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Independence Day 2020: Is democracy alive today?

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The founding fathers of our nation laid out a structure for governance with a strong centre. However, we wonder on the eve of Independence Day 2020 whether they realised that it would concentrate all power with the Union government, particularly the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office). This centralisation has always been a source of tension. However, in the last decade it has inflamed political conflict because of the faulty party apparatus on one hand and flourishing of interest groups on the other.

Largest democracy in the world

India is the largest democracy in the world. We have a zealous electoral process, non-partial law, vocal media and active civil society. Democracy happens to be under threat, however. The Indian political structure was conceived to solve socio-economic problems, but has become the problem itself. The government is at a loss when populist politics is used to manipulate the masses. In many recent instances, people in power themselves were responsible for creating opposing factions on the basis of religion and ethnicity.
The judiciary and police are unable to curb communal violence and criminal acts, partly because their processes are mired in red tape and often because of the criminalisation of politics. A “clean politician” is an anomaly in a system where convicted criminals are allowed to stand for elections. An April 2018 report by nonprofit organisation ADR (Association for Democratic Reforms) found that 1,580 MPs and MLAs (which makes up 33% of Parliament) have pending criminal cases.

Civil society rising

This crisis has been growing as new political practices emerge simultaneously. Dalits, tribals, Indians belonging to scheduled castes and tribes are mobilising themselves more proactively in the new millennium. This process harks back to the 1970s when non-government and humanitarian organisations became more prevalent. These civil groups rightly demand decentralisation of economy, power and status.
Socially relevant groups are making their presence felt in politics. Some like AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) have started using their resources to bring about pathbreaking reforms. Take the changes that AAP has managed to usher into schools and health care in Delhi, as an example. Dalits, SC and ST groups were relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy in ancient India. Today, some are embracing the opportunities that democracy presents. Women are breaking out of centuries of subjugation and becoming changemakers at the district, State and national levels. The effect of all these social movements goes to show that democracy thrives in India despite the bottlenecks in the system.
Some NGOs work in close partnership with the central and State governments because it enhances their ability to carry out public policy. Others keep an eye on actions of government agencies to uphold transparency and the law. Organisations like Amnesty raise the political consciousness of citizens – minorities in particular – so that they are informed of their rights and challenge social injustice. There are many social organisations that work in the area of coming up with solutions for existing problems. A number of activists like Medha Patkar have been instrumental in raising issues since the 1970s which the government in power has neglected.

Democracy in the time of COVID-19

The neglect of the government and bureaucracy has led to non-government organisations and corporate social responsibility (CSR) taking up the mantle of positive reform. The poor performance of the government in both, controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and providing relief packages despite humongous donations to the PM CARES Fund, has made citizens lose confidence in the power of ministry and gain confidence in the power of the individual and the community. Consider, for example, how actor Sonu Sood managed to send lakhs of migrants back to their homes on a full stomach, where the Central and State governments collectively failed. The current administration is considered too preoccupied with building temples rather than attending to the dying or coming to the rescue of students fighting for their rights.
There is a shift from the governing institutions to citizenry that we are witnessing when it comes to alleviating many societal evils. Poverty, hunger, environmental degradation to name a few. When they all work in synergy in the ‘new normal’ is when India will be independent in the truest sense of the word.