in abject poverty in India, though the country has emerged as one of the top economic powers of the world.
What has gone wrong is not in production of wealth, but in distribution and in ensuring that all those who create wealth pay the taxes due to the government. Quite a good part of the wealth created has flown to tax havens in foreign countries and successive governments at the Centre have failed to plug such leakages.
According to a Swiss bank report of 2006, India topped the list of depositors of wealth in banks in Switzerland to the extent of $1,456 billion compared with Russia’s $470 billion, UK’s $390 billion, Ukraine’s $100 billion and China’s $96 billion. Deposits of Indians are thus more than the deposits of all the other countries, and this shows the extent of wealth owned by Indians, but which has escaped taxation. Many Indians have earned the distinction of being billionaires, but unfortunately India has not produced a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett, who have made big money in a honest way and are spending the bulk of their wealth on deserving charities in countries all over the world, including India.
We have to admit with shame that hunger is still a major problem in our country and a large number of people in different parts of the country — both urban and rural — die of malnutrition and hunger. We should also feel ashamed and guilty when we read about the reports of suicide in several rural pockets of the country because of inability to pay back the loans they have raised at high rates of interest from money-lenders.
According to the Global Hunger Index published by the Washington-based International Food Policy and Research Institute, India ranks 66 among 88 countries with 23.7 points on a 100 point scale. (Zero is the best score, indicating no hunger while 100 is the worst.) India’s Constitution and the laws made under it have never stood in the way of coming to the help of such people, but poor enforcement by the government has resulted in continued misery for such people.
On the criterion of education, fairly good progress has been made after Independence but the situation remains dismal because of the inadequacies of these institutions in both quantity and quality.
The condition of public health facilities, particularly in rural areas, is as bad as that of educational facilities in these areas. The villages in India have their inherent problems in tackling the problem of delivery of educational and health services.
The size of the population in 2,86,469 villages is less than 500 each and in 1,45,180 villages it is between 500 and 1,000 each out of a total number of 6,22,621 villages in India. There are serious problems in setting up proper health and educational institutions in such very small villages and the government has so far failed to devise suitable techniques to solve them.
Instead, the government follows the traditional practice of establishing health clinics and primary schools in a few villages and appointing teachers or doctors for such places. These facilities remain on paper and are in no position to provide the services expected of them.
Now let us turn to the quality of the institutions of democracy in India.
Whenever we speak of India’s achievements after Independence we pat ourselves on the back by claiming that we are one of the successful democracies in the world. No doubt, compared with most other such newly-independent countries in Asia and Africa, we can legitimately claim that democracy has been stable, but, based on the criterion of quality of the institutions of democracy, India is still classified as one among the 50 “flawed democracies” of the world.
According to the democracy index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 30 countries are full democracies, 50 “flawed democracies”, 36 hybrid regimes and 51 authoritarian regimes out of a total 167 countries. At the rate at which we are abusing the forum of legislature for staging protests and demonstrations and neglecting its primary duties, we may even slip below our present rank in the list of “flawed democracies”.
From the above assessment of the progress in development programmes undertaken by India in the last six decades it is clear that the Constitution, which has been adopted by India, has in no way prevented it from improving on its performance. On the other hand, the manner in which the programmes have been implemented, the intolerable long delays, and, above all, the corruption associated with implementation of programmes, have been responsible for the shortfalls in performance.
Today there are many countries in both the developed and developing worlds that have Constitutions combining some of the features of the Westminster model and some of the presidential system, but one doubts whether this type of combination will suit the conditions in India.
I can do nothing better than quote Dr Larry Diamond, a reputed authority in the world on democracy and at present professor of political science and sociology at Stanford University, when he said after his recent visit to India, in the course of a question and answer session, that if India wants to improve its democracy, it must create stronger institutions that allow for horizontal accountability. Also, I strongly endorse his suggestion that India needs a “counter corruption commission”, like the Election Commission, which should be fully autonomous in its authority to check efficiency and punish corruption.

P.C. Alexander is a former governor of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra

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