The Inner Crisis of Democracy in India and the Aam Aadmi Party

Mohan Guruswamy is Chairman and founder of Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi, India. He has over three decades of experience in government, industry and academia. He can be contacted at mohanguru[at]

Mohan Guruswamy
Mohan Guruswamy

Modern India now has over two thousand ethnic groups. Modern Indian languages have evolved from all the world’s four language families. Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman. India has 1652 individual mother tongues. The 2001 Census tells us that 30 languages are spoken by over a million each, and 122 by over 10,000 each. India has almost 1.2 billion people, and the Union of India consists of 31 States and Union Territories, with some more being currently midwifed. The biggest of these is Uttar Pradesh with a population of 199.6 million or 16.49% of India’s. It is as big as Brazil. The smallest political unit is Lakshadweep which has just 64,000 (0.01%). Quite clearly the omnibus term India, incidentally derived from the name of a river that hardly flows through it, masks a diversity of nations.

In late 2012 India became the world’s third largest economy in PPP terms and has grown at an average rate of over 7% since 2000. Between 2008-11 it grew at more than 9%. In consonance with global trends India’s growth also has tapered off these past two years. Clearly it’s a country of great heterogeneity and complexity. Its diversity makes it unsuitable for any other form of government but DEMOCRACY.

There is a crisis in India’s democracy and the Aam Aadmi Party is its consequence. Most conventional social scientists did not anticipate the AAP phenomena, as most of them did not see the challenges posed to Democracy, as it evolved, particularly in India.

According to Aristotle, the underlying principle of Democracy is Freedom, since only in a Democracy can Freedom be shared.

There are two aspects to Freedom Being Ruled and Ruling. And since everyone is equal, numbers matter.

We in India have Equality in the sense implied in a Democracy. We have periodic free and fair elections – at least reasonably free and fair, an independent Media, an independent Judiciary and all of us enjoy all the freedoms we believe to be essential to be a Free People.

But why then are we unhappy with the system of government we have?
To begin to understand this we must first understand what kind of a democracy we have evolved into.

We were intended to be a hybrid democracy combining direct democracy at the local levels and representative democracy at the regional and national levels. To facilitate the installation of a direct democracy at the lowest levels we needed to dismantle the traditional institutions of local government. While in most parts of the country institutions such as the Khaps, Jaati Sabhas and Gaon Sabhas continue to stubbornly exist, their powers and influence has been considerably whittled down by state systems in anticipation of a new system of Government called the Panchayati Raj, a system based on elections by equals and not based on tradition and birth. The PR system never did take root. As a matter of fact local government even in the cities never took root. The distribution of salaries tells this tale vividly.aap_n

Out of a total national expenditure of almost Rs.300, 000 crores each year on salaries and pensions, the Central government distributes almost 42%, the State governments almost 49% and all the local governments only 11%.

Now what happened?

Though the Founders of this Republic never used the term “political party” even once in the Constitution, from day one we were intended to be and are a party based democracy. When people elect representatives they are in fact choosing parties.

How party’s function then becomes critical to our democracy. If parties did not function or are not required to function in a prescribed Constitutional and Democratic manner, the leadership inevitably migrates into the hands of an elite, as we have seen in almost all our political parties now. These political parties have now factions that come together on the basis of a shared region, religion or caste. One of these impulses being the dominating motive for coming together. Take each of our many parties. The only party that claims a Pan Indian appeal has long ceased to be anything but an old feudal order presided over by an aristocracy. None of these parties has a formal membership, a formal requirement for membership, forums for participation and articulating aspirations of their communities, facilities to choose leaders by any formal process other than general and often simulated acclaim.

We have seen the transition of democratic styles in many of the worlds established democracies. The US saw power passing from a self-nominating convention nomination process to a primary based system that binds the convention to the choice of individual party members. This kind of a transition did not happen in India. On the other hand we migrated from a system where parties consisted of equals sharing a common purpose and sometimes goals to one where power passed into the hands of a self-perpetuating political aristocracy.

This system is in fact akin to the democracy of the Kouroukan Fouga of the great Mali Empire where clans (lineages) were represented in a great assembly called the Gbara. We had a similar system in the form of the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan. Even the Lichavi democracy in the post Magadhan period was akin to this.

Clan democracies are implicit with concentration of power with a very few and the manifestation of dictatorial tendencies. The bottom up system thus transforms itself into a top down system. Power then flows from a position of power. There is another consequence to this. When we have a Clan democracy issues pale and the capture of power becomes the sole driving force. Since issues have to be dealt with we quickly get an ideological consensus, as we see in India now. The Clans are quite satisfied with a system that gives them a share of the power and the pelf that goes with it.

