People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 26

July 06 , 2008



Democratic Consolidation:  The Indian Experience

Excerpts of the EMS Memorial Lecture delivered by Somnath Chatterjee, speaker of Lok Sabha, on June 13, 2008 at Thiruvananthapuram.

At the outset, I take this opportunity to pay my respectful homage to the memory of Comrade EMS Namboodiripad who personified the finest traditions of public life and of the Left Movement in the country. No tribute can do justice to the multifaceted, yet austere life led by EMS who was a steadfast anti-imperialist, an unwavering social reformer, an acknowledged literary critic, a renowned Marxist thinker, theoretician and historian and, above all, a person loved and held in very high esteem by millions of people. No wonder he was referred to reverentially as the 'intellectual giant' by all.

ONE of our most remarkable achievements of the first six decades of freedom is that we have not only sustained but also reinforced a vibrant system of governance based on parliamentary democracy, committed to secularism and inclusive and equitable development. Since Independence, our people have shown tremendous zeal and enthusiasm for participation in the electoral and governance processes, and thereby have greatly helped in the establishment and strengthening of the largest working democracy in the world.

It is a matter of great satisfaction that we have been able to surmount varied problems that confronted our democracy from time to time and have emerged as one of the most successful experiments with democracy by the post-colonial societies.The healthy survival of democracy in India also meant an endorsement of the very viability of democracy for new-born countries and as such it gave a boost to the spread of democratic idea elsewhere in the world.

For a country of continental size and widespread diversity like India, nation building has indeed been a gigantic task. Through our parliamentary polity reinforced by a multi-party system and provisions for free and fair elections to representative bodies, accountability of the Executive, independence of the Judiciary, existence of a free and vigilant Fourth Estate and an ever watchful citizenry, we have provided effective institutional framework for a successful democracy.

Today we are a self-reliant economy and a self-sufficient granary which, on its own, is feeding the world's second largest population. Besides having a formidable industrial and military base, we have built up one of the world's largest pools of scientific and technological manpower. With democratic planning and the sustained efforts of our democratically elected governments, we have been witnessing increasing growth rate for the past few years and today we are acknowledged as a significant player in the global economy, which augurs well for the future and health of our democracy. We achieved all this despite the fact that in the past half-a-century, we faced many critical situations, numerous challenges from within and without trying to divide the country on the basis of religion and caste, insurgencies, waves of terrorism, proxy wars and external aggressions. Our biggest achievement has been that the common man remained unshaken all through this period in his faith in the democratic system.

On the social front too, we have made significant gains. Removal of untouchability and treating everybody as equal before the law were nothing less than silent, yet profound revolutions. The provisions of affirmative action and positive discriminations to empower the deprived and the weaker sections have changed the lives of millions of people who are today leading much better and more dignified lives than their ancestors could ever hope for. Nonetheless, we all agree that mere enactment of laws does not guarantee the eradication of the related problems. Proper implementation of the legislations is necessary to ensure that the intended beneficiaries get the optimum benefits. Further, to tackle the problems in a holistic manner, it is imperative to think and go beyond the legislative initiatives.

By taking important initiatives for democratic decentralization, we have largely succeeded in bringing government closer to the people, thereby making it easier for the ordinary citizens to participate and exert influence in the decision-making process.

The achievement of economic democracy along with political democracy had been the cardinal concern of the country's leadership at the time of Independence, as it was firmly believed that unless prosperity reached every nook and corner of our country, we cannot uphold the fundamentals of democracy in the long run.

But, unfortunately, we have not been successful in ensuring that the fruits of development reached the lower-most strata of society. Poverty, illiteracy, high rates of infant and maternal mortality, adverse gender ratio, unemployment, poor health-care system, caste, gender and religion-based prejudices and incidences of farmers' suicides are issues that have remained as blots on our democracy. It is still a matter of great distress that we have not been able to ensure a decent living condition for our large working class. Our peasantry continues to fight the vagaries of nature, rigours of the feudal social system and global forces and is eking out a miserable existence, finding itself at the periphery of all the development that is just bypassing them.

