The dangers of democracy

Print edition : December 07, 2007

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressing a Confederation of Indian Industry conference in New Delhi on May 24. In the foreground are CII members Sunil Bharti Mittal (left) and R. Seshasayee. Manmohan Singh`s recent statements relating to sovereignty and federalism are normally the staple in social gatherings attended by the upper crust of Indian society. - RAJEEV BHATT

When unable to push ahead with what he thinks is right, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh considers democracy an obstacle to progress.

Prime Minister Manmohan

PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh increasingly sounds a disappointed man these days. While he does often refer to the many achievements of his term in office, he periodically expresses his resentment over not being able to go through with some of his most-favoured initiatives as that term nears its final year. Two areas where this resentment is particularly clear are economic policy and international relations, especially its relations with the United States.

While Manmohan Singh prides himself on being the architect of Indias ostensibly successful neoliberal reforms, and of having pushed the reform agenda way beyond the limits set by the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, he is displeased that he has had to hold back when it comes to reforms of the labour market and the pension system and privatisation and liberalisation of foreign investment rules. In the realm of foreign policy and international relations, he is annoyed that he has not been able to push through a strategic partnership with the U.S., epitomised by the nuclear deal.

Disappointments with agendas of change that are far less ambitious are the norm in democracies. A successful politician is one who understands what to push through and what to hold back on, and when and how, so as not to appear defeated in the face of opposition that cannot be won over. Such political knowledge and acumen normally reside in those who have to win a mandate for the party they lead so that when in power they are able to sense which of their policies would get majority support and which can be implemented, even if only an articulate minority supports it.

Manmohan Singh is not really this kind of politician. He came to politics late in his career, after a long tenure as a bureaucrat and a short stint as an academic. His entry was lateral and not based on apprenticeship as a political activist. He served as a legislator not after victory in a direct election (though he has fought one) but as a member indirectly elected to the Rajya Sabha. He became Prime Minister not because he was fronted as one in the election campaign but because the person expected to lead the winning party chose to step aside and propose him as the alternative. Even after becoming Prime Minister he preferred, when the opportunity arose, not to contest direct elections to Parliament but to remain an indirectly elected member of the Upper House.

A trajectory such as this is bound to influence the person who follows it. Among the possible effects are three, which can be speculatively advanced. First, it is unlikely that a person with a track record of this nature would see himself as a true politician. Instead, people such as Manmohan Singh are repositories of knowledge that is non-partisan, almost technocratic and correct, whereas politicians are those who win the mandate to use that knowledge and benefit from the legitimacy it brings. It follows that if put in a position of political power it is unlikely that such a person would see politics both in and out of power as the art of the possible. Rather, power is to be used to implement what is right.

Second, it is likely that such a person sees his being in office as recognition of his knowledge of what is best for his constituency and his ability to deliver on the basis of that knowledge so that his efforts to deliver are not hampered for purely political reasons. Third, since there is only one correct set of policies, if those policies favour a few, marginalise the majority and aggravate inequality, or if such policies involve a loss of national sovereignty, these are seen merely as the price to be paid immediately to achieve developmental or other goals, with their effects to be redressed now or later with other initiatives.

Unfortunately, for those who hold such positions, societies are divided and policies in most instances are explicitly or implicitly partisan. If action is initiated on the basis of such beliefs within a democratic framework, it is likely to meet with opposition either right away or when its effects in the form of subordination, unemployment, inequality or poverty become clear. What is more, with greater emphasis on private initiative, international integration and market-friendliness, the divide in society has only grown so that it becomes difficult for parties to win elections on the basis of a manifesto of the kind espoused by Manmohan Singh. Even with a different manifesto, such as the National Common Minimum Programme, it is difficult to win a mandate to rule without entering into alliances with parties that may have similar inclinations in some areas but very different views in others.

Put simply, if democracy thrives, as it still does in India, the circumstances needed to keep pushing policies of the kind favoured by the current leadership would soon weaken and even disappear. This is precisely what has been happening in recent times, with growing opposition from the Left, which supports the government from outside, and a growing reluctance on the part of the Congress smaller allies and many Congressmen themselves to support such policies.

