It is well known that we, the people of India, solemnly resolved on the twenty-sixth day of November 1949 to constitute India into a democratic republic. But it is not so well remembered that the democratic republic was constituted not only to fortify our newly won freedom but also to enrich the life of the people who had suffered multiple deprivations under colonial rule. Specifically, our democratic republic was to secure to all (repeat, all) its citizens, among others, justice social, economic and political, besides equality of status and of opportunity.

Today, 55 years down the road, when we want to reflect on the state of democracy in our country, we need to look at both the state of democratic scaffolding, namely adult franchise, and the enrichment of life. We need also to look at the enabling conditions that were to be created for the goal of justice and equality to fructify.

Foremost, we took the fundamental step to usher in the democratic form of governance by the people through adult franchise. Every adult citizen is vested with the right to vote and to exercise that right regularly every five years to choose representatives to the legislatures and the executive through the latter. This exercise we have gone through fourteen times including the latest 2004 elections to the Lok Sabha. This is creditable. Not only by itself but also in comparative terms. The people of our companion country born a day before India, have experienced the trampling – by military boots – of their democratic right to choose a representative governance. For over 40 out of 55 years they have had to bear military dictatorship.

But to turn back to India, the electoral framework adopted is recognised as necessary but not sufficient. It affords equality (arithmetical equality) in the electoral sphere. But that equality faces threats from gross disparities which plague the life of the citizens in other crucial spheres – economic and social. Our political democracy has been subjected to severe malnutrition. True, we have gone through periodic elections to produce accountable governance, but it is by no means infused with the requisite good health. For example, while education of the electorate is not a precondition for adult franchise, it is indispensable oxygen for the body-politic.

Our Founding Fathers saw that connection crystal clear and wrote down in the Directive Principles (Article 45) for the State to arrange for universalisation of elementary education within ten years i.e. before the Third General Election. How we have violated and molested this mandate of the Constitution is well known. Even the meanest intelligence can figure out the deleterious, if not dangerous, consequences this failure to universalise elementary education has on the health and sustainability of our infant democracy.

Of course, the Constituent Assembly did not want to delay universal adult franchise even by a day despite the lack of education amongst the masses. Nelson Mandela had faced this debate early in the sixties during his trial for treason. He recalls (Long Walk to Freedom) an encounter in the court with a White Judge, where lack of education was advanced as an excuse for denial of democratic freedom to the black population of South Africa:

    I became testy with Judge Rumpff when he fell into the mistake made by so many white South Africans about the idea of a universal franchise. Their notion was that to exercise this responsibility, voters must be ‘educated’. To a narrow thinking person, it is hard to explain that to be ‘educated’ does not only mean being literate and having a BA, and that an illiterate man can be a far more ‘educated’ voter than someone with an advanced degree.

    When I thought of Western democracy and freedom, I thought of the British parliamentary system. In so many ways, the very model of the gentleman for me was an Englishman. Despite Britain being the home of parliamentary democracy, it was that democracy that had helped to inflict a pernicious system of iniquity on my people.

    -- Nelson Mandela

Another attendant proposition for deepening democracy and binding it with cohesion was to reorganise our polity that would enable the citizens to advance with the nutrient of their unique culture of which language is a rich ingredient for the goals of justice and equality of opportunity to be furthered. The British, being alien rulers, had fashioned political arrangements in India to satisfy one criterion – “administrative convenience” – and not people’s convenience and had made their language English as the principal language of administration.

But to foster equality of opportunity, required, as the State Reorganisation Commission (SRC, formed in 1953) was to observe, “that constituent units of a federation should have a minimum measure of internal cohesion. Likewise a regional consciousness… In the sense of scope for positive expression of the collective personality of a people initiating a state or a region may be conducive to the contentment and well being of the community. Common language may not only promote the growth of such regional consciousness but also make for administrative convenience and for a proper understanding of governmental measures by the people”. The SRC held that “indeed in a democracy the people can legitimately claim and the government have a duty to ensure that the administration is conducted in a language which the people can understand”.

Earlier in 1928, a Committee appointed by the All Parties Conference and headed by Nehru had put it eloquently “language as a rule corresponds with a special variety of culture, of traditions and literature. In a linguistic area all these factors will help in the general progress of the province” and “the main consideration must necessarily be the wishes of the people and the linguist unity of the area concerned”.

But after Independence, the leadership dithered and delayed. The ghost of ‘administrative convenience’ haunted them. That retarded speedy translation of the Nehru Committee’s clear-cut perspective. In the event, the streets saw violence. Decisions then flowed out of pressure but still not at one go. Andhra one day, Gujarat another, Haryana and Himachal yet another, Uttaranchal after decades. In the process the very values which were to be fostered – cohesion, unity and environment for contentment of the people – were frustrated.

