India’s selfish elite holds the Republic back

It is perplexing how the world’s most populous democracy is so flawed. How can a country, whose elections are cited as an exuberant example of people-power, produce governments that serve their people so badly?


John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship, London

As an outsider, it would be inappropriate to enter into the debate about India’s internal political structures. But the broader picture is troubling: the extent to which the aspirations and behaviour of citizens in the so-called democracies and authoritarian regimes have converged over the past 20 years of globalization.

From Mumbai to Shanghai to Dubai (to coin that phrase of whizkid financiers), via London and New York, we have witnessed the erosion of liberties in our seemingly insatiable quest for wealth and our urge for an illusory security.

The model for this new world order is Singapore. The city-state has a large number of well-educated and well-travelled people keen to defend a system that requires an almost complete abrogation of freedom of expression in return for a good material life. This is the pact. In each country it varies; citizens hand over different freedoms in accordance with their own customs and priorities.

Barrington Moore’s theories of “no bourgeoisie, no democracy” have been disavowed by these two decades of uber-materialism. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the assumption was that free markets and free societies would work in perfect harmony. Instead, people in all countries found a way to disengage from the political process while seeking greater comfort.

Consumerism provided the ultimate anesthetic. Economic growth, rather than being a force for democratic involvement, reinforced the confidence of business and political elites. These neo-liberal advocates became consumed by their own intellectual overshoot, redefining democracy and liberty through notions such as privatization, profit maximization, disdain for the needs of civil society and social justice.

What matters, particularly for the middle class, are ‘private freedoms’ — the right to own property; to run businesses according to contract law; the right to travel unimpeded and the right to determine one’s own personal life. The pre-eminent freedom is financial — the right to earn money and consume it unimpeded. Public freedoms, such as free speech, free association and participatory politics become dispensable.

So where does India, with its raucous public discourse and its flamboyant democracy, come into this equation? As Pankaj Mishra points out, in order for India’s elite to fulfil its ambitions in a country of such poverty, inequality and misrule, it had to create a parallel universe. The events of November 26, 2008 changed that equation. Wealthy Indians’ fury at the Mumbai bombings arose from the realization that their pact had been broken. They never asked questions of the security forces when violence was meted out to the less fortunate. But what they did not expect, or take kindly to, was that their lives would be put at risk by incompetents at the home ministry, police department, army or intelligence services.

Till then, the wealthy had demanded little from the state and received only what they needed, such as the right to avoid fair taxation. They did not have to rely on lamentable public services. Their air conditioned SUVs would glide over the uneven roads; their diesel-fed generators would smooth over the cracks in the energy supply. The elite had been happy to secede from active politics.

How different is this from other countries? Circumstances may vary but the trade-off remains the same in each country. It’s interesting to note the way the Indian and Chinese systems fare in the delivery of good governance and liberty. In China, most of the wealthy find the small pro-democracy movement an encumbrance. These political activists are disturbing the pact that ensures one-party hegemony in return for social stability, continual economic growth and respect for ‘private’ freedoms. In return, individuals do not meddle with the state. Pallavi Aiyar, a journalist recently based in China, offers this neat comparison: “While in China the Communist Party derived its legitimacy from delivering growth, in India a government derived its legitimacy simply from having been voted in.” She adds, “The legitimacy of democracy in many ways absolved Indian governments from the necessity of performing. The Chinese Communist Party could afford no such luxury.”

The problem in India, particularly since economic liberalization in 1991, is not wealth creation. Nor is it democratic institutions. It is governance, the inability to deliver freedoms for the vast majority of its people. Politics and business have worked together to use power as a means of enrichment. The comfortable classes could have been active in the public realm. Unlike in authoritarian states, they would not have been punished for causing trouble. They chose not to. The level of complicity is, therefore, surely higher.