In Athena, circa BC 508, Cleisthenes , an aristocrat and grand son of a tryant is credited with creating demokratia – ‘government of the people by the people for the people. Although, some research claim that democracy had been around in an earlier practice in 1500 BC. Democracy as a form of government in Athena would survive for another 150 years until the Roman Invasion subdued it. Revolutions would reawaken democracy in 18th century France and US.
In the modern world, we celebrate the spread of democracy and its core concepts, linking it with concepts of personal freedom, free trade, liberty and freedom of expression. We are conditioned to believe that representative democracy is the best form of government for all states. While true in most cases, the process of electing representatives in many states have had its inherent flaws.
In Athena, representatives were elected by lots, as this was considered to be the most democratic process, not by election. The argument was that election would favour the rich and powerful over ordinary citizens. Another practice was the practice of ‘ostracism’, where citizens could vote to exile politicians for up to 10 years. True representative power!
Consider now case of India, celebrated as the largest democracy with over 814 million voters and having survived as a democracy in a region synonymous with dictatorships, military rule and single party states. A true poster for democracy with over 6 national political parties, 36 state parties, 324 regional parties and 24 new parties awaiting approval for the 2014 election. The electoral college of 814 million voters choose 543 representatives to represent them in parliament. The people power of 1.2 billion citizens.
A closer look at this election, reveals the flaws with India’s brand of democracy.
- Identity politics based on caste, religion and family ties, dominate the selection of candidates and their winning of seats.
- Bigotry and hate speeches are often used to mobilize vote banks. One potential MP has 19 cases registered against him on account of inciting violence.
- Politicians use ‘ dummy’ candidates having similar names to confuse/fool voters and thus split voting patterns.
- 18% of the 1492 candidates have criminal cases registered against them.
- A candidate of the new anti corruption party, AAP has over 300 criminal cases against him and the police still treat him as an absconder from justice.
- 41% of the opposition BJP party’s MPs face criminal charges, compared to 24% of the ruling congress party’s MPs
- 30% of the current representatives in parliament have criminal records of some sort.
- The supreme court of India tried a form of ostracism by ordering convicted politicians to be banned from politics. This was opposed by the ruling party and has now been withdrawn.
- Over 30 candidates have been charged with rape.
- Corruption dominates Indian elections, and the state has slipped down 15 places to be ranked as the 95th most corrupt country.
- 3 Cabinet ministers have been sentenced to imprisonment whilst holding offices
- One MP has won 4 sucessive elections whilst being jailed for life. He still continue to discharge his duties from jail.
- A single family dynasty (Nehru-Gandhi) has dominated politics for most of India’s 64 years of democracy and we still call it a representative democracy!
- Parliamentary seats have inherited by political families including the Gandhis and many former kings who have traded thrones for seats in the peoples parliament.
- Every Indian MP under the age of 30 is hereditary and two-thirds of Indian MPs under the age of 40 are from political families.
- The ruling dynasty has been charged with manipulating real estate prices and secreting billions of dollars gained from dubious deals involving guns, helicopters and ‘cows’, in overseas tax havens.
- A Key prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi has been accused of engineering violence against minorities, whilst the current PM has had the dubious distinction of presiding over the most corrupt government, whilst remaining personally untainted.
Perhaps, we need to reclassify India as a Dynastic democracy ( a termed made famous by Tavleen Singh) instead of celebrating it as the world’s largest democracy. Athenians would cringe at the state of democracy in India, if we could bring them back to today. Another apt definition could be of India being called a ‘cunning state’ that ‘capitalises on its perceived weakness in order to render itself unaccountable to its citizens‘.
On a closing note, i would still prefer to have India’s experiment with democracy than be a subject of any other alternative forms of government. Perhaps, democracy in its Indian avatar was meant have its flaws. Or is this avatar, truly representative of the people of India?