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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.

For 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.

Why 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.

Take the 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.

Reading 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.

The 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.

Abraham M. George


sumit said…
Dear sir, the whole article was very informative. the problem with our democracy i.e. the Indian democracy is that we, Indians, are very disinterested in this entire procedure. We say politics is bad, we say the government is impotent and then we go ahead with our daily chores. We ask questions, we issue statements but when it comes to give a solution, an average Indian is no where to be seen. his needs to be changed first. More participation should be there. It's my perception.

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