Fault Lines in Largest Democracy

To understand Indian Democracy, one needs to assess the Indian Democratic Capacity. At the very basic level of assessment; there are three visible actors in the system –

(1) Citizens (Aam Aadmi),

(2) Representatives of the citizens (Netas) and

(3) Conscience Keepers (Activists, Press and Civil Society).

The extent of democratisation of India can be measured as the extent of involvement and commitment of these actors in the deliberations that lead to national decisions.

The question to ask therefore is, whether these actors have the

(a) Rights

(b) Ability and

(c) Opportunity,

to participate in deliberations about the content of the national decision. It does not need any rigorous research to observe that

(1) Citizens (aam aadmi) lack the ability and opportunity, they indulge in misplaced adventurism (recent ‘Patidaar’ ‘Padmavati’ and ‘Dalit’ agitations) and their entrepreneurship has gone wild rather than becoming more civilised

(2) Representatives of the citizens (Netas) – have rights, ability and opportunity but lack the political will to rise above mean self interest, and

(3) Conscience Keepers (Activists, Press and Civil Society) – have the ability and opportunity but are driven by personal or borrowed agendas that are sponsored in cash and/or kind.

India has all the institutions of democracy but these institutions are turning into a formal shell. The vibrancy and energy of a democracy and the drive to see India achieve global recognition and success has unfortunately slipped away from the democratic arena and has instead moved into the hands of a small circle of a politico-economic elite. Unabated surfacing of scams and scandals involving public resources is proof enough. The public opinion and political opinion is being shaped by such elite and not through any public discourse. The politico-economic elite have been relentless in undermining the legislative and executive institutions beginning with the imposition of ‘Emergency’ in 1975. The last remaining bastion of an institution in the form of Judiciary, the Supreme Court of India has been attacked through an impeachment motion against the Chief Justice of India. Basically therefore, the biggest democracy in the world, the Indian democracy has a weak democratisation.


The palpable corollary is – Why is the State of Affairs so?

People that had gotten together around a common goal of getting India free from the British rule were left with no common goal to pursue after India became independent in 1947. With the threat and menace of external or foreign enemy gone, people were left to fend for themselves for their survival and growth. Self-interest dominated their psyche and their actions started getting selfish. The pyramid of priority of interests got inverted. The top-priority now was self-interest, followed by interest of caste, community, religion, class (labour, farmer). National-interest, which was at the peak before independence, tumbled down to the bottom. This is not to say that people have become less national or have turned anti-national.

But nationalism is an amorphous concept for my fellow citizens. Indians can exhibit it as a flag waving and loud sloganeering at international sporting arenas. Any time there is a perception of any threat or war like situation; Indians begin to exhibit national solidarity. In everyday life, without winking an eye, they defy civic rules and law and grab public goods and facilities (illicit parking on roads, wrong-side driving, littering, honking, queue-jumping, and so on are an everyday phenomenon) selfishly. In so doing, they have no concern for my fellow citizens and they have no remorse or guilt feeling of encroaching upon the rights of others. They do so with impunity, and nearly as a matter of entitlement. When they are caught breaking the law by the authorities, they try everything from name-dropping to begging for forgiveness and from denial to bribing their way through. Personal comfort and benefits are pursued relentlessly using all legitimate and illegitimate methods. Growth and good of the nation as a goal is no binding glue and people find no common ground for them as a group to get united.

The positions of the political parties have become very much alike. This means that there is not much to choose from for me as a voter. The effect is that political campaigns are looking more like advertising to make the differences look bigger. The private lives of the politicians have become an important issue in elections and we shy away from discussing “sensitive” issues. The elections are becoming anti-democratic because their outcomes are now in the hands of a small number of floating voters who are targeted with a narrow agenda. I usually end up with a feeling that my ‘priceless’ vote is actually quite worthless.

There are large shared interests between politics and business. Through lobbying and PR firms, multinational corporations are able to bring about legislation more effectively than the citizens. Business houses and the Indian government are in close relation because state need business. As modern businesses have almost no difficulty in moving to other countries, labour laws have become employee-unfriendly and tax bites have moved from companies to individuals. It has become more common for politicians and businessmen to switch and swap jobs.

