India's Pseudo-Democracy
Commentator Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri

India's Pseudo-Democracy

The country may not match up to its Asian neighbors in prosperity, but Indians have always been able to boast of the vitality of their parliamentary system. Nowadays, such boasts are heard far less frequently

By Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri

Recently, India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said that despite the outward appearance of health, Indian democracy appears to have become hollow, with elections reduced to a farce and the "party system eroded due to unethical practices." According to Vajpayee, "The outer shell of democracy is, no doubt, intact, but appears to be moth-eaten from inside."

Indeed, in the preface to a recent collection of his speeches, Vajpayee wondered whether democracy had truly taken root in India. "How can democratic institutions work properly," he asked, "when politics is becoming increasingly criminalized?"

This is a strange turn, for parliamentary democracy has long been a source of pride for most Indians. The country may not match up to its Asian neighbors in prosperity, but Indians have always been able to boast of the vitality of their parliamentary system. Nowadays, such boasts are heard far less frequently.

Not only are India's economic failures more obvious, in comparison to Asia's revived economic juggernauts; so, too, are the failures of its political system. Unprincipled politics, cults of violence, communal rage, and macabre killings of religious minorities have all combined to shake people's faith in the political system's viability. Small wonder, then, that people are starting to ask whether India needs an alternative system of government.

Part of the problem lies in India's deracinated party politics. For decades, the Congress Party of Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, basically ruled the country unchallenged. But with the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and her son, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Congress disintegrated and has not recovered. Rather than ushering in an era of recognizable multi-party politics, Indian democracy still lacks a party system worthy of the name.

One reason for this is that there are barely any national parties. Instead, India is saddled with highly volatile leader-based groups. When the leadership is charismatic and strong, the party is a servile instrument. Lacking coherent principles or an overriding ideology, these groups fragment when their leadership changes or splits, as Congress did.

Where parties are weak, there can be no party discipline. India's parliament is riddled with defections by MPs, who move freely from one party grouping to another. So endemic is the buying and selling of legislators that parliament looks a lot like a cattle market. The prizes conferred on opportunistic defectors not only undermine the party system, but weaken the foundations of parliament by making organized opposition impossible.

Public apathy bordering on fatalism is the inevitable result. This is dangerous because apathy does not take the form of withdrawal from public life, but increasingly finds expression in sectarian and religious conflict. Of course, politicians incite many of these conflicts, using caste, sect, and religion--not political ideas--to build voter loyalty. But apathy about democracy is what makes so many ordinary Indians prey to poisonous appeals.

This susceptibility is the clearest sign that India's experiment with the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy has failed to justify the hopes that prevailed fifty years ago when the Constitution was proclaimed. Back then, parliament was seen as a means to bridge the divides of caste, religion, and region. Parliament's increasing irrelevance in sorting out these problems--indeed, its role in exacerbating them--is fueling a growing preference among Indians for a presidential system of government that removes executive functions from the oversight of an institution that has been addled and rendered impotent by undisciplined factions.

Of course, politicians are not the only people at fault here. Sadly, Indian society never really embraced the consensual values that India's Constitution proclaims: a participatory, decentralized democracy; an egalitarian society with minimal social and economic disparities; a secularized polity; the supremacy of the rule of law; a federal structure ensuring partial autonomy to provinces; cultural and religious pluralism; harmony between rural and urban areas; and an efficient, honest state administration at both the national and local level.

Instead, race and caste remain as potent as ever. Wealth is as grossly distributed as ever. Corruption rules many state governments and national ministries. Urban and rural areas subvert each other.

But parliaments demand a minimal national consensus if they are to function, for they are creatures of compromise in decision-making. Executive governments, on the other hand, are creatures of decision: a popularly elected president is ultimately responsible to his voters, not to his party colleagues.

The very election by national suffrage of an executive provides the type of minimal consensus that India's faction-riven parliaments have, sadly, never been able to cultivate. Of course, a president will undoubtedly need to compromise with his legislature, but the general consent that is gained by popular election implies at least some broader agreement behind the platform that he or she campaigned on.

Of course, no magic bullet will do away with the forces that divide India. But at least some of the maladies of the current parliamentary system, such as defection, party factionalism, inherent political instability, and crippling coalition politics can be minimized, if not eliminated, by adopting an executive-dominant model of presidential democracy. In adopting such a system, Indians would have nothing to lose but the corruption and chaos of today's discredited parliament.
Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri, Emeritus Professor at India's University Grants Commission, is a former Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, and Research Coordinator at the Stockholm International Peace Institute.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, November 2003. 

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This essay was published by Project Syndicate <> in its "The Asian Century" series and is used here by permission. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.