Frequently I write articles for newspapers and magazines on poverty, and I thought more people will get to read them if they are available as blogs.
Since 1995, I have been engaged in social work through The George Foundation to help alleviate poverty in India, focusing mainly in areas of income generation, education, healthcare, community development and social justice.
Your comments and thoughts are appreciated.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
The Complicated Task of Building Genuine Democracy
Recent events in the Middle East
that are collectively termed as the “Arab Spring” have so far been a “Winter of
Discontent” in most of the liberated countries. Dictatorship in Egypt under
president Mubarak is replaced by a pro-Islamic totalitarian regime that calls
itself democratic. In Libya, ruthless rule by Gadhafi is now substituted by
militias and sectarian groups within a pro-democracy movement. It appears that
a new form of authoritarianism or a new form of totalitarianism is taking
hold where only their form of Islamism is allowed. The tyranny of the majority over the minority
is the rule of law in most, if not all, the newly “freed countries.” It is
obvious that transformation to genuine democracy doesn’t come easy.
When the Soviet tanks rolled over
into most of Eastern Europe soon after the Second World War, the first item in
the agenda of the conquerors was establishing a powerful secret police. The
second was total control of news disseminated through the radio. It was clear
that the biggest threat to an oppressive government is information in
the hands of the general public. President Putin hasn’t forgotten this lesson;
he now completely controls the media (except for a few city newspapers that
serve the intellectuals who are no threat to the regime), and rules with a
powerful secret police – FSB (formerly KGB).
In what way is India different? Our
democracy is also fairly young – just over 65 years after centuries of rule by
Kings and recently by British colonialists who practiced their form of
dictatorship. But when the country became independent in the late 1940s, the
ideals of a democracy were implemented with principles practiced by the Soviet
regime. In a socialistic democracy that India embraced, the central government
kept the prevailing divergent cultures in the country separate in the name of
preserving their values, practices and languages. The central government
maintained its control over all the different sectarian groups with a strong
military, investigative powers and important monetary benefits, controls and
handouts. There was no need, and was found to be not desirable, to keep the
masses truly informed or united across cultures, religions, castes.
Both radio and television were
totally controlled by the central government until much later when private
participation was allowed. Radio
became open to the private sector in 1999, and there have been three rounds of
licensing for FM channels so far. Today there are 245 private FM channels in
the country, and yet, none of them is allowed to broadcast news. The government
knows well that over 95 percent of the Indian masses do not read English daily
newspapers that might cover national issues, and most local language television
channels focus on entertainment, sports and local sensational news. It is too
dangerous to expose the great majority of its population to uncensored radio
news, which still continue to be sanitized by the News Services Division (NSD)
of All India Radio. Despite a Supreme Court ruling in 1995 that the
government can only regulate, not restrict, content that is broadcast on radio,
the authorities are yet to act to implement the ruling.
nearly 50 years since the country’s independence, Indian news services and
opinion columns were dominated by coverage praising the Soviet system,
anti-capitalism, and “neutral” foreign policy principles, only to be abandoned since
1991 when economic liberalization began to set in. Unfortunately, at least two generations of Indians
were indoctrinated by the views of national governments and their official policies
to the detriment of the country’s progress.
should governments be afraid of its own people? The answer is very simple: the
power rests in the hands of few politicians and bureaucrats, and they have
everything to lose. Also those in the private sector who have considerable
wealth influence the government to get what they want. The result of this form
of governance is rampant corruption, favoritism and misuse of power.
case of the recent Hazare movement. When strong demands were made for
legislative action in the parliament to curb corruption (regardless of its
likely effectiveness) and protest marches and sit-ins were called, political
leaders in the ruling party accused the movement of harming national interest.
There are numerous examples of oppressive actions by state and central
governments to control the freedom of public speech, expression and dissent.
Serious dissent in any form can easily be brought to task in the name of
national interest and security.
Pulitzer Prize recipient Anne Applebaum’s recent book, Iron Curtain: The
Crushing Eastern Europe, I could not avoid thinking about the many
parallels to India’s so-called democracy. It is probably true that Indian
citizens are less an endangered species than their counterparts in Russia and
China, and in many other totalitarians regimes around the world, but it is far
from a truly free and open democracy.
country stands to gain greatly from public discourse and expressions of
dissent, but it must come from an informed citizenry.
The absence of an open society will continue to perpetuate some of the evils of
the current society – corruption, injustice, misuse of power, and widening
disparity between the rich and the poor.