Challenges to democracy in India

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By: Syed Mustafa Ahmad

When Widrow Wilson (former US president) said that democracy to him is the release of energies of every human-being, he was not making a statement. He actually underlined a universal truth. The very existence of India as a nation rests on its democratic ideals. But today the democratic legitimacy of the state in India is in question because the electoral process is marred by money and muscle power.

The attempts to develop grassroots democratic institutions and to build decentralized democratic structures at the regional levels in response to the growing demands of some ethnic groups do not seem to have been effective. The liberalization in 1991 has hit the poor. There is a wide chasm between the rich and the poor. The evil of corruption is present everywhere and has shaken the foundation of Indian democracy. The institutions and the actors of democracy seem to falter and the citizens have begun to wonder about the way-out.

The greatest challenge before our democracy today is about how we make it relevant for the common man. A representative democracy should work for the achievement of socio-economic and political justice for the common man, for the eradication of poverty, for putting an end to the exploitation of the disadvantaged sections of society and for providing the basic needs of the people.

Mahatma Gandhi’s notion of democracy contemplates that the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest. Dr B.R. Ambedkar emphasized that democracy is incompatible and inconsistent with isolation and exclusiveness resulting in the distinction between the privileged and the unprivileged.

The fruits of development should be enjoyed by one and all equally and human dignity should remain inviolate under all circumstances. For this, people have to be freed from discriminations based on race, ethnicity, class or gender. The problems of unemployment and under-unemployment are breeding other social evils and contributing to major tensions in different parts of the country today.

The working class, which is contributing significantly to the building of modern India, is not receiving its due recognition from the system as a whole. More than one-third of our citizens are yet to be extended the benefit of basic education. Only about six percent of the university age group is actually taking the benefit of higher education in the country today. Nearly half-a-million of our villages are still without access to safe drinking water and dependable energy supply. The benefits of modern science and the developments in the field of science, information technology and communications technologies have not reached a substantial section of our people yet. Nearly 224 million of our citizens continue to live below the poverty line.

Socioeconomic development is not catering to the needs of the majority of the population. It is bypassing a significant segment of our population today. Absence of a credible social security system makes life uncertain even for those enjoying at least minimum quality of living today. Thus, it is essential that all institutions of governance, be it the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, should be sensitive to the hopes, aspirations and frustrations of the people and discharge their duties effectively and promptly. We cannot hold distributive justice as a distant dream anymore. As such, basic issues such as food, shelter, healthcare, clothing, unemployment, etc., should occupy the center stage in our national discourses transcending partisan politics.

With over a billion population, of which nearly half constitute women, the question of empowerment of women is of very special significance. This is a major challenge before our democracy today which needs to be addressed urgently. The country has to put an end to gender bias, outdated values and societal attitudes that inhibit women’s effective participation in public affairs and should endeavor to empower women socially, economically and educationally. It is to be done not as a charity but recognizing the rights of women and as their entitlements as citizens in a democracy, in the evolution of which their contribution has been in no small measure.

Another important challenge before our democracy today is that of improving the effectiveness of our justice deliver system. An independent judiciary has been accorded an important role in our constitutional set up to protect the rights and interests of the citizens. No doubt, our judiciary has been playing its constitutional role in preserving, protecting and promoting Fundamental Rights of the citizens, in many cases checking administrative lapses and curbing executive excesses, yet the growing inadequacies of the system, the mounting arrears of cases and slow moving judicial process, apart from charges of corruption, in many instances, result in denial of justice itself to the common man.

Another great challenge before us is to see that secular politics is strengthened in our country and religious feeling do not dictate our political activities. Secularism is not a luxury to be tolerated by the political class selectively, but is an essential quality to be promoted by the Indian State, if our national unity and integrity are to be sustained.

Intolerance, negativism, hatred and violence that have been generated in the country in the name of narrow, parochial, sectarian, religious and other divisive issues have greatly vitiated the political atmosphere in the country and have inhibited our development. Therefore, we need to constantly highlight issues which unite the nation than which divide it.

Education is about rational enquiry. An educated and informed citizenry is the greatest asset of s democracy. Ultimately, only through a progressive and forward looking courses of study, with emphasis on scientific subjects, can we succeed in pulling down the walls that divide our people from one another and bring about an India truly integrated.

Our collective endeavour should be the establishment of an inclusive and modern social order, where the state should fight against the socially dangerous and outdated superstitious and traditions and endeavour to bring social harmony and socio-political and economic stability of the people. Unfortunately, today there is a wide gap between the educational opportunities available to the rich, educated and urban centred people and the poor, illiterate or semi-literate, rural and other disadvantageously placed. One of the principal reasons for the various initiatives for socioeconomic development bypassing a significant segment of our population today is the lack of access to a quality education relevant to their requirements.

The greatest challenge before our democracy today is that of ensuring the full empowerment of all sections of our people. This would involve ensuring health for all, education for all and security for all. This is the expected end-result of democracy, which can be achieved only when the power structure is adequately representative of all sections of the society. The greatest challenge of good governance is to bridge the gap between the expectations of the people and the effectiveness of the delivery mechanisms.

Last but not the least, a socially, economic and politically empowered India will be scientifically and the technologically advanced and industrially developed. It will be effectively decentralized and consist of self-sufficient villages. It will be an India in which our social status will be decided not by our social standing in the caste hierarchy, but exclusively by our worth as an individual and as a citizen of this great country. It will be free from the scourges of communalism, poverty, illiteracy, exploitation, and unemployment and free from the feudal hangover and will provide plenty of choices for the fuller development of our human potential and ensure a dignified existence for all our citizens.

Apart from the above-mentioned things, the scourge of hate speech should be eliminated at the earliest. It is a dangerous phenomenon in the smooth functioning of democracy in general and the development of the personalities in particular. There should reinterpretation of the Constitution according to the present circumstances.

I am not talking about the nullification of the Constitution but the modern age demands something new. Globalization is showing true colors. So, there should be constitutionalism with creative debates and the noise should not be taken as a debate. Dissent should be kept where it is. No need to define it again. Let dissent flow and there will be happy democracy.

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