Features | South Asia

An Independence Day Reflection

Sixty-five years ago, India celebrated independence. While great strides have been made, the potential of its democracy remains unfulfilled.

By Ambassador Neelam Deo for

On August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, addressed a newly-liberated people suffused with a sense of possibility and hope to collectively build an egalitarian and democratic nation. The people’s aspirations were articulated in Nehru’s famous words:

“The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavor? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”

This vision was subsequently enshrined in India’s Constitution on January 26, 1950.

Sixty-five years later, the dream of a truly democratic India has dulled more than a little. Hope has been replaced by dismay at the cheap pursuit of self-interest that pervades our present political and economic landscape.

Did we expect too much from a post-colonial, impoverished country? Did we overestimate our future and now find that the reality does not match our vision? Did we unrealistically compare ourselves with other fledgling or developing nations? In other words, is the sense of disillusionment only a problem of perception?

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

After all, a lot has been achieved since 1947 in giving a more dignified standard of living to a population that has nearly quadrupled to 1.2 billion. Life expectancy has more than double to 65 years, while infant mortality has halved. Literacy has grown from 12% to 74%; unemployment has dropped from 48% at independence to around 19%, and per capita income has risen to approximately $3500 at Purchasing Power Parity levels.

Development indicators, however, are debatable and only one part of the picture. The sense of failed expectations is not only a matter of perception, it is embedded in more tangible experiences. The promise of an egalitarian democratic nation has been tarnished by the entrenchment of dynastic leadership, the concentration of political power and wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer interconnected politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. This new aristocracy has replaced the colonial rulers and kings of earlier times and effectively subverted the ideals of a true people’s democracy. Indians are uneasy because they no longer feel empowered to determine their destiny.

At the same time, a parallel, paradoxical process is underway. Indian citizens have higher expectations and a greater sense of entitlement. The spurt of economic growth since India began a process of economic liberalization in the early 1990s has raised aspirations. The escalating trend of populist political campaigning during elections involves promises made to potential vote banks—promises that people expect will be fulfilled, but rarely are.

This combination of greater expectations, along with a recognition that access to economic and political influence is increasingly circumscribed in Indian democracy, has resulted in disillusionment and cynicism. After 2007, as economic growth began to slow and income inequality skyrocketed, Indians began to attribute this failure of equitable development to the degeneration of political parties into family fiefdoms. A nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen has been consuming a greater share of community resources such as land and water—this is also exemplified by the many scams in the telecom and mining sectors.

A good demonstration of the consolidation of wealth is the growth in the number of Indian billionaires from zero in 2000 to no less than 48 in 2012. Meanwhile, 42% of the children remained malnourished. Equally, people recognize that decision-making and governance, instead of becoming more decentralized, have become further concentrated in a few powerful hands. There is also a growing awareness that India’s fiscal and financial policy is losing coherence, and that it is manipulated by big business at the expense of bettering the lot of the masses.

The situation is exacerbated by the absence of any coherent political ideology. Governing coalitions are formed only on the mathematics of parliamentary majorities. The growing power of regional political parties, necessary for the formation of a federal government, has not led to greater devolution of power; it has only resulted in ever-greater giveaways to garner the numbers required to achieve office or pass legislation.

In Pakistan, the army, judiciary, and the elected civilian government under Asif Ali Zardari are all caught in an absurd confrontation; the Supreme Court forced out the Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, and are now threatening to do the same to his successor. In the guise of tackling corruption, a slow judicial coup is undercutting the democratically-elected government. Meanwhile, as a long-term precaution against being obliterated, the Bhutto dynasty has handed over the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party to Benazir’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

In Bangladesh, the Sheikh Hasina government has tried to recover the secular integrity of the country’s independence by trying the people involved in the genocide committed during Bangladesh’s independence struggle and the subsequent murder of her father, Sheikh Mujib.  But former President Khaleda Zia leads a political opposition that has subverted the functioning of parliament. Both her sons are charged with massive corruption. While the two sides have remained at loggerheads, law and order have almost vanished from the streets, and the number of millionaires using the corrupt system to make money, is growing.

Further south in Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa dynasty succeeded the Bandaranaike dynasty. Three years after eliminating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Rajapaksa family is busy consolidating its hold over the nation. Three of the President’s brothers are ministers in the government and the sons and nephews of the family are members of Parliament. But the Tamils—victims of untold violence committed by both the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE—have not been reintegrated into society as was promised at the end of the civil war.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

To the north, in Nepal, people suffered enormously during a decade-long civil war to oust a decadent monarchy. Once in office, however, their elected representatives have failed to follow through on their promises. Despite numerous extensions in the last three years, the Parliament has failed to deliver a Constitution.

While democracy is being degraded across South Asia, another process is emerging—newly-risen nations in the Arab world are taking their first tentative steps towards genuine elected representative government. After decades of rule under hereditary dictatorships, Egyptians, Libyans, and Tunisians are demand greater political participation and economic opportunities.

Is there a model that the emerging democracies can look towards? The Arabs have pulled down dynasties at a time when Indian and other South Asian democracies are consolidating dynastic rule. The United States is suffering from political deadlock and slow economic growth. Nor can Europe, with the growing woes of the Euro, provide a model for the nascent democracies sprouting up in the Arab word. Could the economically successful but authoritarian Beijing model be an alternative?

For pluralistic countries such as India, the answer is a resounding no. This makes it imperative for us to find ways to confront the shortcomings that have crept into our cherished democracy. Indians must not allow their democratic institutions to be manipulated by the entrenched political class. We, as Indian citizens, can do this by participating more actively in politics, refusing to be part of a culture of bribery, and speaking out in various public fora at every opportunity. We must also actively rebuild and nurture our educational and intellectual institutions so that they act as a robust and legitimate alternative to the existing systems. We need and must strive for a moral regeneration; only then will other countries find something worthwhile in our experience of democracy that they can emulate.

Neelam Deo is India’s former ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast, and served in Washington and New York. She is the director and co-founder of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations where this piece originally appeared.