With globalisation over the last 25 years, it is almost impossible for India to work out its own economic policy. While the other developed countries participate in large trade agreements and supranational unions (e.g., the European Union) to frame their policy, this level of politics is very hard to control with democratic instruments. Globalisation additionally endows transnational corporations with more political leverage given their ability to avoid regulation and they directly affect India’s economy.

India is getting caught into the neo-liberal idea of new public management of privatising public services. PPP model for funding public assets and public services is the new mantra. Privatised institutions are difficult to control by democratic means and have no allegiance to human communities, unlike government. The basic public goods – public spaces, public-conveniences, public-sanitation, public-transport, public-healthcare, public-education, all are moving into the hands of private firms which have the flexibility to bend to the market. These “phantom firms” have incentive to make individual profit rather than better the welfare of the public.


Is there no solution to such problems? Well, there is.

Right values, particularly to the very young citizens, should be imparted. Values are imparted by the parents/family, neighbourhoods, schools and the places of worship. Over the years, all these sources of values have themselves withered away.

The ‘chalta hai’ (anything goes) approach has to be nipped. The ‘jugaad’ (a hack or a solution that bends the rules and is work-around to a law) in the name of survival must be differentiated from the ‘jugaad’ (an innovative fix or a simple and creative work-around to a problem). The former must be shunned and the latter rewarded.

The costs in breaking the rules are too small and the gains from such actions are quite high. This must be corrected. Discipline and law-abiding behaviour must fetch rewards and the opposite behaviour must be made very expensive.

The deterioration of standards in public life has occurred over a long period of time and the solutions will take time to deliver. Representatives of the citizens and the conscience keepers have to commit themselves to such social transformation and lead the change.

People have come to expect spaces to present their concerns and ideas. Citizens’ lack of confidence and distance from institutions and their distrust in the ability of those that should meet their needs cannot be ignored. To restore trust we need to recreate governance from the ground up, and put citizens (back) at the heart of institutions.

Until then, I will keep wondering about the irony of being the citizen of a ‘thriving democracy’ wherein the already so weak and fragile ‘democratisation is fading.’


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Precariat – Appreciating the Rise of This Social Class

The richest 1 per cent in India cornered 73 per cent of the wealth generated in the country last year, a worrying picture of rising income inequality. Besides, 67 crore Indians comprising the population’s poorest half saw their wealth rise by just 1 per cent, as per the survey released by the international rights group Oxfam. The situation appears even grimmer globally, where 82 per cent of the wealth generated last year worldwide went to the 1 per cent, while 3.7 billion people that account for the poorest half of population saw no increase in their wealth. That the global picture is worse than what it is for India can be a very fragile solace.

In sociology and economics, the precariat is a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare. Specifically, it is the condition of lack of job security, including intermittent employment or underemployment and the resultant precarious existence.

In pursuit of competitiveness, governments have implemented policies of labor flexibility, making labour more insecure, leaving millions without health care, pensions or other benefits. Governments have turned to means-tested social assistance and to workfare. The welfare state has withered. The precariat has emerged from the liberalisation that underpinned globalisation. It consists of a multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development, including millions of frustrated educated youth who do not like what they see before them, millions of women abused in oppressive labour, growing numbers of criminalised tagged for life, millions being categorised as ‘disabled’ and migrants in their hundreds of millions around the world. They are denizens; they have a more restricted range of social, cultural, political and economic rights than citizens around them.

Precariat is a new dangerous class-in-the-making, internally divided into angry and bitter factions, who face overlapping challenges of unemployment, low income and loss of social security. Most in it do not belong to any professional or craft community; they have no social memory on which to call, and no shadow of the future hanging over their deliberations with other people, making them opportunistic. The biggest dangers are social illnesses and the risk that populist politicians will play on their fears and insecurities to lure them onto the rocks of neo-fascism, blaming ‘big government’ and ‘strangers’ for their plight.

So far, the precariat in Europe has been mostly engaged in EuroMayDay parades and loosely organised protests. But this is changing rapidly, as events in Spain and Greece are showing, following on the precariat-led uprisings in the middle-east. Recent political discourse directed at the Precariat shaping the success in the election outcomes of the US, France and Philippines show the strength of this emerging class. Precariats face insecurity, instability and vulnerability. This tribe is as much anti-state as it is anti-business.

