Mumbai 11/26:

Reflections on the future of Indian democracy

posted by Dipesh Chakrabarty

It is difficult to be completely impersonal about what happened in Mumbai last week. Some friends lost their near and dear ones to the mindless bullets of murderous terrorists. An old acquaintance from college escaped with his life from the Taj Hotel, having been deprived of food and drink for all the time the siege was on. Watching a Muslim taxi-driver on Indian television describe in heart-rending terms how he lost members of his family at the Chhatrapati Shivaji (Railway) Terminus to assassins, who presumably thought that they were fighting for the cause of Muslims, was enough to remind anyone that this mayhem was not about religious differences or the struggles of the Kashmiri people for a just political future. This was indeed terrorism, an attempt to wield fear as a political weapon by killing innocent and unsuspecting people in large numbers. It was, like all acts of terror, whether carried out by groups or states, a crime against humanity.

To say this is not to deny the many long-term problems that can cause partisan ire in the subcontinent. To be sure, Kashmir is a problem that bears on Hindu-Muslim tension in the region and urgently needs to be addressed, but this will not happen overnight. True, India needs to work with people and officials in Pakistan who are also against terror, for it is important to foil any attempts to cause friction between India and Pakistan. But much depends on Pakistan being able to mobilize a political will to engage merchants of death such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (one does not know of similar groups in India bent on producing destruction and mayhem in the neighboring country). It is also true that the politics of hatred and division promoted by the BJP or Shiv Sena weaken the Indian nation by alienating minorities. But this again is a long-term problem: so long as there are effective votes in these divisive sentiments, political parties are not going to abstain from using them.

The most recent Mumbai tragedy points to a general way in which some of the negative effects of globalization are changing the nature of democracies in the twentieth century. Given the diverse global tensions in the world—terrorism, economic-environmental crises, and civil wars that dislocate populations—democratic states will increasingly tend to develop a strong security aspect in the coming decades. The violence in Mumbai was perceptibly different from the terrorist violence that India has seen before. This time the terrorists themselves wanted to create a “global” event. Their targets included many “ordinary” Indians, but also the international elite that patronizes the most well-known hotels of Mumbai, itself the most global city in India. Their technology and targets were global—witness their use of a Voice over Internet Protocol system to keep in touch with their masters in Pakistan, and their deliberate targeting of a small Jewish community from overseas. Thanks to this orgy of violence, Indian democracy has now, sadly, been ushered into a major debate of the twenty-first century: should democratic states become security-states as well? Security measures are, of course, no substitute for the political processes needed to heal rifts between countries and communities. But they cannot be ignored either. The terrorists have already threatened to repeat in Delhi what they did in Bombay. How could India ignore questions of security in the lackadaisical way it has so far?

This immediately raises two challenges. One is related to questions of democracy in general. The prospect of a security state understandably and rightly concerns rights-activists. Yet it is clear that, given the globalization of all major problems of the world, one of the great debates of this century will be about liberty of individuals versus security of populations. In the developed countries today, it is hard to distinguish measures adopted to fend off terrorist attacks from the politics of refugees and “illegal” immigration. Realistically, I cannot see how liberal-democratic nations can now avoid demands about their citizens’ right to security, and balance this against other rights. Of course, the balance cannot be decided in any a priori fashion, which is why it always should be open to debate with reference to specific contexts. There is, besides, the very important question of ensuring that the pursuit of security does not become a tool for oppression of and discrimination against minorities or immigrants. But the globalization of this debate is what marks our times. One now expects this debate to gain further momentum in India.

The second challenge, in this context, arises from deep within the history of Indian politics and is peculiar to India to some extent.  To have an effective cordon sanitaire against terror would require India to inject a degree of efficiency, alertness, and performance into an administrative apparatus that simply has not delivered on these scores for decades. For many interesting historical reasons (that need not detain us here), government and public institutions in India gradually ceased to be effective deliverers of goods and services, beginning in the 1970’s. There is much that democracy in India has achieved, including the famous overturning of the autocratic Emergency Rule that Mrs. Gandhi once imposed and the sense of participation many low-caste communities have in the country’s governmental institutions. But democracy in India has also become predominantly a means of electoral empowerment of different groups—low-castes, dalits, minorities, or even majoritarian Hindus who claim to have been “weakened” by the “privileges” accorded to minorities.

