Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What Democracy Is Not

On my first trip to India, which lasted only a week, I was struck by the religious diversity, especially within Hinduism. (Think of the diversity within Christianity or within Islam for a small sense of what I mean.) After staying here for a longer time, I’m struck by how my understanding of democracy has changed since I have been in India.

India is the world’s largest democracy. The online Oxford English Dictionary defines democracy as “a form of government in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through elected representatives.” All fine and good. However, I previously thought of democracy as comprising a country’s entire lifestyle or infrastructure, if you will. I expected the Indian government to be more like the system in the US. Let me tell you the ways it is not.

Democracy is not capitalism. The prices of many food items, fertilizer, and petroleum are controlled by the central government. (Where we would say “federal,” India uses the term “central.”) There have been many demonstrations and much political campaigning in reaction to what opponents see as lack of action by the central government to control prices.

Democracy is not freedom of speech. For example, a member of the high court feels compelled to speak out in his official capacity when a Bollywood star discusses her love life in a little too much detail. Universities are instituting policies to contact parents if students are found kissing on campus. (Keep in mind that Desperate Housewives, Friends and other American shows appear regularly on television here.) Even more drastic – on Valentine’s Day vigilantes were marrying young couples found together who weren’t related. In the art world M F Husain (also spelled Hussain) left India so that he could paint what he wished without having to show up in court to defend his choice of subjects. My impression is that a fair number of Indians are very sensitive about certain moral and religious issues. In general, Indians try to avoid conflict, but once Indians are aroused, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere nearby. If there are enough angry people, the result is too often a deadly riot.

Democracy is not justice. We complain in the US about court cases dragging on for months or years, but in India a delay of a decade or more is not uncommon. (M F Husain is in his nineties so some of his cases have actually been resolved.) Eliza’s class had a long, depressing discussion about it. I hope the younger generation in India can take action to improve the justice system.

Democracy is no guarantee of honest officials. We know about this problem in the US also, but allegations of corruption in the US often lead to a politician’s downfall. Maybe that happens here, but I have only seen cases of politicians continuing in office despite allegations of corruption. Perhaps the delays in the justice system are partly to blame. Today the Times of India newspaper’s front page reported that the local JD(S) leader saying the party would field candidates with a criminal past as long as the party leaders thought the candidates had a chance of winning.

Democracy is not laissez-faire. At the local level in Karnataka some representative slots are reserved for the “backward castes” or women or both, and there is an attempt to extend the current reservation system at the national level to include women. The proposal has passed the Rajya Sabha [similar to our Senate, but more like England’s House of Lords – some members are appointed rather than elected] but the Lok Sabha [House of Representatives] has not yet voted on it. In the US a primary tool for promoting diversity in representative bodies is district boundaries; the resulting demographics give minority candidates a good chance to succeed in some districts. In India, on the other hand, residency in the district is not a requirement for election. In addition, the proposal at the national level would rotate the reservation system so that each district would have to elect a woman every third term. Some people say that the result will be mostly women in government. The thinking is that, once elected, a woman can run as an incumbent and win against male candidates. Meanwhile the next-door district will have to elect a woman per the reservation system. Can you imagine a government with a majority of women?

If you have never been to India, I hope you can now imagine a different style of democracy from a western-style democracy. I, for one, have had my preconceived, all-encompassing notion of democracy corrected. I now have a much more precise idea of what democracy actually means.

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