On August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, addressed a newly-liberated people filled with a sense of possibility and hope to collectively build an egalitarian and democratic nation. The people’s aspirations were articulated in Nehru’s famous words:
“The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”
This vision was subsequently enshrined in the Indian Constitution on January 26, 1950.
Sixty-five years later, the dream of a truly democratic India has dulled more than a little. Hope has been replaced by dismay at the tawdry pursuit of self-interest that pervades our present political and economic landscape.
Did we expect too much from a post-colonial, impoverished country? Did we overstate our future and now find that the reality does not match our definition? Did we unrealistically compare ourselves with other fledgling or developing nations? In other words, is the sense of disillusionment only a problem of perception?
After all, a lot has been achieved since 1947 in taking a population that has nearly quadrupled to 1.2 billion towards a more dignified standard of living. Life expectancy has nearly tripled to 72 years, while infant mortality has halved. Literacy has grown from 12 per cent to 74 per cent; unemployment has dropped from 48 per cent at independence to around 19 per cent, and per capita income risen from subsistence to approximately 3,500 dollars at Purchasing Power Parity levels.
Development indicators, however, are debatable and present only one part of the picture. The sense of failed expectations is not only a matter of perception; it is embedded in more tangible experiences. The promise of an egalitarian democratic nation has been tarnished by the entrenchment of dynastic leadership, by an inordinate concentration of power and wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer inter-connected politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. This new aristocracy has replaced the colonial rulers and kings of earlier times and effectively subverted the ideals of a true people’s democracy. Indians are uneasy because they no longer feel empowered to determine their destiny.
At the same time, a parallel, paradoxical process is underway. The Indian citizen has greater expectations and a sense of entitlement. The spurt of economic growth since India began a process of economic liberalisation in the early 1990s, has raised aspirations. The escalating trend of populist political campaigning during elections involves promises made to potential vote banks — promises that people except will be fulfilled, but rarely are.
This combination of greater expectations along with a recognition that access to economic and political influence is increasingly circumscribed in Indian democracy, has resulted in disillusionment and cynicism. After 2007, as economic growth began to slow and the inequality of incomes became more palpable, Indians began to attribute this failure of equitable development to the degeneration of political parties into family fiefdoms. A nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and business has been gobbling up the “commons” or community resources such as land and water — this is also exemplified by the many scams in the telecom and mining sectors.
The creation of pockets of wealth has taken the number of dollar billionaires in India from zero in 2000 to 48 in 2012, while the number of malnourished children persists at 42 per cent. Equally, people recognise that decision-making and governance, instead of becoming more decentralised, have become further concentrated in a few powerful hands. There is also a growing awareness that India’s fiscal and financial policy is losing coherence, and that it is manipulated by big business at the cost of the majority of the people.
The situation is exacerbated by the absence of any coherent political ideology. Governing coalitions are formed only on the mathematics of parliamentary majorities. The growing power of regional political parties, necessary for the formation of a federal government, has not led to greater devolution of power; it has only resulted in ever-greater giveaways to garner the numbers required to achieve office or pass legislation.
These downsides of electoral democracy are echoed across South Asia. All our neighbours — at various stages of democratisation — are confronting an entrenchment of political dynasties and a consequent increase in inequality. Indeed this malaise of our times is not restricted to any region - it is global. It is especially tragic because democracy evolved to control the arbitrary use of the inherited power of kings — and political dynasties are setting back this hard-earned progress.
In Pakistan, the army, judiciary and the elected Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government are caught in an absurd confrontation; the Supreme Court forced out the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, and now threatens his successor with the same, because he refused to request Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. In the guise of tackling corruption, a slow judicial coup is undercutting the democratically-elected government. Meanwhile, as a long-term precaution against being obliterated, the Bhutto dynasty has handed over the leadership of PPP’s to Benazir’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.