What our democratic seed required to prosper was a swift radical burial of the colonial affront to the cultural and linguistic sentiments of the people. What was served instead was half-hearted and halted with obvious consequences to our body politic. The creative momentum of the freedom struggle was dissipated. Indeed, the continuance till today of the colonial type of administration – centre-ridden, has suffocated the resurgence of people’s creativity which cultural cohesion was to nurse. A severe self-imposed handicap.

Another significant thought of the Founding Fathers was to extend democratic governance at all levels for active mass participation. For this it was envisaged that democratic governance would be institutionalised and spatially extended across the country to be accessible to the people at all times and at all places. Democracy, it was held, must be intimately experienced and propelled by the people, on a day-to-day basis and in every nook and corner (rural and urban) of our vast country. Accordingly the Constituent Assembly gave a “definite and unequivocal” direction that the entire structure of governance be built of the substance of self-government starting from the village panchayat (Article 40).

Alas, this mandate too, just like universalisation of elementary education has been observed more in the breach, thus weakening our democratic design. Even after 55 long years, the structure of self-government has not received the required attention, let alone helped to take roots. Rather, it is visited by inimical and hostile political and bureaucratic winds and whims. As the Karnataka High Court reminded us in the nineties, the Parliament and State legislatures are only domes of democracy that cannot sustain without the pillars of local self-government. The court also observed that the administration howsoever good and competent – being not accountable to the people – cannot be a substitute for panchayats governed by elected representatives and accountable to the people – not to the bosses in a long ladder of hierarchy.

Often the alibi advanced by the authorities for this failure was that panchayats did not have a clear-cut backing of the Constitution. That alibi was sought to be buried in the nineties by the 73rd and 74th Amendments whose avowed aim was to invest the panchayats with “certainty, continuity and strength”. But the Standing Committee of Parliament, which in 2002 reviewed the progress of implementation of the constitutional amendments, came to the sad conclusion that both the central and state governments were guilty of wilful default in obeying the constitutional mandate. The consequences are obvious: the domes continue to look to the sky for survival in the absence of grass-rooted pillars. The existence of the super structure of our democracy (Parliament, State Assemblies) thus remains precarious.

Even the electoral system – the lynchpin of our political life is semi starved. We have not yet found a way to ensure that every single eligible voter’s name is in the voters’ list. This is an unpardonable denial of voting opportunity to a huge number of entitled persons. This is due largely to administrative deficiency or ineptness. In part this represents an organisational failure of the Election Commission to facilitate all willing and ready voters to reach the polling booth without fear and obstruction. It frustrates the promise of the freedom struggle ‘to put political power in every hand’, a declaration reaffirmed in the Quit India Resolution of August 1942.

The injury to our democratic edifice is compounded by the fact that even after five decades, the extent of votes polled is stuck around sixty odd per cent. There are a variety of reasons for the missing forty per cent voters – voter apathy is one. But this represents failure of political parties to pay organised and dedicated attention to voter education and mobilisation of voters to ensure full or fuller voter turnout.

There has to be a resolute commitment by the parties themselves to deny tickets to dubious candidates in the first place.
The character of the individual candidates (criminal and corrupt background) also inhibits voter turnout. “To vote for whom?” they are at a loss. Recent direction of the Supreme Court on the right of the voter to have information on crucial aspects of the candidate’s criminal antecedents, assets (read for corruption) through disclosures by the candidates under their own signatures is a step in the right direction. But it still remains to be seen how far the political parties will respect and respond to these directions. More to the point is that there has to be a resolute commitment by the parties themselves to deny nomination to dubious candidates in the first place. This alas is not in evidence. Relentless pressure exercised by civic society such as by Election Watch committees in recent elections, is thus indispensable.

A vital atmospheric element in creating conditions necessary for the flourishing of healthy democracy is clean political air to which Gandhiji accorded high priority. Recalling her interview with Gandhiji in the Aga Khan Palace where he was detained during the Quit India Movement, (Mahatma Gandhi’s Last Imprisonment – the Inside Story), Sushila Nayar has this gem for us:

    One day, during the last few days of his life, I asked Bapu: “Bapu, you have often said that you are really a social reformer at heart. You had to enter politics because you could not carry out social reforms in the face of obstacles created by foreign rule. But now that we are free, will you devote yourself to constructive work and concentrate on social reform?” His reply was, “if I survive the flames surrounding me today, my first job will be to reform politics”.
    -- Gandhi as told to Sushila Nayar

55 years after Independence, the people at large, prime minister Manmohan Singh, opposition leaders, the Election Commission of India, the Supreme Court – are all crying, day after day, for clean politics. We have to pray for our democracy. Its structure is likely to subsist the odds galore – but what of its substance?