By Nantoo Banerjee
Notwithstanding Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s repeated statements during his recent tour in the UK saying that Indian democracy is under threat, the growing trend of elected political authoritarianism poses a big challenge to the system. The trend is also being witnessed in many other democracies outside the developed world. India would have performed much better but for its corrupt and family-controlled political parties finding comfort in democratic authoritarianism. Political parties in power for long tend to become highly authoritarian and corrupt. Their leaders are aided by undereducated and low quality legislators.
Authoritarian political regimes exist at both the central and state levels. Long-run political consequences of authoritarianism threaten to harm democratic values such as the freedom of speech and expression, secular ethics and promotion of merit. It definitely breeds corruption and arrogance. Political leaders are generally more comfortable with lowly educated followers around them than more learned and competent colleagues. Authoritarianism in a democracy shows a persistent effect on voting patterns, political representation, and confidence in institutions.
In the course of a discussion at the Chatham House think tank in London, Rahul Gandhi said: “Democracy in India is a global, public good. It impacts way further than our boundaries. If Indian democracy collapses, in my view, democracy on the planet suffers a very serious, possibly fatal blow. So, it is important for you too. It is not just important for us. We will deal with our problem, but you must be aware that this problem is going to play out on a global scale.” The statement is somewhat brusque and lacks clarity. The possibility of Indian democracy collapsing in due course is highly remote. India’s flawed democracy has survived more than seven decades, including a period of the emergency rule under former prime minister Indira Gandhi, despite frequent threats from authoritarian regimes at the centre and several of its states. The real threats to Indian democracy are its highly corrupt, greedy under-educated politicians and religious bigotry.
Going by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) report, last year, characterising the state of democracy around the world, Indian democracy should be placed a rung below the ‘flawed democracy’ and listed under ‘hybrid regimes’. Under the ‘flawed democracy,’ civil liberties and fundamental political freedoms are respected, valid systems of governmental checks and balances exist and the media is diverse and independent. On the other hand, ‘hybrid regimes’ pertain to nations where electoral fraud or irregularities occur regularly; pressure is applied to political opposition; corruption is widespread; rule of law tends to be weak; and the media is pressured and harassed. Interestingly, the EIU report classified the US as a flawed democracy. It has been so since 2016. The report points to extreme polarisation and “gerrymandering” as key issues facing the US. On the bright side, political participation in the US is still very robust compared with the rest of the world.
Political parties in India are mostly represented by people reflecting the status of its high proportion of the adult population being still relatively poor and under-educated. A recent Election Commission of India publication showed that the country has 2,858 registered political parties, including eight national parties, 54 state parties and 2,796 unrecognised parties. Almost all regional parties are family managed. According to a three-year old private study, 40 percent of all ministers in the country were educated only upto school. Even Kerala, boasting the highest literacy rate in the country, had over 30 percent of its Cabinet with school-level education while 42 percent were graduates. In the union cabinet, 14 percent of ministers have school-level education. The real challenge to India’s democracy is its political leadership who are uncomfortable with the company of literati in managing the affairs of the party. A good number of netas at all levels in ruling political parties are there to use power to make quick bucks.
Last year, senior advocate Vijay Hansaria, said a total number of 3096 criminal cases were pending against MPs/MLAs (both sitting and former) out of which 962 have been pending for over five years. He is assisting the Supreme Court in the matter as amicus curiae (friend of the court). The report was based on details filed by 20 states and union territories. He also separately presented the pending cases investigated/tried by central investigation agencies such as Central Bureau of Investigation, Enforcement Directorate and National Investigation Agency. The report says ED cases are pending against 51 present and former MPs and 71 MLAs and MLCs. NIA is probing only four cases of which two involve MPs/MLAs.
A mere primary standard education did not stand in the way of Ms Rabri Devi, wife of jailed and convicted former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav on charges of corruption and public fund swindling, becoming the state’s chief minister for multiple terms. Their son Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, a class IX level school drop-out, is now Bihar’s deputy chief minister. He is in charge of several key portfolios such as health, road construction, urban housing and development and rural works. Naturally, he may expect the state’s top physicians, engineers, architects and town planners to report to him. Former Madhya Pradesh CM and central minister Uma Bharti completed her formal education till class VI. Former Shiv Sena Parliamentary Party leader and Union Minister of Heavy Industry and Public Enterprise Anant Geete was only a matriculate. Starting off as a driver before venturing into politics, former railway minister Jaffer Sharief was said to be a matriculate.
Examples are galore of under-educated politicians holding top ministerial berths in states as well as at the Centre, irrespective of their party affiliation. A good number of them also faced corruption, disproportionate wealth acquisition, and other criminal charges, including murder. The late Tamil Nadu chief minister, Ms. Jayaram Jayalalithaa, was a matriculate. She was convicted on multiple charges of corruption and died in custody. Former union civil aviation minister Changaai Mangalote Ibrahim was also a matriculate. Ibrahim changed law to force the Tatas out of a re-entry bid in civil aviation with Singapore Airlines. Former railway minister Jaffer Sharief started off as a car driver before venturing into politics. Can Indian democracy remain safe and vibrant for long under such political leaders?
While the universal adult franchise system is a key feature of democracy in India, the world’s most populous country, the quality of its political leaders remains a matter of concern. This looks odd when Indians are increasingly leading the world in the spheres of science and technology, banking, healthcare, management, education, enterprise and wealth creation. There is no reason why educated and honest Indians should stay away from providing political governance. Obviously, this calls for a major reform of the country’s political system and fixing the basic educational standard of a candidate aspiring to become a public representative or a legislator. Most of the existing political parties are expected to contest such a reform. And, that poses the biggest threat to the future of democracy in India. (IPA Service)