If there is any book one can recommend for reading to politicians, policy-makers publicists and periwigges potentates, it is Challenges to Democracy in India, which is a collection of lectures given by eminent thinkers, under the auspices of the Nehru Centre, Mumbai, on what they thought was the problem or set of problems they considered central to the challenges before Indian democracy. What prescriptions would they offer in the light of their assessments? The lectures were delivered between 2005 and 2007 but for that reason they are not outdated. Indeed, a more thoughtful collection of views would be hard to find. The authors were specifically told to skip academic jargon, statistical analysis and mind-distracting footnotes and to concentrate on issues of immediate relevance, and that is precisely what they have done to the readers? delight.
As the Chairman of Nehru Centre, Sharad Pawar has noted in a foreword, democracy implies individual freedom, representative government, economic and social equality and self-discipline of the community, though, as he readily admits, equality and liberty hardly have any firm roots in Indian tradition, in part because of the caste system and sender bias which have been the bane of the country for centuries. How is one to handle all the problems facing the implementation of the democracy in the country? Fifteen people have presented their views, starting with Fali Nariman and ending with Neera Chandoke and no group could possibly have spoken out with such openness and evident scholarship. Nariman is brutally frank when he asserts that the reason why justice is not meted out to the people in India even though appropriate laws are in place, is because of ?the reluctance and the failure on the part of the executive to implement laws which give effect to Directive Principles of State Policy?. And no truer words were said.
What is so outstanding about the views presented here is that they are not repetitive. Some may question Pratap Bhanu Mehta'sassessment that ?the introduction of universal suffrage in a society of unpropertied, unlettered people has been an astonishing success? which in many ways, it is. There is no country in the world which has so varied a population, divided class, caste and language-wise, but when Nariman quotes from Jawaharlal Nehru'sThe Discovery of India on how ?an Indian would have felt more or less at home in any part of India and would have felt a stranger and alien in any other country? he has only strengthened Mehta'spoint. Understandably, many issues are raised by the contributors, quite rightly, one might add, as when Jayaprakash Narayan, an IAS officer and a physician by training pointedly reminds us that there is a ?phenomenal, all pervasive corruption eating into the vitals of our system?. He should know.
Ramachandra Guha speaks for the tribals and the ways they have been treated, despised and marginalised, leading them to challenge democracy with a gun. Guha sadly notes that the ?Maoist dream might be seen not as a fantasy but as nightmare? In Maoist India, democracy is only a meaningless word and, as V R Raghavan notes, ?massive military deployment has not succeeded in bringing peace to disturbed regions across India and acts of terrorism continue unabated? And that is the grim reality. In his contribution, Krishna Kumar, Director of NCERT reminds us that ?village? India is going through a crisis which no one knows how to handle? and that ?solutions for cities are actually deathknell for villages?. How can democracy function in such an area? A painful chapter to read is Dilip Nachane'sMarketization of the Economy and Democracy in which he discusses, among other subjects, the role of the media. After all, the media has a very vital role to play in any democracy and the Indian press certainly in both the pre-Independence and a couple of decades of post-Independence India, has had a respected tradition of ?truthfulness, social accountability, objectivity and pluralism?.
But, according to Nachane, alas, no more. Few dailies, he says ?have been able to withstand the allurements of huge advertisement revenues? and, as a result ?the predictable consequence of this has been that serious writings on Indian problems have virtually disappeared?. He adds: ?Whether it is the editorial page or the reports, views even remotely unsympathetic to the ongoing process of liberalisation and globalisation are dismissed as ?old economy? views and virtually banished from the print media? If eternal vigilance be the price of liberty, and if the press is an important aspect of that vigilance, then one has to consider seriously, the possibility of the press abdicating this responsibility?. Says Nachne: ?Many respected English language dailies whose articles and editorial pages were once held up as models of profound and reflective writing? are today obsessed with the partying and gossip of corporate bigwigs, starlets and cricketers. In vain does one search for a single new insight or idea on the editorial page?.
How can democracy ever survive in such a situation? Indeed, the challenges to democracy in India are manifold; that it has survived despite all the shortcomings surely must be a tribute to the Indian genius. The one noticeable shortcoming in most of the essays is that while problems are identified, solutions are not adequately provided. How can one possibly fight corruption? Or Naxalism? Or caste injustice? Perhaps time will tell. Certainly, we have come a long way since 1947 in the resolution of many challenges, not necessarily to our fullest satisfaction, but with hope of better things to come. And that is no mean achievement.
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