A progressive strategy for the precariat must involve more equitable control over other key assets of a tertiary society – quality time, quality space, knowledge and financial capital. There is no valid reason for all the revenue from financial capital going to tiny elite who have a particular talent to make money from money. The only way to reduce income inequality in an open market society is to ensure an equitable distribution of financial capital.

This article draws on “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class” by Guy Standing


In Modi, We Trust! Why?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, nearly four years after coming to power remains “by far the most popular national figure in Indian politics.” Multiple Opinion surveys (latest being survey by ABP News-Lokniti-CSDS and India Today-Karvy survey, both conducted in January 2018) say people are satisfied with the direction in which the country is being steered and the state of the economy under Modi despite the controversial decision to ban high currency notes, shoddy implementation of GST, Cow vigilantism, Doklam, Dalit agitation and a bleak employment situation.  Why are we in love with Narendra Modi?

A very simple, intuitive and rational answer to the question is because we, the citizens, believe that his ideas work or promise to do so. In the latter case, his ideas can still be evaluated subsequently and adopted more widely or discarded as inappropriate. We, the citizens, believe that Modi is working towards a purpose, is methodical in his approach and has the cognitive capabilities to understand the problems of the people. This is in spite of the ground reality that specifying the nature of the problems and objectives is difficult and the impact/success of practices or interventions by Modi are notoriously difficult to isolate.

A completely different point of view also offers an equally plausible explanation for the triumph of Modi’s discourse. Modi and his ideas epitomise the underlying anxieties and yearnings and a corresponding ‘need’ for a potentially comforting sense of order and identity and/or control of the citizens. This notwithstanding the fact that Modi’s perspective is typically associated with emotionally charged, sometimes impulsive, decisions to adopt, often simplistic and rational ideas without serious attention being given to their likely effectiveness for such a complex country.

None from his party or from any other political party is challenging Modi to be the Prime Minister of India save and except a feeble claim by Rahul Gandhi. All political parties are adopting similar practices to catch the fancy of the voters.  Practices like — dressing up, head-gears, temple-visits are being adopted for symbolic reasons — seeking electorate legitimacy— rather than, or even regardless of, efficiency or control outcomes.

Cultural (social identity) plurality and fluidity across such large and spread out country like India are both an advantage and a challenge.  In giving primacy to social context, such approaches are concerned with variety as well as homogeneity in being shaped by factors such as the ‘mentality’ of local political elites; role of local media and professional groups and religious networks. There is a distinction between the ideologies and techniques associated with individual approaches and either is adopted independently. For example, Rahul claimed being a ‘Janeu-Dhari-Shiv-Bhakt’ (technique) in Gujarat without overtly supporting Hinduism (ideology), something which did not resonate culturally with the electorate.

Modi exudes the persuasive powers of a political guru through his charisma and verbal and nonverbal presentation techniques thereby connecting with the citizens who have been starving for such relationship over the long years of UPA government. He has the key of impression management, not content, although ‘the content (i.e. packaging) is itself part of the performance.’

Modi is often active and tactical in the production and transformation of ideas into rhetoric. ‘Rhetoric’ is rarely appropriate or necessary in governance though it is an essential ingredient to politicking and politics. ‘Mere rhetoric’ should be typically contrasted with reality or truth. The underlying problem with such narratives is in ‘fight/ flight’ where survival rests on destroying or evading the ‘enemy’ (“Congress Mukt Bharat”) and ‘dependency’ on an all-powerful leader (Modi himself) who is beyond criticism.

Demand for new ideas in political discourse is shaped by a competition between ‘techno-economic forces’ and ‘socio-psychological vulnerabilities.’ Modi is successful in supplying ideas to fuel Current Political Discourse, some of which are faddish, others fashionable and few substantive.

At the risk of simplification, different factors that are making Modi successful with the citizens are — his effectiveness in the party and in the government; his relieving anxiety and securing identity for an ordinary person cutting across age, gender and religion;  his successful rhetoric; his cultural resonance or meaning; and securing legitimacy to his ideas through electoral victories.

A lesson that Modi has scripted for all – be they journalists, opinion-makers, intellectuals, drawing-room debaters, civil-society activists, tv-hosts or the so called ‘Architects of Networked Disinformation’- rationality is necessarily political, emotional, cultural, institutional and rhetorical, but not reducible to any of them.