Can Indian Democracy Serve Its People?
With the clear mandate for his Congress Party in recently concluded general elections, Indian Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh has won the right and responsibility to deal with huge challenges in front of him. In addition to the well-known social problems of hunger, poverty, lack of sanitation and poor infrastructure, Mr. Singh has to contend with the effects of the oppressive and ingrained caste system and religious intolerance as well as the growing nexus between crime and politics in Indian democracy. The new parliament has elected 153 tainted members, some of whom have been convicted or accused of serious crimes, including murder and rape.
Nexus of Crime and Politics:
About 153 members of the new Indian parliament have either been convicted and appealed or currently accused of various crimes. A major problem is that individuals charged with even the most serious crimes are allowed to stand if they have been convicted but their cases are under appeal, according to Times Online. “The speed of the Indian judicial system means it can take 30 years to complete a case – easily long enough to live out a full political career,” Mr Himanshu Jha, of the National Social Watch Coalition, said to the Times Online recently.
This nexus of crime and politics in India developed in two stages - in the first stage, Indian politicians used criminal elements and gangsters to control polling stations and intimidate their rivals; this gave legitimacy to these people and they decided to contest elections for themselves rather than merely act as mussel men (baahubali) for other politicians. There are many examples of this pattern, such as Munna Shukla and Shahabudin in Bihar, Raju Bhaiyya in U.P and Arun Gawli of Mumbai.
Most Indian politicians have used their election wins to significantly enrich themselves, according to their own pre-election declarations of assets. For example, the comparison of assets of candidates who won in 2004 and sought re-elections in 2009 shows that the wealth of UP politicians has grown by 559%, over five times, in five years, second only to their Karnataka counterparts who registered a growth of 693% in the same period, according to Sulekha.com.
The Caste System:
The entire culture and governance of India is heavily influenced by the caste system that legitimizes abuse and exploitation of one group of people by another. It plays a significant role in voting patterns as well. Indians usually vote their caste rather than cast their votes. There is a counter argument to this concept of oppression: What about the lower caste politicians who also have risen to authority? The response is: Can they be different from the social milieu they belong to? Other issues include the lack of democratic structures inside India’s political parties and a culture of corruption fostered by a stifling level of bureaucracy.
India, often described as peaceful, stable and prosperous in the Western media, remains home to the largest number of poor and hungry people in the world.
The UN Millennium Develop Goals listed below remain distant for the Indian people:
1 Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2 Achieve universal primary education
3 Promote gender equality and empower women
4 Reduce child mortality
5 Improve maternal health
6 Combat HIV/Aids, malaria, and other diseases
7 Ensure environmental sustainability
8 Develop a global partnership for development
About one-third of the world's extremely poor people live in India. More than 450 million Indians exist on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank. It also has a higher proportion of its population living on less than $2 per day than even sub-Saharan Africa. India has about 42% of the population living below the new international poverty line of $1.25 per day. The number of Indian poor also constitute 33% of the global poor, which is pegged at 1.4 billion people, according to a Times of India news report. More than 6 million of those desperately poor Indians live in Mumbai alone, representing about half the residents of the nation's financial capital. They live in super-sized slums and improvised housing juxtaposed with the shining new skyscrapers that symbolize India's resurgence. According to the World Bank and the UN Development Program (UNDP), 22% of Pakistan's population is classified as poor.
There is widespread hunger and malnutrition in all parts of India. India ranks 66th on the 2008 Global Hunger Index of 88 countries while Pakistan is slightly better at 61 and Bangladesh slightly worse at 70. The first India State Hunger Index (Ishi) report in 2008 found that Madhya Pradesh had the most severe level of hunger in India, comparable to Chad and Ethiopia. Four states — Punjab, Kerala, Haryana and Assam — fell in the 'serious' category. "Affluent" Gujarat, 13th on the Indian list is below Haiti, ranked 69. The authors said India's poor performance was primarily due to its relatively high levels of child malnutrition and under-nourishment resulting from calorie deficient diets.
India might be an emerging economic power, but it is way behind Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Afghanistan in providing basic sanitation facilities, a key reason behind the death of 2.1 million children under five in the country.
Lizette Burgers, chief of water and environment sanitation of the Unicef, recently said India is making progress in providing sanitation but it lags behind most of the other countries in South Asia. A former Indian minister Mr Raghuvansh Prasad Singh told the BBC that more than 65% of India's rural population defecated in the open, along roadsides, railway tracks and fields, generating huge amounts of excrement every day.
Comparison with Pakistan:
Unlike Indian democracy where middle class has a bigger role, Pakistani democracy remains largely dominated by the feudal class. Pakistani parliament is dominated by big landowners who have a sense of entitlement to rule, even though they pay no taxes on their farm income. They routinely escape prosecution for the crimes they commit against their own people. When they do get caught and charged with serious crimes, they use political influence and their deal-making power to beat the rap. Musharraf's US-sponsored amnesty (dubbed NRO) for late Benazir Bhutto, her widower Asif Zardari and other political leaders now in power offers a prime example of how the politicians are not held to account for serious crimes of corruption and murder. Some of the Taliban in Swat used the widespread grievances of the tenant farmers against their landlords as justification for Shariah-based Nizam-e-Adl to provide speedy justice.
Future of Indian Democracy:
Majority of the poor and rural Indians are sustaining democracy at a great cost to themselves in terms of the grinding poverty that defines their meager existence. Contrasting Indian democracy with Chinese one-party rule, a British minister recently said that the number of poor people had dropped in the one-party communist state by 70% since 1990 but had risen in the world's biggest democracy by 5%. No one knows how long will the average Indian have to wait before the fruits of democracy to reach him or her. In the meanwhile, Maoists (and other revolutionaries) are gaining momentum and threatening a revolution to bring about a visible improvement in the lives of the poor.
At a minimum, Indian government should make the necessary investments to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals. As the UNICEF said last year, unless India achieves major improvements in health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education, gender equality and child protection, the global efforts to reach the MDGs will fail.
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