June 17, 2021

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How much is too much democracy?

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Uday Deb
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Let’s set aside for the time being what NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant meant when he said “we are too much of a democracy”. He has already clarified it in an article where he argues that he was misunderstood. He claims all he actually wanted to say was India’s reforms can’t move at the same speed as China’s because “we are too much of a democracy”. Perhaps he has a point there.

The real question however is not whether we believe Kant. Many think he is playing cat’s paw for the regime, trying to test out an argument for curbing or, to be more accurate, further curbing our democratic rights in return for what is often described as “development”. In today’s bureaucratese that could well be synonymous with reforms. 

It may be best therefore to first get our definitions right. What is this development we keep hearing about and how does it impact you and me? For the past six years we have often heard this word being bandied around. But when it actually comes to seeing it in action, there has been very little that has impacted your life and mine. Surely demonetisation was not development. Nor was the imposition of a complex GST regime. And surely not even the most ardent admirers of the BJP would describe the Ram temple as development. Nor the monstrous statue of Sardar Patel.

What is development then? The bullet train to Ahmedabad? The Central Vista project to build a new triangular shaped parliament building to replace the current one, a new residence for the prime minister and the vice president, and a few more statues to honour leaders that this regime feels are neglected by history? Or is it this new law to bring OTT services under the I&B ministry? Or the three new farm laws that farmers across the nation are protesting so vigorously against? 

Or would you call the love jihad law in BJP-ruled states, development? Or the law against cattle slaughter and consumption of beef? Most of us, apart from the bhakts, are a bit confused. We hear so much talk about development but what we see are only confused, random acts of divisiveness? Yet, despite that, the BJP keeps winning elections. So clearly there’s something they are doing right. Maybe it’s the Modi magic. Or, more likely, it’s their ability to cannily tap into the majoritarian mindset. So much so that I see the Congress trying to emulate that as well. The young Gandhis have by now perfected the fine art of visiting temples at election time. Does it mean they are also rooting for development?

Frankly, I am happy to concede I don’t understand this. I grew up in a India where everyone was dissatisfied with the government, Congress in those days. Yet the khadi-caps managed to hang on to power for six decades. They kept inventing new slogans to win elections. From Jai Jawan Jai Kisan in 1965 to Garibi Hatao in 1971. But the promises they made remained largely unfulfilled. Till Manmohan Singh as finance minister initiated historic economic reforms in 1991. That was the first real step towards changing India.

Unfortunately, it was under the same Manmohan Singh, this time as prime minister, that the Congress saw its demise. If you ignore all the fake statistics that are constantly thrown at us, you will find UPA2 did not do badly on economic parameters. It was the scams that killed it. People were just tired of hearing about scams. And they thought that if they voted out the Congress, Modi would bring a new agenda to Indian politics, an agenda for change. It was not development they voted for. They voted for change. Change in the quality of politics.

Has that happened? That’s the real question. Not how much democracy India needs. India needs change and only greater democracy can make that happen. China is the wrong role model. Modi knows that, which is why the first overture he made was to Japan. Japan is the best example of growth and prosperity after the terrible devastation it faced in the War. Through sheer grit, it rediscovered its mojo in record time keeping every democratic institution alive, in fact further empowering them. Today its economy competes with the best in the world without taking the short cuts China does.

We are friends today with the US and Japan and the Quad includes Australia too. These are fine examples of democracy at work. Yet, funnily, when it comes to economic growth, we compare ourselves only to China which is way ahead of us in economic growth but lags way behind in nurturing democratic institutions. And we all know, which is more important. 

Today our farmers are angry. Our students are unhappy. The minorities– one out of every five Indians– are losing faith. Our workers are rudderless. Our jobless youth are in distress. Recession stares us in the face. This is the time for consensus. Every stakeholder in the economy must be convinced of every reform. Instead, we are obsessing over all the wrong things at a wrong time in history. And no, Mr Kant, there can never be too much of democracy. Democracy is what defines our identity, has built our character, and has the potential to make us the global super power we want to be. Just get out of our way and watch where we can take this nation. 

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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