By Anjum Altaf
We have the opportunity to improve our understanding of corruption, democracy and the relationship between them by examining critically the views of Professor Neera Chandhoke outlined recently in connection with the Anna Hazare campaign.
In The Seeds of Authoritarianism, Chandhoke articulates two fundamental positions. First, the establishment of a Jan Lokpal is not democratic and carries within it the seeds of authoritarianism. Although Singapore has controlled corruption, it is not a preferred model because it ‘does not respect the two prime fundamentals of democracy as India does: popular sovereignty and the equal moral status of citizens.’ Therefore, corruption in India needs to be addressed within the procedures and norms mandated in the Constitution.
Second, Anna Hazare’s political beliefs are questionable because he has expressed a low opinion of the voter by saying that some sell their votes; contempt for the voter defies the ‘very rationale for democracy and that of its very claim to legitimacy, that of equal moral status.’ Political democracy, despite all its flaws, has empowered voters to influence political behavior.
We can begin our engagement with these positions by stating the obvious. First, democracy has been in existence in India for over sixty years; it has not been able to eliminate, reduce or even restrain corruption. Corruption has grown by leaps and bounds in tandem with the growth of the economy.
Second, although corruption as an issue agitates and angers every citizen, there seems no reason to believe that democracy as practiced in India would be able to translate this anger into meaningful political action in the future any better than it has in the past.
There are two questions here: Why is this so and what is to be done? Chandhoke does not provide an answer to either.
The reason for this inability, in my view, is that while Chandhoke focuses on the reality of corruption, she seeks her solutions in the practice of an ideal democracy. Despite an early acknowledgement that India’s democracy ‘is deeply flawed in many crucial respects’ she moves on to argue that ‘the proposed solutions for a corruption-free India that are currently on offer might not be democratic at all.’
But what we have to work with is a deeply flawed democracy and the fact of the matter is that in this democracy we have not been able to find a way to channel the deepest desires of voters into effective political outcomes. It is also a matter of fact that votes are traded in this deeply flawed democracy; much evidence was available earlier and more confirmation is provided by the latest revelations from Wikileaks. To state this fact can only be considered contempt for the citizen in a moral framework that values political correctness over truth.
Another perspective on this reality can lead one to argue that voters are rational; they consider the compensation for their vote the best deal they can get out of a deeply flawed democracy. The hope that a vote cast entirely on the basis of ideas can deliver results seems a fairy tale to most voters given the reality with which they are intimately familiar. Popular sovereignty and equal moral status are fine as ideals but woefully wanting in their lived reality. A contrarian position would argue that respect for the citizens requires an acknowledgement rather than a denial of the circumstances that compel them to trade their votes.
It is equally obvious that in India it is ‘non-democratic’ mechanisms like fasts to death that channel popular concerns much more effectively that ‘democratic’ ones as has been witnessed by the outcome of the Anna Hazare campaign – it has put public representatives on the defensive in a way no other mechanism has in the past. We should be learning from what works and asking why rather than being concerned more with what ought to work.
If we start with the reality of what clearly works much more effectively, we can move to the subsequent stage of thinking how such mechanisms can be institutionalized so that they become more compatible with popular sovereignty and less susceptible to authoritarianism. Referenda on single issues and the ability to recall individual public officials would make up for some of the flaws that cripple the democratic process as it exists today. This could be extended, perhaps, to directly electing the governors of the Jan Lokpal that may come into existence in the future.
Related to this discussion is Chandhoke’s comparative evaluation of Singapore and India. After mentioning that “[t]he island-state has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, possesses a world-class educational and health system, and boasts of an incorruptible public service’ she expresses her preference for India because of the latter’s adherence to the two prime fundamentals of democracy, popular sovereignty and the equal moral status of citizens. One could argue that such a preference itself cannot be imposed via an authoritarian choice. It too should be the outcome of a democratic expression of opinion.
The point is that the preference for popular sovereignty and equal moral status over a world-class educational and health system and an incorruptible public service is not independent of one’s station in life. One can’t eat popular sovereignty and equal moral status, nor, it seems, can one translate them into outcomes that would put enough on the table over a reasonable period of time. We will not belabor the point here because we have covered it adequately in earlier posts – Would You Wish to be a Chinese in China? and Is Singapore a Successful City?
The conclusion we arrive at is that the starting point of any analysis or proposal for reform should be the reality of democracy as it exists in India today and an understanding of how and why it frustrates the translation of popular desires into political outcomes. There is something not quite right in saying that a democracy that has half the population at starvation levels for over sixty years is still preferable to an authoritarian state that has transformed ‘a malaria-infested swamp to an economic powerhouse.’ Such a choice between life and death should not be made on behalf of starving people without their consent.
Of course, this is presenting the argument very starkly in order to highlight what is at stake in the alleged choice between democracy and authoritarianism. The real challenge is to move beyond pointing to the superiority of an ideal democracy. It is to incorporate into the practice of democracy as it exists in India today the mechanisms that allow citizens to make their desires matter and their voices heard. Mechanisms that ensure accountability and are themselves accountable are steps in the right direction.