Democracy Essay

Is The Democracy Bad For Development?

Democracy in the context of the Indian case has always been an intellectual puzzle. Its significantly variegated society with its many communal and ethnic divisions coupled with widespread socio-economic disparities has managed to survive the democratic challenge. The Democratic institutions of Independent India consolidated within the constitutional framework have demonstrated principles such as impartiality, secularism, and equality before law and have included arrangements such as effective courts, responsive electoral systems, functioning parliaments and assemblies, open and free media and participatory institutions of local governance. The performance of such institutions though, is contingent on a wide range of social conditions, from educational levels and political traditions to the nature of social inequalities and popular organisations. [2] In the strengthening of such democratic practice, a wide variance can be observed from the democratic ideals the country aspires to achieve.

The framework provided by the gaps between these democratic ideals, institutions and practice is used in this essay to analyze democracy in the Indian context while understanding its implications on the development of the country.

Democracy and Development:
Democracy and development have always been recognised to have an intrinsic relationship. The modernisation theory of the 1960s held that Western economic and political liberalism represented the ‘good’ society in itself, and that it constituted the broad historical convergence point of diverse developmental trajectories. [3] Developing from such propositions is the new found belief that democracy is a necessary prior condition for development while it may or may not be a sufficient one.

According to Adrian Leftwich this presupposition is not well qualified. He develops the argument that there are inherent tensions, conflicts, and trade offs over time between various goals of development- growth, democracy, stability, equity and autonomy. This further implies that there are special preconditions for a stable democracy that cannot be instituted at any stage in the development process of a society and may well hinder development as opposed to the common notion of enhancing it.

The term development has a connotation of an all encompassing term of social, economic and political enhancement. The World Bank provides certain prerequisites for development. These include:

An efficient public service

An independent judicial system and legal framework to enforce contracts

Accountable administration of public funds

An independent public auditor responsible to a representative legislature

Respect for the law and human rights at all levels of the government

A pluralistic institutional structure and,

A free press [4]

With these directives in consideration, development has popularly become directly related to a liberal democratic capitalist regime, presided over by a minimal state. [5] Democracy, which is often considered as a concomitant of modernity has sometimes even been thought of as an outcome of socio-economic development rather than a condition of it. [6]

Economic Development
With the collapse of large planned economies and large scale intervention in state economies, there has been an emphasis on the inevitable relationship between democracy and markets. The belief is that, insofar as democracy is about political freedom for individuals, markets are about economic freedom and the two must serve the interests of the people in cohesion. [7] The interdependence between markets and governance implies that in the absence of such rights as property rights, legal rights, entitlements etc., the markets could very well fail to function. The democratic regime in India must therefore complement economic development by providing and ensuring the enforcement of such rights along with the redistribution and allocation of the resources of society in a fair and just manner to ensure welfare maximisation and social equity.

Beginning with the 1980s, the IMF and the World Bank sought to promote open and competitive free market economies to minimise state-led development and avoid developmental stagnation. The process of macro-economic stabilization in India was a consequence of the external debt crisis which surfaced in 1991 and led to large scale liberalization measures that saw great departure from the past independent India. [8] The reorientation of economic policy saw measures such as privatisation, disinvestment, reduction in subsidies, promotion of greater competition, reduction of the scale of the public sector and various other stimulating measures for greater efficiency and productivity in the economy. These adjustment measures called for strong resistance from an organised opposition of bureaucrats and political elites.

Democracy can therefore be seen as, often retarding the process of political or economic reform to the extent that it allows such powerful groups to cash in on elected representatives’ inclination towards a policy of appeasement and a conscious effort to increase its vote banks. While the Indian polity was necessitated to pay heed to this opposition, the looming fear of insolvency and failing debt payments had become the most important agenda to be addressed in the political campaigns of most major parties. The success of the 1990s reforms can be attributed to a number of social and political variables but the important aspect to highlight here is the tension that is created in a democratic environment when developmental reforms take shape.

Another major hindrance to economic development and a cause for contention between democracy and development is posed by the problem of corruption. In such a large democracy as India, administrative positions in office have typically accounted for large embezzlements and cases of corrupt practices. From a development perspective it is evident that such practices adversely affect both equity and efficiency in an economy. The redistribution of resources tends to be positively skewed towards bureaucrats and influential commercial officers. Moreover, it tends to undermine democratic institutions by diverting the efforts of political leaders through organised movements of special interest groups.

Local Democracies
The basic objective of development, according to Amartya Sen should be the expansion of human capabilities rather than merely a generation of economic growth in terms of expanding gross national product and related variables. [9] An important aspect in the developmental process is therefore strengthening of democratic participation and reduction of the asymmetries in the opportunities available to different sections of society.

