We the people of free India

PARTH J SHAH
The Economic Times August 15, 2002

This day, 55 years ago, India achieved political independence from the British state, but she still awaits economic and social independence from the Indian state. But, I am not sure whether we have even genuine political independence.

Many of our laws are of the British time, some even unmodified. The Official Secrets Act keeps citizens away from their democratic government as it kept the subjects beneath their British rulers.

The Defence of India Act of 1935 underpins the legal architecture of independent India. The laws that today govern family relationships of Hindus as well as Muslims were framed by the divide-and-rule Brits.

The British did build the institution of relatively independent judiciary. The Supreme Court of independent India however uses the British law of contempt of court to keep itself above criticism by low citizens.

"We need to teach these browns how to show respect."

Freedom has turned into licence. The judiciary rules on any and all subjects under the guise that "the browns" can't solve the problems through their own political and social mechanisms.

It debates whether bonus is really a salary, as if "the browns" cannot tell the difference, and declares that bonus once given shall become mandatory. For-profit education is decreed to be unconstitutional.

It orders use of only CNG for public transport in the capital, demands that transport and power sectors must be given priority in CNG allocation, and bans passage of trucks through Delhi. This is the independent judiciary of independent India.

Political independence hasn't brought much improvement in political governance either. Many say we have simply changed the skin colour of our rulers. We actually have done more than that. We have added hypocrisy. With the British, we at least knew that we were looted for their benefits.

Our Indian rulers plunder us in the name of helping us!

We take solace in being the world's largest democracy-if nothing else, we are governed by representatives elected in free and fair elections. Democracy is allegedly India's crowning achievement. But is it a genuine democracy? Do our representatives reflect popular will?

The criminalisation of politics has excluded the honest and the decent from joining politics. The laws limiting campaign contributions and the expenses that can be officially incurred by candidates has led to the dominance of muscle power and illegal money in the electoral process.

The laws have created the need for "black" money. The necessity of muscle power reflects the fact that the goal of the rulers has hardly changed - they are there to loot.

In our first-past-the-post (FPTP)electoral system, a candidate doesn't need to win a majority, a candidate needs just one more vote than the opponents.

Most of our rulers have controlled our lives by winning about one third of the votes. In the FPTP system, candidates try to appeal to a section of voters, not a majority of them - they create a vote-bank, not the bank of a majority of votes.

Several better electoral systems exist that result in winners who more accurately reflect majority preferences. But our election campaigns are rarely about policies and issues; they are about which candidate would share how much of the loot with his supporters. We have democratised plunder, not governance.

Many see the rise of regional parties and coalition politics as a sign of empowerment of those who didn't hitherto have a voice.

This deepening of democracy is supposedly a move towards equalisation of opportunities for the downtrodden and the lower castes. Yes, the opportunity to share in the loot! Not just the upper-caste netas and babus, but all have a finger in the jar. Is this equality India's proud achievement?

The structure and working of our political parties also echo my claim that our politics is politics of plunder. There is no democracy, accountability, or transparency in the political parties.

It is futile to expect that political parties would operate by a code different from the one central to the political system. Political parties unanimously opposed the requirement of disclosure of wealth and income, and of criminal record by election candidates.

Most democracies require that candidates make their wealth and income tax returns public. Their media effectively takes care of any criminal record the candidates may have.

The wealth and income tax returns are legal documents that can be required to be disclosed. Any discrepancy between the returns and actual wealth and income would then be handled by the media and hopefully by the tax authorities.

A further suggestion is that the failure to disclose or false disclosure should result in disqualification of the candidate.

Many oppose the disqualification requirement on the grounds that it infringes person's fundamental right to participate in the democratic process, in the same way as any minimum education requirement.

Shouldn't people have the right to decide minimum qualifications for the job to run the government? Similarly, they should be able to fix criteria for disqualification.

To prevent people from setting such norms is a violation of their right. Any unreasonable qualification or disqualification criteria would not be permitted. Just as we don't permit norms that are arbitrary and unrelated to the requirements of the job in the private sector.

My concern with the disqualification requirement is not with any infringement of fundamental rights of candidates, but with impartial implementation of the requirement.

Given the politicisation of the police, investigative agencies, and the judiciary, it is difficult to expect that impartial investigations and judgements will be made in the short period of time to decide whether a candidate is disqualified. If we are able to create a proper mechanism, the disqualification requirement is certainly worth a second look.

The battle for economic and social freedom is on. Let's resolve on this day to recommit ourselves for the struggle for true political independence. We must have authentic representatives and true economic and social independence.

(The author is president, Centre for Civil Society)

New Delhi, August 15, 2002
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