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Mainstream, VOL XLIX No 33, August 6, 2011

Dynamics of Democracy and Corruption

Wednesday 10 August 2011, by Chandra Mohan Bhandari


One of the features of a modern democratic set-up is its inherent contradiction. Like the necessity of thesis and antithesis acting simul-taneously it relies upon opposing trends to propel it. To keep a vast social network together, in a meaningful co-existence and in a more-or-less harmonious mode of existence, is a challenging but manageable task, if that kind of challenge is understood and acknowledged by the people at the helm of affairs supposedly responsible for managing the show. The present-day democratic systems originated as a ‘working formula’ to keep different groups and trends together in some sort of a loose binding. The basic notion of democratic working is certainly not new and in one form or another it has been present in several traditions. However, the present democratic set-up in practice has some added elements and clearly defined rules which are being used to run the affairs of several countries, societies and institutions. Even monarchs in several cases incorporated some such elements into their scheme of governance that could introduce a degree of transparency and fair play. In India we are familiar with the oft-quoted example of ‘Ram Rajya’ to indicate a regime where a monarch could be sensitive to the aspirations of people and where blatant use or misuse of power was avoided.

Planned and well-thought-of style of working in the present-day democracies can partly be traced in the laying down of the American Constitution. During the last decades of the eighteenth century following the war of inde-pendence, there developed a political vacuum and the emergent nation required some kind of ‘social engineering’ to guide it through the mess. One of the usually practised solutions to the problem of bringing together more than a dozen warring states under one umbrella was the use of force. In this particular case it would have meant the use of force by the bigger states against the smaller, leading finally to a few large states at constant war with each other. That has historically been a norm and the easiest thing to do. However, that did not happen. What happened was an experiment in ‘social engineering’ designed to bring the warring states together without resort to violence. Moreover, this act of bringing several units together was to be managed without any of them losing its identity. To seek a lasting solution the first lesson in democracy was learnt by the men at the helm of affairs by initiating an extensive dialogue between individuals, between a group of intellectuals and within the states as also between them. In this connection a larger cross-section of people were brought into the discussion through articles published in various magazines. Almost a hundred articles written in this context finally gave way to the present American Constitution and immediately after the birth of the new nation it was put to test. We know it now that the experiment was reasonably successful and has lasted for a considerable time with more-or-less good results. This was the first clear-cut experiment on social engineering on record and on such a vast scale. One of the salient features of this Constitution was its emphasis on checks and balances between different constituent units required to run the state: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

Another important feature of the scheme was to take into account some elements from human psychology. There were many examples where law-makers all over the world have been devising methods and means to bring out the good in human nature, and to discourage what was otherwise. The notion of ‘reward and punishment’ has been the cornerstone of law-making in all societies which was based on the same principle. The intention behind this was clear—to encourage positive tendencies and to discourage the negative. In doing so many a times the idealism in man was addressed to. This kind of appeal to idealism has its own advantages and limitations. Appealing to idealism in man is to a certain extent productive, but pushed too far it loses its impact and vitality. The American Constitution-makers were wise enough to understand this and took this into account in their scheme of things. It was not always fruitful to appeal to the idealism which should be used only occasionally. The selfish nature of man could also be used to yield positive result provided there are incorporated into the scheme various checks and balances. If a person knows that his hard work, dedication and innovation would help him more than it would do to the rest of the people he would feel encouraged. We may call it selfishness, but that is how the human mind has been working and will most likely work in future as well. This human potential can be tapped for the good of the society provided its abuse could be kept under check. The mechanism of checks and balances includes within it another important feature which needs to be mentioned explicitly and clearly. It is essentially the incorporation of ‘Feedback Loops’. Feedback means a part of the output is re-introduced into the input for necessary corrections. This is an important factor in the success or failure in the implementation of any theory.

In a sense feedback helps a system to evolve gradually, to acquire the needed capacity and to adjust to changing circumstances. In presence of feedback the system does not remain rigid and inflexible, as it keeps adjusting to new situations.

It would be interesting to compare the two features of checks and balances and human psychology and compare them with the situation elsewhere. Consider, for example, the basic philosophy as implicit in the Marxist doctrine which emphasises on a more equitable distri-bution of wealth. As an ideal it was extremely sound and appealing. When put to implemen-tation in some cases it could not work that well as desired. The socialist model is closer to the ideal as compared to the American model. A theoretically sound model put into practice failed, and it would be of interest to know—why? If it did not work, the reason is not difficult to search, the non-inclusion of (a) human psychology, and (b) missing feedback loops.

