All entries for May 2005

May 26, 2005

Poor Cousins

The Telegraph, 26.05.2005

What we have been hearing from leaders in The Economist, Time and other reputed Western publications, we finally hear in The Telegraph from S.L. Rao (“Power versus poverty”, May 23). Façade is indeed the correct word to describe much of Indian democracy. Therefore, to compare it to “good” authoritarian governments like those in China, and to conclude that the latter is superior to democracy per se is a little premature. What India needs is citizens’ control over economic resources, that is, more private ownership of the means of production and greater accountability of elected representatives. Even our voting procedures lack the desired level of transparency.

However, the “success” of authoritarian regimes like China is not as high as Rao would have us believe. As he himself says, there is ample evidence to suggest that the downtrodden do indeed care about political empowerment and civil rights. Therefore, the lack of democracy does indeed prevent the Chinese from becoming citizens — they remain subjects. Tiananmen proved that a pro-democracy undercurrent exists in modern China. The popularity of the Falun Gong also bears testimony to this. Second, there are frequent protests from unemployed industrial workers and impoverished agricultural labourers in China, which are suppressed by the state. Thus, China is hardly the model for a non-functional democracy like India.

May 18, 2005

British Elections: Any Lessons for India?

SAAG Paper, 17.05.2005

As Tony Blair strutted up to the door of 10 Downing Street for a historic third term in office, his re-election left certain gaping contrasts between the way in which democracy operates in Westminster and the way it is handled in Delhi. He claimed to have “a clear idea” of what the British people expected of him in his last term in office, and pledged to abide by the mandate. Not many in India’s corridors of power even have the faintest idea.

The number of MPs alone is a major discrepancy- as it means that an island of 60 million people has more elected representatives than a sub-continent like India, with its 1.1 billion inhabitants. Whereas nearly every Member of Parliament represents 92,000 people in Britain on average, the corresponding figure for India is a staggering 1.8 million. How can an individual who is not qualified, often with a criminal background understand the issues concerning a larger number of people when the electorate in Britain itself is complaining that their concerns are not being talked about in the House of Commons? More often than not, the MPs in India pursue their own political agenda rather than that of the people who put them in power.

Rhetoric rather than empirical evidence forms the basis of a party’s claims on power in India. Take for example the case of the Left Front in Loksabha. After the 2004 election it holds 62 seats in the legislative chamber, exactly the same number as the Liberal Democrats do in the House of Commons after the May 2005 elections. Both parties claim to be the “real alternative” to the two main parties and the party on which the onus to hold the government accountable lies.

In proportional terms, the Left Front holds around 11% of the seats in Loksabha compared to 9.5% that the Liberals hold in the Commons. However, the Lib-Dems earned their seat by convincing 22% of the British electorate. They are a victim of the first-past-the-post electoral system. Therefore, Charles Kennedy is correct when he claims that he speaks for a lot of voters who have been disillusioned by both Labour and Conservatives. As proof he would point to the growing number of Liberal votes and seats since 1997.

The leftists in India may argue that 2004 ushered in a “new age” for their movement. After all, it was the highest number of seats held in Loksabha by any left-wing coalition in the history of independent India. However, we must question this claim before proceeding further. What proportion of the Indians eligible to vote chose the leftists? – 8.3%! Unlike the Lib-Dems, they are the lucky winners of the same electoral system. A US Congressional Committee Report submitted in July 2004 identified the left’s support to be “very limited” in its expanse. Almost all its support comes from the states of Kerala and West Bengal, outside which it is a little known force. Whereas West Bengal has been plagued with a lack of viable alternatives to the leftists, Kerala operates on a “see-saw” basis- and it was the “up” year for the communists. Anti-incumbency and lack of competition are hardly reasons for victory to beat the chest about.

Another interesting contrast is in the role played by the third party in Britain vis-àvis that in India. As Lord Saatchi argued on “Breakfast with Frost”, the electorate’s mandate to the Liberals was to be the common watchdog for any misbehaviour both from the government as well as from the opposition. In India, the third party coalition was issuing conditional support in 2004 to a minority government with threats of “barking and biting” by its leading cadres, which wiped off the savings of thousands of small investors as the stock markets collapsed. As Charles Kennedy maintained his political dignity by remaining equidistant from both Labour and the Conservatives, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Harkishan Singh Surjeet rejoiced at the opportunity to play the kingmaker. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya was quoted as saying, “When we ask them to sit, they will sit. When we ask them to stand, they will stand”. These are not children’s games we are talking about the actions of the government in India affect a billion people.

The ongoing debate within the Labour party over whether Tony Blair should continue as Prime Minister or begin a period of smooth transition to Gordon Brown can be directly attributed to their slashed majority in the Commons- down to 67 in 2005 from 166 in 2001. His party has read the unpopularity of Tony Blair among many sections of the British population, as he increasingly becomes an “electoral liability”. In India, leaders continue for generations- transition processes are usually undemocratic and arbitrary, not to mention to ceaseless acrimonious bickering for power. Michael Howard, 63 now, considered himself “too old” in 2008 to contest the next election as Conservative party leader. In India, BJP grassroot party supporters rejoice at the prospect of replacing an “old” Vajpayee at 80 with a “young” Advani at 77!

