Do the elective organs of statecraft in the world’s existing democracies — the US Congress, India’s Union Parliament, the Japanese Diet or the Russian Duma — reflect basic aspirations of the people? A look at the recent crises afflicting these countries would show that the representative narrative that most of them extol has its own abiding insufficiencies and inherent structural gaps. As Dante, the 13th century Italian philosopher, envisioned: “The human face we see, its features revealing consternation and grief, is often forsaken in political endeavours, for stability of a given political establishment.” In today’s context, phrases like national security and political stability are, thus, prone to misuse by politicians across the democratic order.
In this process of self-evaluation by a threatened democratic establishment, the prime parameters of a nation state, the people who elect “their” representatives get distanced from the ‘elected’ components. Consequently, such a transformation affects negatively the quality of governance these chambers of the people’s representatives deliver. How far this fading quality of governance has affected governance is a matter to be judged by their respective constituents. By the unending yearning for incremental privileges by those elected is linked to a perception that the level of esteem they once commanded no longer sustains and those who elected them are asking for a lot more answers than ever before.
Going by indices of responses to ‘people prime’ issues in the American context, signals did come to the fore in the early stages itself of the attempted resolution of the subprime crisis and the bursting of the dotcom bubble that intended measures. The American middle class was eventually left in the lurch, with endless debt on the horizon, while banking institutions which triggered the crisis were strategically bailed out. And the US Congress, averse to downsizing marginal rates of taxation of super-rich Americans, never sought nor found substantive answers to the entailing misery of the large groups of middle class Americans.
Around the same time in the first decade of the new millennium, economics and politics of the reform process in India engendered a new class of Indian dollar-billionaires and almost simultaneously widened the gap between overwhelmingly rich urban segments and the highly vulnerable rural poor in the country. Consequently, the Maoists gained foothold in over nine states, even as democratic decision-making in the parlours of Parliament failed to assess or rectify the situation.
The issue of impoverished, debt-ridden farmers relentlessly committing suicides in Maharashtra and other states also underlines this governance deficit. It seems that none of the much-touted debt or welfare schemes doled out by our elected representatives have even touched their lives meaningfully.
As it is, Indians across the board invariably tend to question the altruistic postures on commitment and hard work their elected representatives put forth in the public domain each time they seek a pay rise, and incrementally seek to add to their seamless band of privileges. Politically conscientious Indians are increasingly getting sceptical about the manner in which sections among MPs and MLAs have been exploiting the ongoing ‘era of coalitions’ to their own explicit advantage. Rather than being agents of change to restructure the order and ensure a sense of parity in the welfare of both the elected and the electors, they are hankering for more privileges and amenities for themselves as India advances.
Given this widening imbalance in the institutions of democratic governance, the people have every right to demand that the official estimates of projected growth rates should not be allowed to camouflage the key question: Who has benefited from this growth? Is economic growth meant only for the politicians who have mastered the technique of getting elected and the crony capitalists who keep them in good humour in between elections? Equal credence should be given to these questions as the rulers routinely typecast statements on India’s ‘rate of growth’. That means that people should credibly be cognisant as to who really benefits from India’s growth story.
In yet another frame of things, the enduring level of people’s protests in Russia against the higher establishment and application of typically American standards like ‘popular ratings’ to assess President Vladimir Putin’s levels of acceptability puts Russia’s ‘young democracy’ in a quandary of a different kind. It yet becomes relevant to assess whether the true aspirations of the Russian people will ever effectively configure as solutions for people through the Russian State Duma commensurately enough, to accord a real meaning for democracy with Russian characteristics? And would political reform be integral to Putin’s scheme of things, as he pledged to strengthen democracy in his inaugural incantations in Moscow on May 8, 2012?
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own.