Is India A Democracy?

By Ajay Kulshreshtha | Ajay@Kulsh.com | California, USA

Some time ago, on a Sunday news program, late Theodore H. White, a well-established American political observer (author of “The Making of the President” series of books) declared that India has been a Soviet-supported dictatorship for many decades. Next to him were sitting the top brass of ABC News including Sam Donaldson and then-national-anchorman Frank Reynolds, but none of them bothered to correct him… If the most politically-informed segment of American society – the journalists – do not associate India and democracy, imagine what an average American thinks, if he or she think about such matters at all.


We, in India, feel an affinity for American political system, thinking of it as the most powerful democracy in the world, while ours is the largest one. But on coming to US we realize that there is no such reciprocal affection for Indian political system in America. None at all… In the American mind, democracy conjures up an image of prosperity and opportunity. How can a wretchedly poor and backward country like India be democratic?


But India is democratic by the criteria that are extolled non-stop by American politicians and media – freedom of speech, freedom of press, government formed by representatives of people elected by popular vote, etc…. So what is missing? Why we do not see the benefits that supposedly flow from the political system that is so highly touted here? Why does India not find itself any closer to the democratic objectives of equal opportunity and betterment of masses, despite following the Western political prescription so wholeheartedly and for so long?


Is the problem with the patient or with the prescription? Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, more that a half century ago, in stating that India is not ready for popularly elected government, seemed to say that problem is with the patient but on seeing political process in action in Western countries, the recommended political model seems equally suspect. After all, how good a political process be under which so often gullible-many elect incompetent-few? And these incompetent or semi-competent few are invariably corrupt to varying degrees. This is reflected in the fact that these representatives of the people are often called “the lesser of evils” or “the best money can buy”.


But are not all advanced nations of the world run by such people and these nations are thriving? Why can’t India?


A closer look would reveal that the role of politicians in the achievements of developed countries is rather limited. The continuing success of America, for example, may have little to do with likes of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and everything to do with likes of John F. Welch and Bill Gates. More often than not, the elected officials play a passive role in the growth of these societies.


But, again, why can’t this happen in India?


Comparing an advanced nation and India is like comparing two trains – one that is on tracks and the other deep in the mud with tracks nowhere near. People with below-average ability can keep the first train going but it will take gargantuan talent and effort to put the second train in motion. The people who come to the top through mass elections in India are utterly unfit to provide the requisite leadership.


But have not other underdeveloped countries succeeded with popularly elected leaders at the helm?


In fact, such an example is hard to find… Let us look at the nations that have been successful in improving the lot of their people in recent human history. In the 19th century, both Japan and Germany were able to transform themselves, former due to the initiatives taken by members of Samurai clan, and later with the help of leaders like Bismarck. In the 20th century, many nations in east Asia, namely, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore have dramatically improved the fortunes of their citizens – and not a single of them employed universal suffrage to choose their leader, certainly not in the critical early decades.


Currently we see China – with no political participation by general populace – progressing by leaps and bounds, as evidenced by their massive trade surplus with USA. On the other hand, there is Russia, where freedom to vote has come accompanied with economic collapse and social disarray. How many Russians are feeling blessed?


Thus the much-ballyhooed political model, based on popularity contests, has never worked for any undeveloped country and holds no hope for advancement of India. But can we even call India a democracy? Can giving public freedom to cast ballot be the sole criteria of democracy? An end in itself? Or, do democratic ideals aim for broader goals?


It would seem that democratic principles call for a place where law and order is respected…where dishonest and criminal tendencies of people are curtailed…where everyone - with talent and diligence in chosen field - has opportunity to advance and prosper.


Can a society where kidnappers – both foreign and domestic – have more sway on the elected governments than its law-abiding citizens, call itself democratic? …Should a country where corruption is so rampant that an honest person feels suffocated, be called democratic? …Can a nation whose people often excel overseas, but which itself ranks near the bottom in the world in competency, actually be following democratic principles? …After five decades of free elections, about half of world's hungry people live in India. Is not democracy supposed to eradicate such problems? Has not Nobel Prize been awarded for such ideas?


India, in its current state, is not a democracy in any meaningful sense. (Nor, of course, it ever was a Soviet-supported dictatorship.) True democracy – a fair, equitable social environment – can come to India only after major political restructuring. Overseas Indians, especially those living in US, have primary responsibility - because of our clout - to ponder what these political changes should be and how to spur them.


© 2000 Ajay K. Kulshreshtha