Lord Saatchi made a key observation- that although there was general disenchantment with Labour, the British electorate did not feel that the Tories had the right set of policies to run a government. Therefore, a Labour victory albeit with a drastically slashed majority was the “general feeling” in the country as Britain went to polls. It is 243 years since Jean Jacques Rousseau penned his “Social Contract”. Yet his ideas of the “general will” have never been fulfilled in India. People on the streets in Kolkata want better roads, cheaper and more hospitals, better education and less red tape for their business- the very issues on which the British elections in London or Birmingham were won or lost. Farmers in rural India want more government support, better infrastructure and a widely accessible public services- issues that determined the fate of elections in rural Derbyshire or Yorkshire. But wait a minute! Aren’t we comparing different countries? It is ironic that although both the British as well as the Indian public seem to aspire for similar things, Indian elections are never fought on issues that touch the hearts of the vast majority of Indians.

Much was made of Iraq as an election issue in Britain. And rightly so- the government’s actions prior to the war were a matter for concern with the electorate, especially now that the attorney general’s precise advise to the government over the legality of war is being drawn into question. How many elections in India are fought over the insurgency in Kashmir or the problem with the Bangladesh border in the North East? These issues are of national importance, and a government’s actions determine the life and death of Indian soldiers- the stage is identical to that in Britain. India being a federal country is no excuse for national issues to be rejected- even the 2004 Presidential elections in the United States showed how opinionated the country was over Iraq.

However, if Iraq and immigration had been the deciding factor in the elections, we may well have seen Michael Howard as the next British Prime Minister. As opinion polls revealed, the issues of the National Health Service, education, pensions and the overall performance of the economy were far more important to the voters. Since Blair scored high on these, we are witnessing his return to power. Indeed, if it weren’t for the notable exception of George Galloway in London’s east end, it would be hard to point at voting on the basis of ethnicity and religion in British politics.

In India elections are won or lost around non-issues. The ghost of the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 still haunts politics of today, especially in the “Hindi heartland” states of North India. The much-publicised cries of “firangi” (a derogatory term for foreigners) were attributed to the Italian origins of Congress leader Sonia Gandhi in the last elections. Caste politics is rife in many states, Bihar being the foremost. The 2002 Gujarat riots were used by the so-called “secular” parties against the BJP (even though the local people actually showed the appreciation for the healthy economy and sound local administration of Gujarat by re-electing Chief Minister Narendra Modi). In power since 1999, the National Democratic Alliance had actually managed the economy well, with growth accelerating and poverty falling. But that got shouted down by the claims of “insult” of the largely poor rural Indians which the NDA supposedly was involved in by launching its “India Shining” campaign.

Michael Howard may have suffered a setback in the polls by calling Tony Blair “a liar”, but in India these lies are mundane affairs in politics. Consider the Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance when it came to power in 2004. It pledged to reverse the supposedly “anti-poor” traits in the economic reforms pursued by the NDA and bring a “human face” to the reform programme. A year on, economic policies remain unchanged. Despite leftist objections, foreign investment is being actively encouraged in a range of sectors, populist spending has been kept to a minimum and regulations for private companies are falling steadily. The stock markets are reaching record highs- a testimony to India’s pro-market policies. No party ever talks about constructive measures to improve public services and growth prospects- all the proposed measures in the fray are ad hoc in nature and are often reversed when a party shifts from government to opposition.

There were questions about the legitimacy of British elections in 2001 when turnout dipped to a record 59.9%. Curiously, no such questions were raised in India which had the identical voter turnout in 1999. While British turnout subsequently improved to 61.3% in 2005, it fell to 57.65% in India in 2004. In Britain low turnout is largely because of the receding ideological gap between the two main parties, but the choice to vote remains. In India, many voters turn up at polling booths to find their names absent from the list due to mysterious reasons (ranging from administrative breakdown to deliberate ploy to rig polls). Crushing poverty in rural areas entails that the citizens have no time to register themselves to vote, lest they lose a day’s wages. These are reasons which undermine the functionality of Indian democracy.

As a bitter debate about the “invisibility” of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the public domain continues, a final word needs to be said about Indian leaders being subject to frequent and direct scrutiny by the public. On “Question Time”, a feature on BBC1, politicians are regularly questioned by members of the public. All the leaders of the three main parties were on display for questioning prior to the election. Indeed, this is by no means the only such programme. In India, Prime Ministers hold annual press conferences as if to oblige the media. Even there, questions are limited in scope and debate is disallowed.

The elections for governing the country from which India borrowed heavily when setting up its own political structure have underlined the growing dissimilarities between the two systems. While in 2005 Britain retains all the ingredients for a modern and well-functioning democracy, India’s list gets thinner by the day. Will the British elections open the eyes of the politicians in Delhi, and of the billion people they regularly mislead? The prospects are dim, but a start has to be made if India wants to retain the tag of the world’s largest democracy.

May 05, 2005

Wild Dreams

The Telegraph, 05.05.2005

Since when did a staunch Marxist like Ashok Mitra develop his fascination for civil liberties? It is hypocritical to talk about individual rights when communist governments around the world have been such pioneers of tyranny. Mitra’s shameless defence of Pakistan and Bangladesh in matters of cross-border infiltration and terrorism is a blot on how educated Indians perceive national security. Vocally anti-American, Mitra naturally brings in the CIA. But was it the CIA that killed BSF officer Jeevan Kumar? And what about the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament?

Mitra forgets that India is materially not much better off than Bangladesh. There is no way it can accept the constant inflow of economically useless immigrants. We have had millions of illegal immigrants, most of them not the Hindus India promised to house. It also seems curious how Mitra totally ignores the plight of the law-abiding, tax-paying citizens of India.

May 2005

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