This has meant that the ability of the Prime Minister and his advisers to push through their policies has been eroded. When the government persisted with its ambitions, as in the case of the India-U.S. nuclear deal, its future was put at stake, necessitating a retreat. What surprises one are Manmohan Singhs statements during this period. Initially, faced with the Lefts opposition, he seemed to have been overcome by bravado, declaring that there was no going back on the deal and that if the Left chose to withdraw support, so be it.

When the Left did not relent and the implications of withdrawal of support sunk in, all those who did not want immediate election, including the Congress party and its allies, prevailed on Manmohan Singh, who declared that if the nuclear deal did not go through [it] is not the end of life. But he was clear in emphasising two things: that the India-U.S. agreement was an honourable deal that is good for India and good for the world, and differences arose only in the realm of politics. Put simply, politics is not about what is right or wrong but about partisan differences driven by the game of power. Politicians can be on any side, but the Prime Minister cannot.

This open declaration of a prejudice against democratic politics has only intensified in recent times. On October 23, addressing a meeting of the board of the consulting firm McKinsey, he said: I dont think there is any lack of thinking on what needs to be done to sustain and further accelerate growth. There is also fairly wide recognition of the importance of this agenda. However, given the nature of competitive politics and the very fractured mandates given to governments, it has become difficult sometimes for us to do what is manifestly obvious.

Whatever the latter might mean, Manmohan Singh was trying to make a point: there is only one strategy that is correct, he knows what that is and is attempting to implement it but politics and politicians are obstructing him. The problem, he seems to think, is what others call democracy, which has given neither him nor his party a clear mandate to do what they want to.

On November 6, federalism itself was brought into question. While delivering the inaugural address at the 4th International Conference on Federalism, Manmohan Singh referred to a multiparty model, where parties with varying national reach and many with a very limited sub-national reach form a coalition at the national level, as in India.

Is such a model capable of providing the unity of purpose that nation states have to often demonstrate? he reportedly asked. And in partial reply, he noted: Sometimes the resolution of problems acquires an excessively political hue, and narrow political considerations, based on regional or sectional loyalties and ideologies, can distort the national vision and sense of wider collective purpose.

So it is not just formal democracy that is a problem but federalism as well, since it can tie the hands of the enlightened central leader. But that is not all. Turning from the question of federalism to relations between nation states, he reportedly said: When I see the world getting increasingly globalised, I wonder whether the day is not far away when the concept of absolute sovereignty may itself come into question. Such statements are normally the staple in social gatherings attended by the upper crust of Indian society. Many of its members may be educated but have, like much of the Indian media, almost forgotten that a non-metropolitan and, more importantly, rural India exists and deserves to be noticed and that it has a say as to where and how the country should go. But such statements coming from the Prime Minister of the country are indeed baffling. He is the leader of the country and not just of its elite.

Interestingly, evidence shows that Manmohan Singh is willing to change his views when it suits him. For instance, he now recognises the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme as his governments flagship programme and claims all credit for it. However, when the programme was being mooted, he reportedly told a delegation that nothing would come of such a programme and that it would only be throwing money away with no long-term results. When and why his opinion changed remains a mystery.

Now, when circumstances of democracy seem to limit his ability to push ahead with whatever he thinks is right, he seems less willing to change his views or even put them on hold. Rather, he has begun to consider much that independent India can be proud of and is enshrined in its Constitution as a problem, an obstacle in the way of progress as he sees it.

Such an attitude among leaders is not new in history. For instance, at the time of the 1953 uprising in East Germany against the Soviet-backed government, Bertolt Brecht noted in his much-quoted poem The Solution that the Secretary of the Writers Union had distributed pamphlets Stating that the people/Had forfeited the confidence of the government/And could win it back only/By redoubled efforts. Brecht asked: Would it not be easier/In that case for the government/To dissolve the people/And elect another?

More than 50 years later, this, perhaps, is a question that those governing our country still need to ponder.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×