Having described these aspects pertaining to a democratic set-up, it must be realised that there could not be a simple formula applicable to all societies at all times. Even though all human beings are essentially the same, there are differences based on geography, culture and tradition. The psychological set-up depends upon these factors and differs from place to place and from time to time. The governance of a people requires an innate understanding of all these factors. Once you have that understanding the next thing is to find a working formula for handling the matters of governance. In addition, the required psychological features and also the required necessary feedback loops must form an intricate network. On implementation the theory may fail to work or may not work to satisfaction even though all relevant aspects have been taken care of. From time to time based on the feedback one has to keep analysing the situation and make necessary amendments. A system that is designed to evolve with time is likely to survive.

Indian Context

WHEN India gained independence, there were innumerable problems to deal with. The Hindu-Muslim divide culminating in partition and the situation arising thereof was one important aspect, to rule a nation of so many diverse lifestyles and languages was another. Then there was the need to take a traditional society into the age of modernity through democratic means and this too was certainly a difficult proposition. To accept secular ideals in spite of the trauma of partition was also something to be handled delicately. The men and women who were responsible for the governance of the nation at the time of independence did reasonably well to throw their weight on a democratic, secular and liberal socio-political set-up. Guiding the nation forward from that point was a daunting task which required imagination, strong will power and vision. The vision appeared reasonably on a sound track, the motive was laudable but the feedback loops were either missing or rendered ineffective. To some extent this kind of set-up was being experimented elsewhere too, such as in the Soviet Union. The situation, of course, was similar, but the method adopted was different, the plan of implementation was also quite different yet the one thing that both lacked was the feedback network. My personal view is that the Soviet experiment failed primarily due to the missing feedback loops, a deficiency which no nation could afford to ignore. The result is before us to see. A non-democratic set-up has to live with this kind of risk all the time. Let us talk of the Indian experiment which was within a democratic set-up.

The Indian experiment did not completely fail, it faltered. In a democratic set-up there are built-in mechanisms which take care of effective feedback loops, the periodic elections which gave people the option to change the governing bodies. A democratic set-up may be the best way to rule a vast population as diverse as that of ours, yet it is never free from faults. It can be abused and it was abused extensively by the men at the helm of affairs, especially the second and third generation politicians. ‘Power corrupts’, goes the saying, and our second generation politicians wanted to prove it beyond any reasonable doubt. They certainly proved it beyond doubt.

The Abuses

ANY system of governance has its own strengths and weaknesses. The same is true of democracy or, to be more precise, any particular brand of democracy. To put all democracies under one umbrella may be suitable for a broad classification purpose but within that domain there are extremely diverse patterns of working. Indian democracy is unique just as India is unique. Perhaps nowhere in the world the diversity is so vivid and explicit as in this land. With around sixteen major languages and two dozen dialects, it is no less diverse than the entire Europe. European nations have their languages as their primary sources of identity. Just on the basis of language we have sixteen or so identities. Culture and tradition may differ even within a language group. Almost all world religions are present here and in significant numbers. Then there are caste-based differences which have further been the cause of concern especially in times of difficulty.

The struggle for power in a democratic system can definitely take undemocratic forms. The democratic system gives you a lot of room to manoeuvre and manipulate, but it also assumes a certain level of responsibility from the individual who is the primary constituent of the system. Individual and his vote gives him a unique power to exercise although one in a multitude may lose his or her identity. This unique identity of an individual is easily brought under pressure, or can be bought. It can be under pressure on the basis of language, religion or caste. It can be purchased especially when a vast population is living below the poverty line (wherever the line is drawn). Use of force in not allowing a certain underprivileged group to cast vote is another kind of abuse prevalent in this democratic system of ours. However, these problems did not make their appearance in a day or an year. It took two to three decades to manifest, and when they did they had already taken deep roots.

The first two decades after independence were crucial for two reasons:
[1] The first two decades formed the defining period of Indian democracy. Many among the neighbouring nations too promised such a democratic system and their experiments too were under test. In some countries the experiment failed outright with the military taking charge of governance. Off and on elections were held but that was merely in name, the primary source of power being the military. One thing about the Indian experiment was that it did not bring a complete collapse of the democratic order. There were a number of reasons for this the details of which cannot be discussed here. One of the reasons was the presence of a figure like Gandhi during the days of the independence movement. Gandhi’s presence could not ensure the end of violence but it did create an atmosphere where certain ethical and moral values were acceptable. In its absence it could have faced a relatively greater risk of being caught in a power game. There were other leaders of some substance who were influenced by Gandhi but not necessarily in agreement with him in all aspects; they too had their impact on the shape of things to come.

[2] An abuse of the democratic set-up was making its presence felt on a scale not anticipated earlier. There were still leaders of some standing and vision but they too started making compromises to stay in power. They were liberal, secular and above caste considerations but to win elections they gave freedom to their party members to take the easiest route to victory.

They too probably did not anticipate its long range consequences as not many precedents were available to follow.