One such promotion of social opportunity has been in effect following the ‘Panchayati Raj’ amendments that have brought into action, local representative institutions aimed at promoting a healthier practice of democracy at the local level. In the context of local “panchayats”, democracy directly affects socio-economic development by affecting social equity, gender relations, caste differences and economic asymmetries. The practice of local democracy with its political representation of women and scheduled castes has sometimes even managed to question traditional inequalities in the freedoms and space provided to these marginalised sections although the efficacy of such reformative measures needs further assessment.

Local democracies help in not only participatory politics but can also be seen to have an intrinsic value for the quality of life. [10] If we are to examine development with a focus on enhancement of freedoms then we find that democracy is able to impart an empowering decision making tool even to the deprived sections of society who have been evaluated to value their political freedoms highly. [11] The imparting of such freedoms in village politics for example has encouraged a will among the rural poor to organise themselves, demand their rights and challenge the existing establishments and authorities.

As early as 1956, it was argued in India that local participation is a crucial instrument for capital mobilisation. Panchayats are required at the local level to ensure that there is parity between the public expenditure on local objects and the requirements of the locality. In addition if it is vested with adequate power and finances it could serve the purpose of evoking local initiative in the field of development. An emergence of rural entrepreneurs has been witnessed in the last decade or so but greater measures towards skill enhancement and provision of incentives needs to be undertaken if the true potential of the villages ( in fields of traditional arts and crafts, micro-credit, food industry etc.) is to be fully realised.

Finally, local governments have been seen to be most effective when they have enjoyed the trust and the confidence of local elites and are simultaneously accountable to the local electorate. [12] The crucial link between democracy and development is the institutionalised political participation at the local level. This link is able to provide the state with greater legitimacy and resilience.

Caste, Class, Ethnicity and Minorities
India is a society of peculiar complexity with such distinct castes, religions and economic classes that each division could in itself be considered a minority by some defining characteristic.

According to Pranab Bardhan, the heterogeneous nature of a dominant coalition can only be seen as exemplifying democracy rather than detracting it. Each organised section of the society (for example groups organised on the basis of caste) demanding political and economic representation has managed to create strong bargaining networks with the state such that an allegiance based on patronage has become an almost inevitable condition in the Indian polity. This social movement in India, according to Weiner, is not to abolish caste or “casteism”, but is one that focuses on creating a social and political system that institutionalises and transforms caste.

While the rise of regional and caste based politics might be a signalling factor to India’s democratic capacity, it can have fairly adverse effects on the economy and development of the country. This complex allegiance undermines the autonomy and independence of institutions engaged in political and economic decision making which accounts for much of the lack of credibility and the increasing disillusionment with developmental policies and reforms. Promotion of group equity and caste rights, etching out markets for new jobs via reservations and the negative influence of caste considerations on the insulation of economic governance have all accounted for infrastructural bottlenecks and low economic growth. Others have referred to such politics as anti-market contributing to a poorly managed public sector associated with high and growing capital output ratios. [13] Bardhan has argued that political accommodation of various castes through ‘quotas’ and reservations along with equity politics can be combined with efficiency and a stronger democracy if it focuses on asset redistribution in the context of accountable and structured local governments. [14]

Democracy has without a doubt proved its capability in the Indian context with reference to being inclusive of various sections of societies and integration of these branches into mainstream politics, however, their influence on formulation and adaption of public policies of importance has been limited. Myron Weiner has explained this outcome by underlining that the politics of caste is most often the politics of dignity. The goals sought by such groups are based less on education, health and development as a whole and more on respect, equality of treatment and symbolic gains. [15]

Reduction in social hierarchies and economic inequalities needs to be addressed by mass education system, expansion of employment opportunities and an adequate healthcare system. An expanding economy needs to be coupled with development of human capital and economic growth. Caste based politics can only provide a platform for institutionalising developmental reforms; it should not be mistaken as a sufficient condition for societal development as a result of democratic representation.

Social Movements (Case Study: Narmada Valley Projects)
“In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.

How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”

B.R Ambedkar, 1949

Many years post independence, India, along with being the largest democracy in the world is also considered one of the world’s most inegalitarian societies. According to some estimates 350 million people still remain below the poverty level and as much as half the adult population is illiterate.

Democracy stretches far beyond granting of political rights. “It is a political instrument intended to build a participatory, egalitarian, and just social order, in which popular sovereignty rests with the people, and by which common men and women participate in decision making processes to improve their socio-economic conditions and enhance their lives.” [16]

Democracy mostly fails to achieve socio-economic equality while it vigorously pursues formal-legal equality. The idea of political equality and democratic rights has implied various forms of expressions of dissent. Organised movements by those who belong to the bottom of the social structure have gained momentum to challenge the traditional social inequalities that have persisted in the hierarchical rural set up of the Indian society.

