India is the world’s largest democracy. 69% of its population live on less than two PPP dollars a day, making it one of the world’s poorest countries. Should India’s success as a democracy be measured by its GDP growth figures, or in terms of the real freedoms that its citizens enjoy and the breadth of opportunities they can access?
India has certainly come a long way since the 200 years of British rule, under which the Indian economy stagnated. The rate of economic growth under British rule had been negligible, and sometimes even negative. The success of India’s political leaders lies in turning a backward labour abundant, agricultural economy into one of the world’s fastest growing ones. The growth rate of the Indian economy was 5.2% during 1980-90, 5.9% during 1990-2000, and 7.6% during 2000-2010.
But despite high rates of economic growth, large masses of Indians have been excluded from enjoying the benefits of economic growth. In terms of growth of physical and social infrastructure, India lags behind other Asian nations. Two hundred million Indians live without access to electricity. Among the six South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal & Bhutan; India currently occupies the second worst position, on the basis of comparison in terms of social indicators such as infant mortality, child immunisation and women’s literacy. This is surprising when one considers the fact that India held the second best position, among these six nations, three decades ago.
We, as Indians, have to ask ourselves what is the reason for the deprivation suffered by millions of Indians. Even though India has a sustainable democratic political system, it has been unable to achieve equitable distribution either of wealth or of opportunity. Wide disparities remain in terms of access to education, clean drinking water & health services. Thus, social and economic democracy remains an elusive goal for Indians.
In any democracy, engagement of the masses in debating the crucially important issues affecting people’s lives is extremely important. In this regard Indians are fortunate to enjoy freedom of speech, an independent judiciary and the presence of a free press and electronic media. Unlike China, censorship of the press and monitoring and restriction of access to internet does not happen in India. The Indian media has played a vital role in educating Indian society on current issues. It has been able to influence and steer public opinion in the right direction when protests and controversy have arisen over future government policy. The Indian media has functioned without bias and free from influence of interest groups.
But the Indian media has an even greater role to play in highlighting the inefficiency that has become a part of Indian administration. Lack of accountability and corruption have characterised administrative functioning in India for far too long. The system of ‘License Raj’, in the 1980s, fostered a culture of corruption that continues till today. The common man is impatient to see positive change in a system marked by inefficiency and ineptitude.
When it comes to tackling the problem of corruption among holders of public office, it is often argued that India would have fared better if it had an authoritarian regime like China. Possibly then India would have been able to create more physical and social infrastructure for its people. According to Amnesty International, China executed more people in 2012 than the rest of the world combined. Had a system similar to China’s existed in India, Indians would have had to sacrifice freedom of the press, freedom of speech and other liberties that they now enjoy. Thus, India’s democratic political system cannot be unambiguously blamed for the inequality observed among its population. Indeed, democracy in India has witnessed the rise of the backward classes politically, economically and socially. What is needed is greater emphasis on policies that help to educate, agitate and organize the masses, who can then take part in informed debate. Greater engagement of society, both politically and socially, is the need of the hour, if India is to become a shining example of the success of a democracy, in the coming decades.