There were fallouts of this kind of newly developing power game to stay in power by the political parties. They preyed upon the sentiments of the people: religious, caste-based or otherwise. Some political parties played upon the sentiments of minority groups, others on that of the majority. During the first two decades after independence there was almost no Opposition worth the name and the successive governments could have taken measures to ensure social and economic justice to a large extent. Here the leadership failed as the matters of winning elections and staying in power were more prominent than anything else including the nation.

Corruption Pervades Life

IT was the time when there was almost absolute freedom to do the things as per individual requirement and convenience. The political class and the bureaucracy virtually ransacked the nation and its coffers, played with peoples’ sentiments in different ragas and tunes and amassed wealth which was unthinkable few decades back. One of the ways to stay in power was to start the game of granting reservations in jobs. The concept of reservation in jobs had its origin in the notion of social justice. It was understood to be a short-term and limited range treatment of a problem which had its roots in tradition. Very soon it became a tool for political manipulation, and a supposedly short-term treatment became an almost permanent feature. It was like putting a patient on glucose for a short term to give him a helping hand. What was not thought of was that the drip would become a permanent thing with the patient. Given the right kind of treatment the malady would have been cured in a matter of time; instead it gave rise to new problems by creating classes within classes.

Take, for example, the case of the Scheduled Tribes. Now, you may see several members of this community taking up high posts among politicians and bureaucrats, and elsewhere too. This is quite fair, but there is a totally false impression being projected. The impression being given is that this policy would in due course cure most of the problems faced by the tribes. Whether it is the STs or Scheduled Castes or OBCs and even a large number in the upper class, a vast population is living in abject poverty. What is being done to improve their lives? Why is there so much of turbulence in their lives, and why they become easy prey of Left or Right extremism? Take an example. In Orissa, especially in Koraput, there are tribes living a life of unspeakable poverty even in the twentyfirst century. Whose responsibility are these unfortu-nate people? The forests, which were their only survival kits, are now depleted and the forest officers too have done their best to exploit them according to their choice.

There was nothing wrong in the notion of reservation but it was essentially meant to be symbolic. It was not a cure for the malady of social injustice or poverty or illiteracy, it was primarily a gesture, a helping hand. Consider any group of reservation-related castes, Scheduled Tribes, for example. Some of the families which were better off initially could take the advantage; for the vast majority there was nothing but hollow promises. Nothing has changed for the whole class as such. The same is true elsewhere such as for the Scheduled Castes and backward castes. It created a myth in the people’s minds that unless the reservation policy is implemented, the situation is not likely to improve. This suited the leaders in these social groups as they and their near and dear ones were the beneficiaries. This has led to a snowballing effect. Mention must be made of the recent agitation by the Gujjars followed by the Jats. In future this is likely to take many more dimensions. Where will it lead to? Will it be a society where in all aspects of life all matters will be decided by the caste factor, not by other factors more meaningful and relevant?

The fly is now out of the bottle. The problem is to take it back to the bottle.
That will not be easy.

When we talk of corruption, the only thing in mind is taking money or material worth some money. One must look at a wider meaning of the term. Playing with people’s sentiments, such as religious or caste-based, is also a corrupt practice as it was being done to stay in power. Money matters are easy to judge by those who ill-judge such matters.

Soft on Corruption

WE have now with us a unique model of democracy unlike anywhere else in the world.

We have a democratic set-up in the sense that regular elections are held, and more or less fairly. You are ensured that there will be no booth-capturing, and that the counting of votes will be fair. It is another matter that to ensure fairness to some degree almost one million security personnel are pressed into service. The fairplay ends here. To buy votes by distributing cycles, blankets or TV sets is quite acceptable provided you take sufficient care. To play on religious (both majority-oriented and minority-oriented) or caste sentiments is justified if done with a little care.

Caste has become the all-important factor and the trend is on the increase. If you belong to a caste with substantial numbers, then you will be treated gently, otherwise not.

The problems like increasing population and need to control it are kept under the carpet. Our political class does not even mention these. Some of our politicians are opposed to it and have publicly stated that population is not a problem, instead it is a human resource. What a great vision! Shall we be proud of such visionaries amongst us?

Corruption has been at the helm of many of our national-level and local-level problems. We talk of corruption only when when it is of the order of billions of rupees. If I need a passport I have to pay the person who is making enquiries. If I have to buy a ticket under ‘tatkal’ the website of Railways will start working only after all seats are sold out. There are innumerable examples of that kind. The hue and cry over the proposed Lokpal Bill is a testimony of our softness towards corrupt practices. We are like that. What kind of democratic model are we evolving, that allows everything to be negotiable? Here almost everything is on sale, including the nation. Very soon corruption may be one of our major exporting items.

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