The growth of this politics of identity has made elections into the mainstay of Indian democracy. It has distanced politics from issues of governance, and has gone hand in hand with a deepening degree of corruption, financial and otherwise, on the part of politicians and officials. A large number of the elected members of parliament have criminal cases pending against them, and media reports suggest an elephantine, unaccountable, inefficient bureaucracy mired in the self-indulgent use of resources (corruption and inefficiency often going together). There was, as last week’s events made clear, no effective coast guard force on the Indian seas, in spite of the government having been warned of possible terror attacks on Mumbai from the sea. When the Taj Hotel caught fire, it took the first lot of firefighters three hours to respond. The commando force had to be dispatched from Delhi and it took about nine hours to mobilize them, as they are usually kept busy providing “security” to politicians, many of whom see such security as a matter of status and prestige. It also turns out that the majority a very large grant recently given to the Bombay police for its modernization was spent on buying luxury cars and other expensive items for the use of senior officers and their ministers! Creating a security system that will effectively protect the population from terrorist attacks will not be easy. Corruption follows public money in India, as it does, unfortunately, in many countries, and undermines performance. Additionally, the effective functioning of any institution in India in a non-partisan manner would require that institution to be insulated from political interference. The second condition is not easily met in India. The required reforms thus call for a certain kind of political will that the political class in India has not quite shown in recent times.

Yet India cannot avoid debates over security and other rights any longer. The government has already announced certain measures that will make anti-terror laws more stringent than before. Other reforms will certainly follow on paper, and perhaps in action as well. Many members of the Indian educated middle class are currently angry at the inability of their government to protect them. We do not know how effective that anger will be in bringing about change. If the nature of the political class remains the same, Indians will probably have to get used to living with a degree of terror the exact quantum of which is difficult to predict at this stage. My most optimistic scenario is this: that Indians will address both the long-term and short-term problems together so that, important as security considerations are, this tragedy will initiate not just a rethinking but also a revitalization of democratic institutions in India as they cope with the challenges of this global century.

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One Response to “Reflections on the future of Indian democracy”

  1. avatar Aakrati Gupta says:

    In a country like India, where the population is so great, it is difficult to track down what individual intentions are and to police immigration inside countries, entry in malls, multiplexes, railway stations, airports and other places that could plausibly be bombed by terrorists. Creating a security state is not the solution for India. It may bring down the frequency of attacks or it may end up having more efficient and intelligent terrorist organisations blast public places. How is it possible to check people walking on the streets if they are carrying RDX in their grocery bags? Creating a security state, and, in doing so, restraining people from keeping their democratic rights, and then failing to avoid terrorist attacks will just end up creating hopelessness along with fear in the society. It is a combination that would challenge the purpose of having a democracy.

    it is difficult to have a solution to a problem as sensitive as terrorist attacks. The frustration in Indians was majorly that government can do nothing at all to avoid terrorist attacks and the system is incompetent. Had there been a better check on the seas and a less corrupt and bureaucratic system, we might have saved the lives of the people who died in the attack; but one never knows—the terrorists could have found another way.

    Another way in which we can have a more efficient government without a play of regional politics is to change our voting system. There should be a benchmark minimum percentage of votes without which a party can not rule over a state. If no party achieves the benchmark, then there may be re-elections until a party does. The parties would then be compelled to have politicians having clean records, and people who would be efficient, uncorrupt, and who could be a choice for people, not the only option for them. Thus can India address the second problem stated by Dipesh Chakrabarty.

    I do not think that the price to be paid for having a security state is to compromise on our democratic rights when the terrorist groups just have to be a little more intelligent and efficient to have their way around the checks of the security state.

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