Sunday, November 16, 2003

Reforms, not replacement
Randeep Wadehra

Democracy is Demonocracy
by Opender Nath Karir; Sahasrara Publications, Noida. Rs. 495. 
Pages 495. 

Democracy is DemonocracyMuch before Fareed Zakaria, Kishore Madhubani ó a Singaporean diplomatist ó had declared in 1994: "To have good government, you often need less, not more, democracy." Democracy and good governance are distinct, but inter-related and largely inter-dependent concepts. Popular consent does ensure legislationís effective implementation. Moreover, whatís good for a miniscule city-state like Singapore isnít necessarily efficacious for a vast multicultural entity like India.

Demonising democracy isnít a new phenomenon. Plato remarks: "Democracy passes into despotism." Here, G.B. Shaw is ambivalent: "Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few." British cleric Dean Inge is assertive: "Democracy is only an experiment in government, and it has the obvious disadvantage of merely counting votes instead of weighing them." American sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein is scathing: "Democracy canít work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, thatís all there is ó so democracy, a theory based on assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group." Karir is in excellent company indeed.

The author has gleaned enough material from diverse sources to buttress his argument for replacement of democracy with what he calls Selectocracy, perhaps a variant of meritocracy. Our democratic institutions are not perfect. Booth capturing, rigging, defections etc reveal a systemic malaise, but who is to blame? Politiciansí venality is a truism. They thwarted attempts to bar the entry of criminals into politics. Mercifully, our Supreme Court and Election Commission have made it mandatory for candidates to declare their assets and antecedents while filing nominations. Similar corrective measures can eradicate other evils in our polity.

Our Constitution makers rightly deemed the quasi-federal democratic structure as ideal for our composite society. Although there are drawbacks in the system, it is dynamic enough to rectify the woofs and the warps. Karir has misinterpreted Gandhiís criticism of Parliament as its condemnation [p. 334]. It was rather a caution against pitfalls inherent in any power structure.

Selectocracy as alternative to democracy is a non-starter. Karir prescribes national-level examinations for selecting prospective candidates for municipal committees, state legislatures and Parliament. Who will conduct these examinations? Who will select the deciding authority? What would the checks be against malpractice in the selection process? Selectocracy might well take away our fundamental rights and institutionalise nepotism, legitimise elitism, banish egalitarianism and encourage corruption with no corrective mechanism to check the rot.

For the various imperfections in our system, Karir has gone ballistic against voters. It is like damning the victim. Ever since Independence, voters in India have religiously demonstrated their faith in democratic institutions. The old and the infirm, the physically challenged and the destitute vie with their more fortunate compatriots to cast votes, hoping against hope that this will somehow improve their lot. Subsequent disappointment does not deflect them from the democratic path. Yet this book portrays them as short-sighted, ungrateful, forgetful [p. 17], unreliable [p. 18], corrupt and contemptible [p. 22], apathetic, fanatic, fickle, irresponsible etc.

Overlooking the Sahib Singh-Khurana feud, Karir attributes BJPís defeat in the 1998 Delhi legislature elections to the "ungrateful" voterís concern for the rise in onion-tomato-garlic prices. However, the voter does worry about his economic survival rather than be grateful for fancy projects. The post-liberalisation hype notwithstanding, vast swathes of populace are yet to feel the happy effects of opulence. They are struggling to eke out a living in slums and in the vast rural hinterland where existential compulsions render ideological-political pontifications meaningless.

He bemoans the rise of the likes of Laloo Yadav and Jayalalitha on our political landscape, but such politicians become popular only when mainstream political parties fail to meet peopleís socio-economic aspirations. The need of the hour is value-based politics that would benefit all. Thus, the role of those manning our politico-administrative superstructure becomes fundamental. Those at the helm need to vitalise our democratic institutions, enabling these to take remedial steps against evils that tend to creep insidiously into the system. American churchman Reinhold Niebuhr aptly observes: "Manís capacity for evil makes democracy necessary and manís capacity for good makes democracy possible."

Karir ought to be thanked for this polemical and thought-provoking book. It tells us what all has gone wrong with our polity, which neednít be replaced, but reformed Ė to quote from Dr Kashyapís foreword ó "within the broad democratic polity framework".