Social movements rather than the power of the ballot have facilitated an enhancement of the responses of democratic institutions, such as courts and bureaucracy, in India. These movements have helped to highlight the diversity of the country which is such a defining feature of the its democracy. These institutions in no way can substitute the state, but the pulls and pressures associated with their objectives have helped to raise important issues at the local and national level. Coupled with electoral practices they have helped in protecting democracy by providing subsidiary political institutions, various platforms for expressing dissent and providing an opportunity for the government to recognise, address and negotiate a diversity of interests. [17]

While social movements have deepened the sense of democracy, their outreach has done little to create any significant administrative or judicial reforms, which continue to remain rigid, unresponsive and insensitive to the continuously changing society. Moreover, many of the mutinies have been poorly organised and have not resulted in any significant redistribution of wealth and income though they may have served the purpose of preventing further skewing of India’s distributional patterns. [18]

Development has always been a non-negotiable component of India’s modernizing agenda yet its limitations in pursuing a programme of social, economic and political transformation can be widely observed even half a century after its Independence. The opposition to the Narmada Valley Projects can be seen as a perfect example of the tradeoffs between democracy and development.

There have been three major arguments for this project that have used democracy as their underlying motives [19] :

A democracy always uses the argument of majoritarianism which chooses to test the total number of people affected both positively and negatively and weighs them against one another.

The argument of ‘public purpose’ that entails the state asking certain sections of its citizenry to sacrifice some of their rights in order that the society as a whole may benefit.

This argument claims that there are certain sections in the Indian polity and society that are conspiring to keep the tribals out of the national mainstream, culturally and economically.

In assessing these arguments we can clearly see the differences in the conception of democracy as well as development. The state has clearly invoked a utilitarian conception of democracy in the context of the Narmada Valley. State discourses of democracy in the Narmada Valley have been located within a formal, procedural interpretation in which democracy has been reduced to a game of majorities and minorities. [20]

It has long been argued that democracy is only but a hindrance to development and its temporary sacrifice is required to achieve a minimum level of development. However, development includes not just economic growth but also civil and political freedom and rights necessary to enhance the capabilities and opportunities available to people. Much of the political discourse has centred around that notion of democracy which emphasises on public interest, common good and majoritarianism. At the same time we could argue that democracy is a subscription to the right to information, right of political and economic participation and the right to equal opportunities and livelihood.

The continuation of the Narmada Valley projects would eventually lead to the displacement and forced eviction of thousands of tribals. Non-recognition of the opposition is non-recognition of a participatory conception of democracy. The government has further refused to recognise the traditional rights of these tribals, their traditional self governing institutions, their dependence on forests for subsistence and their desire to be relocated as communities rather than individuals or families. [21]

National developmental objectives are formulated and agreed upon by an elected representative government. By no means does this imply that all developmental decisions are therefore democratic or even enjoy a sizeable support. The optimistic view would be that democracy in India has provided a space and opportunity for the articulation of dissent and discourse even to the most marginalised sections of society. At the same time gross inequalities in social relations points to the limits on democracy.

Social movements in India have started the process of rejuvenating the civil society. Pramod Parajuli rightly points out that the need of the hour is to extend the focus of democracy from merely a representative democracy to a social relation which is consultative and participatory. Such a participatory democracy cannot be seen to operate only via the government apparatus and finds its manifestation in cultural, ethical and communicative forms as well. [22]

While India proposes a model of a functioning democracy, it is clearly strained at many layers. The objective of development in the light of democracy requires a strong democratic governability that must be supported by effective state institutions. The state is essentially still perceived as the provider of resources and seen responsible for economic redistribution along with a consolidation of democratic ideals. In this light, it is required to simultaneously focus on the nature and intensity of group demands on the one hand, and of the institution building tasks undertaken by political authorities on the other. [23]

The dichotomy lies in the fact that democratic institutions facilitate growing demands of political space and widening definitions of distinct classes which has created a pressure on the Indian democracy and challenged it. At the same time they also stand to prove its success in participation and representation. Local governments, grassroots movements and regional politics all point to a deepening sense of democracy in the nation while they have also hindered economic development and contributed to the deinstitutionalisation of its polity.

A fundamental shortcoming of the Indian democracy lies in the fact that stable and effective conditions have not been established for the efficient functioning of democracy. Decades after Independence, the country is still battling large socio-economic disparities and has been unable to provide even the most basic amenities and entitlements to a large section of its people. The state’s deviation from its own purposes and objectives though addressed through democratic practice itself, has been unable to form institutions to ensure its effectiveness and justice.

Democracy in India is definitely puzzling when viewed from a western perspective. It has followed its own path and defined democracy in its own terms. There remain major asymmetries in the opportunities available to different sections of society which are furthered by social and economic inequalities that have prevented these sections from inclusion in democratic participation. As is argued, development requires order and discipline. To this extent authoritarian regimes have at times experienced rapid development as in the case of China. [24] If democracy and development are to complement each other and continue to persist in the fabric of the Indian society, there needs to be a more comprehensive understanding of development, one that incorporates expansion of freedoms and social opportunities.

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