Robocop democracy

Once violence is an acceptable tool, you can edge out democracy... You don’t need to catch criminals or terrorists, just stage encounters, kill some random people, throw some others in jail and pretend.

Happy Independence Day! It’s been 66 years — we have thumbed our nose at naysayers and have held on to both our sanity and our democracy.

Not a mean feat for a nation of 1.2 billion people offering a kaleidoscope of religions, cultures, languages, castes, ethnicities and regional traditions. And, perhaps, this is a good time to see the cracks in our democracy that we have been ignoring for too long. Cracks that are getting bigger.
Take Parliament, the citadel of democracy. Here we have replaced reason and debate with screams, fights and walkouts. We waste hundreds of crores because our elected representatives insist on stalling Parliament. We are accustomed to parliamentarians engaging passionately in what was once called “unparliamentary behaviour”. Bills are passed without proper discussion, or not passed at all.
Like the Food Security Bill, which has been dangling in Parliament since 2011. Promised with much fanfare before the 2009 elections, food security may now — as the 2014 elections creep up — be finally pushed into law by an ordinance. Not the best way to function in a democracy, but acceptable when Parliament is frequently out of order.
Our elected representatives show remarkable sloth with respect to the people they claim to represent, but spring into action at the hint of danger to themselves. They cut across party lines and come together as a pack. So as soon as the Supreme Court ruled that a convicted member of Parliament or member of Legislative Assembly would be barred from the House, our netas presented a united front to oppose it, deciding to amend the Representation of People’s Act to save themselves. And to fight the apex court’s order that someone in jail or in custody could not contest parliamentary or Assembly elections. Besides, the government, backed by Opposition parties, has petitioned the court to reconsider.
Political parties have also bonded over the idea to amend the Right To Information Act to keep themselves out. The RTI is possibly our sharpest tool to battle corruption and protect democracy, and bringing political parties under its ambit gives the people a way of checking on their elected representatives. Netas of all hues balked at the idea, huddled together to plot ways of escape, and decided to amend the RTI Act to keep political parties away from public scrutiny. We hate transparency and accountability.
The problem with our democracy is that our representatives do not represent us. They represent their own interests. So citizens remain voiceless. Parliament is routinely disrupted, there are no real debates, just a curious balancing of selfish political interests with selfish monetary interests.
Over the years Indian democracy has seen a scary erosion of legitimacy. Almost a third of our legislators have criminal charges against them. Murderers, rapists, thieves, goons and crooks rule. Practically all our political parties field candidates with criminal links. As a voter, you can only choose between them — you don’t have real choice. The Election Commission’s proposal to bar tainted politicians from contesting has been hanging fire from the 1990s. No political party has the gall to implement it. Now the Supreme Court’s attempt to clean up the system is being resisted with exceptional alacrity.
Basically, we have changed our definition of democracy. “This is the victory of the people and democracy,” declared Mamata Banerjee after West Bengal’s municipal elections last month. It was one of the bloodiest elections in recent times, with dozens killed and hundreds wounded as Central forces were rendered helpless
and the state police looked on.
In our country, not every electoral victory is a victory of democracy. Quite often it is a victory of the best muscles in a terrifying fight that snubs democratic freedoms and constitutional rights — especially of the rural poor. Including the right to vote independently and in private, and the right to life.
Violence is increasingly providing the shortcut for most democratic processes. When we gush over our constitutional guarantees, democratic freedoms and rights, we must not ignore the bloody roots these often have. Especially in villages where democratic governance dries up and feudal power rules, where voting against the diktat of the caste, community, khap or local political goon could get you killed.
Once violence is an acceptable tool, you can edge out democracy. Fear works more efficiently than consensus anyway. You don’t need to catch criminals or terrorists, just stage encounters, kill some random people, throw some others in jail and pretend. Clap those who protest in jail. Bring sedition charges if necessary. No one is safe from this Robocop democracy. Not even cartoons.
And we accept it. Tired of fighting our daily battles, we just fall in line. Take employment. The NREGA has worked wonderfully for some, but people still have to buy jobs and postings. Naturally, they would try to make up from you the lakhs they paid to get the job. How can you expect the police and other chaps in government and essential services to be uncorrupt?
Recently, Samajwadi Party’s Narendra Bhati had bragged about how he called Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and got IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal suspended in “just 41 minutes”. Such was “the power of democracy”, he claimed. We have redefined democracy. In the Economist’s Index of Democracy, India is a “flawed democracy” ranked at number 38. In the categories the report looked at, India scores low in governance and political culture, but has excellent scores in electoral process, pluralism and civil liberties. Unfortunately, we are steadily slipping in these areas of strength. Our civil liberties are threatened. Our speech is not as free as before. Our freedom to laugh at leaders and lampoon our society is uncertain.
Democracy needs time; it is not as brutally quick and efficient as dictatorships. It needs debate in the public domain, it needs informed choice, it needs transparency and accountability, it needs civil liberties and the freedom to vote out of choice, not fear.
On this Independence Day, perhaps we need to take a long hard look at ourselves and our democratic processes, and repair the cracks before our democracy falls through them. It is not easy. But it is not impossible for a nation that showed a sceptical world that it could walk tall with its kaleidoscope of people and cultures, even with hunger and poverty snapping at its heels.

The writer is editor of The Little Magazine

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