Its colorful and chaotic. It almost immerses an observer with its noise, the range of issues and opinions. It can be overwhelming, euphoric and depressingly morbid at th same time. Yet, regardless of the categorization, it is, with all its flaws, is a thriving democracy. Many a western observer is astounded at the level of electoral involvement – Indian elections very regularly have 70% of the electorate participating. As a logistical exercise, national elections in India are unmatched anywhere in the world – by last count 740 million eligible voters in a country as vast and diverse as India. Overwhelming scarcely even begins to describe it.
The flaws are out sized as well. Billions of dollars siphoned off in scams ranging from Fodder to Telecom in a country where 35% of the population lives at or below sub-Saharan subsistence levels – India now has the dubious distinction of being the top country in the world in terms of money stashed away in Swiss banks. Political parties are often run as dynastic organizations with multiple generations of the same family providing all the “leadership” it is allowed. Transparency and accountability, though vastly improved in recent years due to a strident media and activist judiciary, is still unacceptably low by standards of developed countries. Corruption is rife – not just at governmental levels but in all walks of life. A combination of abysmally low levels of enforcement and an increasingly cynical attitude towards the law makes ordinary Indians having to deal with corruption at every step of life that is grinding and demeaning and self-reinforcing.
The issues facing the nation are grave as well – Environment sustainability for a nation of 1.2 billion (and increasingly affluent) people is perhaps the most critical. There’s the issue of ensuring that India’s growth actually percolates down to its young population. Public education and healthcare is pretty much a joke and needs to be addressed urgently. Especially, elementary public education that has so shamefully been ignored by our founding fathers and the politicians of different stripes that have followed. It is an issue of immense importance primarily because India’s population is young – and without a strong framework of education, India stands the risk of losing out of the much-touted demographic dividend.
The known issues continue to be issues – though there certainly have been some improvements. Infrastructure, for the most part, (and grand projects notwithstanding) is a major hindrance to continued economic development. More basic food commodities are actually lost in storage than is distributed to the poor. It is heartbreaking to read that wheat is rotting in warehouses due to inadequate facilities in a country where the percentage of malnutritioned children equals that of Chad and Ethiopia.
Electricity and water are scarce and in the case of water, getting alarmingly scarcer. India needs a coherent energy policy focused on alternative energies to supply its increasingly voracious demand. It is difficult to convince a majority of the population to live without electricity when they see ostensible signs of (sometimes crass) prosperity and wealth. And this is just scratching the surface.
But the color of India’s democracy shows itself in the drama involving a yoga guru being evicted from a “hunger strike” to protest against corruption (after allegedly, he had struck a deal with the government to call it off in two days – the same government he was protesting against).
Its not all gloomy, however. Paradoxical as India is, the same inefficient democracy gives India its biggest strengths. A country as diverse as India – religiously,linguistically, culturally is largely peaceful because of the outlet that the democratic system provides. The national identity of a country like India is, by definition, extremely complex. Yet, it is the democracy that allows for the biggest collective human exercise on the face of the planet to decide their future – the national elections – which, according to the blogger, is a critical binder of the nation.
Development and reforms seems chaotic and often frustratingly slow – because of the consensus that needs to be built. However, that same slow pace allows for the development to be much more bottoms up (and thereby, much more sustainable). As an aside, from a macroeconomic basis, the blogger believes, the relatively slow pace has prevented India from falling into a trap of a producer focused export oriented economy with little domestic demand and services. India today, though a much smaller economy compared to China, does not suffer from the same macro-economic risks that China is increasingly encountering (which will be addressed in another post soon). It has thriving domestic demand ( as a percentage of its GDP) and an increasingly innovation based private sector. The same balanced growth (along with other factors like a history of immigration of its educated, English speaking elite) has allowed it to build a tremendous amount of soft power unmatched by any country of the emerging economies.
Democracy aside – India’s problems are not intractable. India has abundant solar, hydro and wind power to build a sustainable energy policy. A concerted national policy on water conservation can lead to water be diverted from a water surplus areas to the areas having a water deficit. There seems to be a realization that India’s growth loses at least 1%-2% annually due to inefficient infrastructure and resources – and efforts are being made in the direction.
Most of all perhaps, India has tremendous human capital and the collective unleashing of a billion dreams 50 years after independence. And that creates a national incentive for the political parties, planners and thought leaders to change.
Baba Ramdev was kicked out of the capital for many reasons, some of which were not very democratic. But this blogger believes, that Baba Ramdev or not, the national outrage about the incident is precisely the kind of collective demand that will move the policy makers and ultimately, reduce India’s corruption and lead to India solving its other looming and existing challenges.