The Road Ahead: Politics With Principle And Power With Purpose

The Road Ahead: Politics With Principle And Power With Purpose

It is nothing short of a miracle that the Indian Republic preserved unity while protecting linguistic diversity

Dr Jayaprakash NarayanUpdated: Wednesday, February 07, 2024, 08:07 PM IST
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The Indian National Flag | Pixabay

As we enter the seventy-fifth year of our Republic, it is amazing to recognise how much we have accomplished, and humbling to acknowledge how much of our task is unfinished.

We are a most unlikely Republic. An extraordinarily diverse, mostly poor and illiterate society embraced universal adult franchise from the very inception despite lack of experience in self-governance for several centuries. The British experiment with democracy began in 1215 with Magna Carta, and yet only 713 years later in 1928 they got universal franchise. the American experiment with democracy began in 1619 in Virginia, and yet the African-Americans got the right to vote only after the Civil War in 1860’s, and women were allowed to vote only in 1920, 301 years later. In reality the African-Americans were segregated and their voting was suppressed by a variety of laws and practices until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Given the complexity, fragility and glacially slow pace of evolution of democracies, most scholars and statesmen predicted that we would disintegrate soon, or give up on freedom and democracy. And yet, we defied all predictions of collapse and disintegration, and stand tall as a proud and united Republic celebrating our diversity and freedom. True, there are many shortcomings in our Republic, and we have a lot more to do. But that recognition of our tasks ahead need not diminish our astounding accomplishments. We have retained our freedoms and exercise them with gusto. Our political campaigns are loud, robust and feisty, and we vote with great enthusiasm and expectation. Elections are fair and free, and votes are counted accurately and impartially. We accept the electoral verdicts calmly, and there is always peaceful transfer of power. (Look at Donald Trump’s antics and claims of victory after losing the election in 2020, and the insurrection he engineered on January 6, 2021 in the US almost derailing democracy). Elected Governments exercise real authority, not coteries or juntas behind the scene. While our rule of law is flawed, we do not execute or incarcerate political rivals merely because they lost an election. (Look at Russia, Pakistan or Bangladesh and many other countries where those who lose power or challenge authority often end up dead or executed or incarcerated!)

More substantively, we built strong and independent institutions that served us well — the Election Commission, the Supreme Court, the UPSC, the Finance Commission, CAG etc. Even before forming the Republic, we integrated 550 princely states into the Indian Union without resorting to violence or blood-shed — the army had to march into only one state, the Nizam’s Hyderabad. Compare this with Germany where 39 states speaking the same language and practicing the same faith — only Bavaria is Catholic; all others were Protestant — were unified by Bismarck with ‘blood and iron’ with bloodshed and was between 1862 and 1871. Or compare with Italy where nine provinces of the same language and faith took 23 years of intense effort between 1848 and 1871 to unify.

India has 22 recognised languages under the Constitution. Countries with two languages often find it difficult to stay united. Belgium has two main language groups — the Flemish people speaking Dutch and the French people, with a small proportion of German people — and yet that small, prosperous nation finds it difficult even to form a viable government most of the time. Pakistan split into two countries within 25 years because the nation could not accommodate two languages and cultures. Sri Lanka, despite its natural endowments and relatively high social development faced enormous violence, bloodshed and instability for a quarter century because of the inability to deal with linguistic diversity. It is nothing short of a miracle that the Indian Republic preserved unity while protecting linguistic diversity.

We started off as a highly centralised, quasi-federal Republic. But over the past thirty years our federalism has become strong, real and robust. The States are now largely in control of their destiny. Despite occasional disputes over style rather than substance, there has been impressive maturity and wisdom in our federation. The clock-work like devolution of funds based on Finance Commission report, the successful introduction and operation of GST through Union-State partnership, the dismantling of much of the licence-control raj giving the States greater freedom to develop key infrastructure and promote investments, the relative disuse of Article 356 after the Bommai judgment — all these made our federalism stronger than ever before. The enfeeblement of the third-tier and creation of over-structured, underpowered local governments made our polity highly centralised and federalism incomplete.

Democracy is very fragile. The travails American democracy and the convulsions seen in many other mature democracies show how difficult it is to run a democratic system. But there is no substitute to democracy; the only antidote to our failings is more and better democracy.

We have a lot more to accomplish in the next quarter century in the run up to the centenary of our Republic — rule of law, quality education, skills and healthcare, in situ urbanisation, local government empowerment, accountability and political reform. We are heirs to an extraordinary, continuing civilisation of 5000 years that embraced and integrated many ideas, philosophies and beliefs. Despite the political rhetoric, argumentative nature and seeming polarisation, we are fundamentally pragmatic and tend to gravitate to the middle, eschewing extremes.

We have a priceless opportunity to emerge as a tall and proud nation enlarging liberty, improving lives, fulfilling human potential and eliminating avoidable suffering. We only need to avoid the Great Sin that Gandhiji cautioned against — politics without principle, and power without purpose. Let us bring purpose to power, and principle to politics.

The author is the founder of Lok Satta movement and Foundation for Democratic Reforms. Email: drjploksatta@gmail.com / Twitter@jp_loksatta

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