This has happened in India and unfortunately the social scientists have not seen in it a failure of democracy. That’s why what Che Guevara said in 1961 in Uruguay said: “Democracy cannot consist solely of elections that are nearly always fictitious and managed by rich landlords and professional politicians.”aap_n

It is not surprising that when the notion of Democracy, as it has manifested itself is questioned, the first appellation hurled at the questioner is that he or she has become a Maoist or a Guevarist. But this is not so. Those who challenge the system as it has evolved are actually true democrats who want the voice of the people heard. Government has now become even more distant from the people.

Thus is where the relevance of the Aam Aadmi Party becomes significant. It questions this manifestation of Democracy in India. Most of us, including me, have so far dismissed it as a “One Trick Pony”. But is it so?

A closer reading of what Kejriwal has been saying reflects a deeper understanding of this malaise. He talks of restoring Direct Democracy first. Mani Shankar Aiyar has been trying to make the Congress swallow the bitter pill of Panchayati Raj for almost three decades now. Finally some sympathetic responses are heard from the Congress aristocracy. Rahul Gandhi has been talking a bit about how he intends to democratize the party. About how he intends to change the party from within. That would entail putting his own unchallenged position and hereditary elevation into question. Clearly the democratization of the Congress party can only begin when it becomes weak and hence changes to respond to the aspirations of the people. That is why the AAP experience enthuses him. What Mani Shankar Aiyar could not do, Kejriwal is doing.

He has spoken about the system in some of the Swiss Cantons that practice Direct Democracy, where people vote on all issues that concern their everyday lives. The AAP has pioneered some new methods for this. The use of SMSes for instance on whether to form a government or not? We have for the first time seen somewhat vibrant inner party discussions in the recent meeting of its National Executive. Some of this appears raucous to us. We want an orderly democracy. Like the democracy the bigger parties have given us. So when we see debate and push and shove we see it as disorderly. This is indeed democracy at work.

This is indeed a challenge or Social Scientists like these two esteemed academic titans to explain. I am a common garden variety of economist. I take heart in his most recent and probably first revelation of his mind processes on Economic issues.

Speaking to Reuters he said: “I think at a very broad level the government has no business to be in business. The government should leave business to the private sector. We have to encourage the private sector. India is a country of entrepreneurs. In India almost everyone is a born entrepreneur. A Rickshwalla is an entrepreneur. A farmer who has such a high risk taking ability is an entrepreneur. A big trader is an entrepreneur. A big showroom person is an entrepreneur. An industrialist is an entrepreneur. This entire business and industry is shackled with in rules and regulations. We need to free them from all these rules and regulations. If we provide them with a good environment, a free environment, a honest environment to do business, I think India will move ahead leaps and bounds.”

He then goes on to say: “Government sector is bad does not mean you privatize it, and it will become good. Because if its privatized, and it’s a monopolistic sector, you will set up a regulator and that regulator is also a part of the Government. He turns corrupt. And then the regulator plays into the hands of the monopolistic entity. So what is important here is not whether the entity is with the government or in the private sector, but whether there is good governance. If you have good governance you will have good services, if you have bad governance you will get bad services. So wherever it is possible to have competition, all such sectors should be thrown open to the private sector.

Arvind Kejriwal (Photo: AAP Facebook Page)
Arvind Kejriwal (Photo: AAP Facebook Page)

Kejriwal is even more revealing when it comes to how he will finance the lowering of costs he is announcing. He has a budget of Rs. 40,000 crores and he has announced reductions that will amount to Rs.242 crores. He then comments on the annual lease of the Delhi Golf Course for Rs.15 lakhs a year when the land value is many thousands of crores. He cryptically comments: “When you subsidize the rich in this country, no one minds that. But when you say we will reduce electricity costs, give water free they say why subsidy?
Now a free and honest environment for business is not what our politicians want, not what our bureaucrats want and not even what our industrialists want. If this changes, the old and corrupt way has to go. The creative spirits of the Indian people will be freed.

So what do we make out of this party? Kejriwal says: “The Aam Admi Party is one party that is classless, which is not gender biased. There are middle-class people, lower class people, there are laborers, there are rich people, and there are poor people. All kinds of people are part of the Aam Admi Party. Talking to Rajdeep Sardesai he described his party as “Shivji ki Baraat, jis mein tarah tarah ke log hain!” Indeed it seems so. And that too seems to have our Social Scientists confused. We have for far too long been disciplined to think in a certain way.

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