There are millions of Indians who are deeply concerned about the future of our country and the democratic system. The most likely topic of conversation when any two Indians who have some leisure at their disposal meet is the decline of our democratic institutions and the condition of the Indian state. However, all this deep concern is not translated into meaningful action on a sustained basis on account of three formidable obstacles.

Firstly, most people do not have adequate exposure to our institutions of governance to appreciate the larger malaise affecting the Indian state. In the absence of a holistic perspective, most people tend to view the crisis through a tunnel, facilitating a highly skewed and very partial understanding, very much akin to a blind man describing the elephant. In the absence of a better understanding of our governance structure, these partial, half-truthful perceptions do not enable us to unravel the intricateand vital linkages among various institutions. Without such understanding of the linkages, it is not possible to make any serious beginning of any meaningful reform to resolve the crisis facing our governance.

Secondly, most people are overawed by the vastness of India, the complexity of our society, and the magnitude of the crisis daunting us. India defies easy description or analysis. The huge population, the vertical fragmentation of our society for ages, the relative immobility of the population, the enormous poverty and drudgery, and the complex cultural baggage leading to uneasy coexistence of several layers of our society from the medieval period to the modern era. All these constitute a mind-boggling and often frightening reality paralyzing all participants and observers into inaction.

Thirdly, in the modern technological world, with increasing opportunities for rapid economic growth, most well-informed and perceptive Indians are consumed by the day-to-day individual and family concerns. The history of the freedom struggle led us to believe that legitimate personal concerns for survival and growth are incompatible with the quest for national good. The Indian nationalism during freedom struggle was largely based on the anger against racial bigotry, cultural atavism as a defence mechanism to shore up self-esteem and an idolatrous sense of patriotism with deification of Mother India serving as an emotional anchor. Colonial economic exploitation was certainly a factor in shaping the Indian nationalism, but its role was relatively subdued in giving expression to nationalistic fervour. In this backdrop of emotionalism and patriotic fervour, individual concerns seemed to be irrelevant and incompatible with the national goal.

However, in a modern democratic nation-state, it is very difficult to generate such heightened patriotic fervour on a sustained basis. In a rapidly changing world, even a few years of neglect of personal goals have very painful economic and emotional consequences to most people. Therefore, the fear of insecurity and uncertainty at the prospect of having to give up personal life for the national cause deters most thinking Indians.

Lurking dangers from the enveloping crisis

What then is the answer to this grave crisis of India's governability? Before this let us review the dangers to civil society if this crisis is not checked.

First, there is increasing lawlessness and anarchy in most parts of the country. Citizens are no longer sure of the state meeting its obligations in any sphere. Any citizen, unadorned by power and privilege, who ever approaches any public office in the country to obtain something that is due to him as a matter of right, is fully aware of the magnitude of the state's failure. The all-pervasive corruption, harassment, delays, inability of the courts to render justice in time, the complexity of our administrative system that makes it wholly unintelligible to hapless citizens, the frequent breakdown of public order and increasing insecurity -- are all the visible manifestations of this anarchy. In a true sense, we are already in a state of anarchy.

The second danger ahead of us is the possibility of despotism by invitation. Justice, human rights, freedom and high quality of public services are all remote concepts which have no relevance to the day-to-day life of ordinary citizens. As the propertied and educated middle and upper classes, who have great stakes in peace and order, are increasingly disenchanted with the governance process, they are coming to the dangerous conclusion that freedom and democracy are synonymous with chaos and anarchy. Much of our urban middle classes have become votaries of some form of authoritarianism that can bring order and peace to the society at any cost, so that they can pursue economic growth unhindered. In this milieu, the threat of dictatorship does not lie in a possible coup d'etat, but it may creep into the system by the acquiescence of the middle and upper classes - the political class, bureaucracy, armed forces, police, professions and the business class. In their desperate quest for order at any cost, they have little understanding of the nature of dictatorship, or its limitations, and the lessons of history are all-too-readily forgotten.

Setting aside the fact that freedom and democracy are unalienable birth rights of every citizen, there is no possibility of a centralized, despotic regime succeeding any better than a dysfunctional democracy. If, by some modern electronic marvel, the centralized regime does find the means of governing our vast and complicated polity in a despotic manner, there is no reason why the ordinary people, who have no real stakes in order for its own sake, should give up freedom and adult franchise, which are the only elements that lend dignity to their impoverished lives. The rejection of despotism by the poor and the deprived will result soon in a massive upheaval and bloodshed, and society will face even greater chaos and disorder. As a wise man said, while the capacity of man for justice makes democracy possible, the propensity of man for injustice makes democracy necessary. Morally or pragmatically, there is no substitute to democracy. Any efforts to the contrary are not only doomed to failure, but will also drive the nation to disaster.

The third grave danger threatening the nation is the specter of balkanisation. As authority and order break down, and as the governance apparatus fails to serve the main purpose of maintaining public order and ensuring cohesion and harmony in society, disintegration becomes inevitable. As the centralized and inert polity proves incapable of reform, many thinking persons, daunted by the vastness of the nation, its incredible plurality, and the complexity of problems, may be compelled to conclude that the only way of bringing about reform strengthening democracy and fulfilling people's aspirations is to break up the country. In addition, the economic liberalization process itself may exacerbate this latent tendency towards balkanisation.