It is a strange paradox that while in the last decade, our economy grew at an average annual rate of about 7 per cent, about 40 per cent of the world's poor still live in India and at the same time the number of billionaires is growing. In spite of the completion of ten Five Year Plans and implementation of numerous developmental schemes, nearly one third of our population is living below the poverty line. More than a fifth of our population still do not have any access to quality health-care. With about a third of our population being illiterate, we are home to the largest number of illiterates in the world. Only about 10 per cent of our University-eligible youth have the real opportunity for that. A country with such an unequal distribution of opportunities and wealth can hardly promise long-term security and stability. Democracy indeed needs social stability to succeed in its goals. The greatest threat to social stability emanates from poverty, illiteracy and ignorance of rights. Democratic consolidation is not possible unless a decisive battle against all social evils and economic backwardness is fought at every level. There has to be a paradigm shift in this context; we must change the course of our development in such a way that the benefits of the country's progress reach right down to the most disadvantaged sections of society.

For democracy to be self-sustaining it has to be inclusive in every sense of the term. Gender disparity in terms of income distribution, access to resources and participation in the decision-making processes is, therefore, highly detrimental to democratic development.

Certainly, there are perils and pitfalls of democracy which do not relate much to the democratic institutions per se but to the democratic practices. Today, there is a growing feeling in the country that our democratic practices are often being deeply compromised. The most vital process of elections themselves have been one such area. In this context, we need to address issues like corrupt electoral practices, criminalization of politics, the vicious role played by money and muscle power in deciding election results, inadequate representation of women and, more significantly, lack of voter participation and voter awareness.

Yet another serious problem before us concerns the justice delivery system that we have in place in our country. The legal system in India has sound institutional foundations incorporating all basic democratic principles of impartiality, secularism and equality before law. But, as we can see, in practice the functioning of our justice delivery system is at variance with certain democratic ideals because of some organs of our Constitution are trying to encroach into others domain and thereby creating distortions.  

Yet another area that warrants our focused attention is in addressing the rampant corruption that has afflicted our system. Leaders in both the government and the civil society have a duty and responsibility to always lead by example. Values are conveyed and supported not by words but by deeds. Politics in our country today is, unfortunately, increasingly becoming confrontational and adversarial. This is not in the interest of the health of democracy.

We have always been proud of the fact that India is the perfect example of unity in diversity. Learning lessons from our own history, we must desist from rousing passions in the name of religion and caste in the interest of the unity and integrity of our country and for maintaining harmonious relations among all sections of society. In fact, democracy and secularism are inextricably intertwined.

We urgently need to raise the esteem of our parliamentary institutions in the people's eyes by finding solutions to address all issues having a bearing on the quality of the work and behaviour of those elected to the representative bodies. As a member of Parliament for nearly four decades and as the Presiding Officer of the popular House of our Parliament, I have been witnessing the functioning of our parliamentary institutions very closely. On several occasions, I have been emphasizing the need for introducing the system of 'Recall' to deal with those members of the legislative bodies in our country, who function in a manner unbecoming of an elected representative of the people.

Free media working with positive criticism can help ensure that the government remains responsive to the urges and concerns of the people. Unfortunately, of-late, it appears that, propelled by narrow commercial interest, our mainstream media has surrendered that larger social role and have fallen for short-term gains, where market forces have a greater say in formulating their editorial policies.

Friends, democratic consolidation is not a one-time process. It is only through the committed efforts of all sections of polity and every institution associated with democracy that this process can be sustained meaningfully. It is the responsibility of all stakeholders to identify and curb all the negative tendencies that are causing erosion in our democratic values. In an attempt to occupy more space in the polity, no institution should do anything to discredit or to marginalise any other institution, particularly our core people's institutions. But, above all, it is the peoples' representatives and political parties and leaderships who have the greatest responsibility to shoulder.

Blurb: Nonetheless, we all agree that mere enactment of laws does not guarantee the eradication of the related problems. Proper implementation of the legislations is necessary to ensure that the intended beneficiaries get the optimum benefits. Further, to tackle the problems in a holistic manner, it is imperative to think and go beyond the legislative initiatives.