As some regions and States respond more positively to growth impulses, and have a better social and economic base to enlist mass participation in production process, they will be far ahead of the rest of the country. The disparity between, say 12% annual growth rate in one region and 2% growth rate in another, may not appear to be dramatic at first sight, but within a decade it will be very great. If both regions started at the same level of GDP per capita, the faster-growing region will have two and a half times the GDP per capita at stable population. If already the faster-growing region has double the GDP per capita, then the disparity will be five times. Such disparities are unsustainable among regions in a democratic society. The resultant mass migration from the poorer regions to the more prosperous areas in an already over-populated country will create untold havoc and suffering. Inevitably the social strife will lead to erection of barriers against entry and will lead to eventual balkanisation.

Societal flaws undermining democracy

There is another question that remains to be answered. The state is but one, though vital, institution in society. Is it not unrealistic to expect the state to resolve the many social dilemmas? Doesn't such an unbalanced view of state society relations end up placing a disproportionate emphasis on state driven changes of society? While the governance process should fulfil the minimum preconditions for civic participation, many of the obstacles are social, and not necessarily political. During the period from 1830s to 1940s social reform movements were engineered by several liberal intellectuals and crusaders. In fact many of our great national leaders effortlessly integrated the national struggle for independence with social reform effort into a seamless web. Narayana Guru, Jyotiba Phule, Vidyasagar, Ramamohan Roy, Dayanand Saraswathi, Veeresalingam Pantulu, Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar and several other stalwarts regarded social reform as the end and political power as merely one of the means to achieve it.

There is much that is good in our culture and tradition. The strength of family as an enduring social institution, the communitarian spirit which still pervades most of our rural society, the sense of right and wrong that informs most human conduct, the natural assimilation and eclecticism and syncretism dominant in our ethos, and the remarkable capacity for adjustment, coexistence and contentment are all our great strengths as a society. However, there are several serious societal flaws which undermine our democracy.

In the words of an Indophile Dr. Carolyn Elliot, they can be summed up as absence of a sense of equality, trust and common fate. Firstly, most Indians instinctively accept and perpetuate distinctions on account of birth, caste, wealth, power and occupation. That all human beings are entitled to equal dignity and all productive work to fulfil society's needs has the same value are not part of our belief system and world view. This can only be corrected by movements within civil society, and political institutions and laws can at best be useful adjuncts. In Myron Weiner's words, 'psychology of caste' still dominates the thinking of most Indians.

Secondly, the educated and the better off sections of society instinctively reject the notion that all citizens have the capacity for self-governance. Even elected politicians and paid public servants harbour great mistrust about the ordinary citizens' capacity to decide what is best for themselves. There is an unspoken assumption that people need to be told what to do, and cannot be trusted with power. The resistance to genuine local self-governance and people's empowerment is the most visible manifestation of this mistrust. The edifice of a sound democracy can be built only on the strong foundation of trust and faith in the unalienable right to self-governance and the intrinsic capacity of the common people to achieve uncommon goals.

Finally the sense of common fate, which is so vital to bind people together into an orderly society with protection of rights to all, is missing in us. As President Narayanan put it aptly during a Republic Day address to the nation: "We ignore the social dimension of our actions and practices. The late Dr. Adiseshaiah, one of our prominent economists and academicians, wrote about his mother that she was a high born lady who kept her house spotlessly clean. Every morning she used to sweep and clean the household herself and then dump the rubbish in the neighbour's garden. Self-regarding purity and righteousness ignoring others has been the bane of our culture. It has created a gulf in our society between people even with regard to basic needs and fundamental rights".

A civilized society can be sustained only if citizens recognize that rights and duties coexist, and in fact one's rights are translated as the duties of others, and vice versa. Individual behaviour in our society is often detrimental to collective happiness. The impunity with which people jump queues, the frightening violation of traffic rules, and the habitual spitting on the streets and littering are but a few random examples of such socially debilitating behaviour. This ugly social trait, combined with governmental apathy ensured that unfulfilled potential and avoidable suffering persist in great measure in our country.

A civilized society can be sustained only if citizens recognize that rights and duties coexist, and in fact one's rights are translated as the duties of others, and vice versa.
The social attitudes of the governing classes and their unceasing efforts to perpetuate the rigid social hierarchies are abundantly in evidence in our daily life. One of the chief concerns of the average urban middle-class housewife is her child's admission to a prestigious private English medium school, or her inability to get cheap hired domestic help, preferably a child worker. R K Laxman illustrated this mindset superbly in his cartoon which shows two boys, one healthy and dressed in school uniform standing erect, and the other weak and ill-clad groaning under the weight of a load of books. The mother of the school-going child tells her friend, "It's really cruel burdening the kids like this! I had to hire that boy to help my son!". The democratic process, instead of empowering the poor and improving their skills through quality school education and giving control to stakeholders, has in fact perpetuated the social hierarchies by retaining control with the elites and divorcing the stake-holders from power.

A related social malaise is the excessive obsession with immediate family and progeny with little care or concern for public goods. Great democracies are built as much with individual efforts to build social capital as through enduring and wise institutions of state. The sanitation movement in Britain in 19th century, the great universities, public libraries, museums and parks built through the support of farsighted individuals and foundations in the United States are examples of civil society initiatives promoting public good. Many hospitals, public parks and other public goods have been entirely privately funded. Even the recent effort of Bill Gates to help eradicate preventable disease from the globe is a good illustration of the ease with which private wealth is utilized for public gain. The privileged classes in India have not yet recognized that they owe much of their wealth and success to society.

Next : Nothing intractable or immutable (conclusion)