The Pillars That Hold India's Democracy Up Are Falling Apart
The 70-year-old skyscraper we live in has deep-rooted structural flaws which are preventing real change.
Imagine a building. A towering glass-fronted skyscraper, supported by four pillars.
The occupants of the building want it to constantly keep getting taller and shinier; they want it filled with fancy apartments, express elevators, shopping malls, offices, parking lots, and perhaps even a golf course or two. “Keep going,” they say. “We, the residents of this grand building, will only be happy if there is constant development.”
But a look downwards, towards the bottom of the glistening tower, reveals that the four pillars on which it stands are riddled with cracks. It seems scarcely believable that they support the weight they do, and it's almost certain that any more additions will bring the entire 70-year-old structure crashing down.
Our democracy is more resilient than you might think, but it’s not invincible.
It is clear that attempts have been made to patch these cracks, but they don't seem to be working very well. With construction work at the top continuing ceaselessly, each patched crack only gives rise to multiple new ones.
Every single day we encounter articles and tweets that criticise the government, that curse one elected leader or another — those people we have collectively decided to put in charge of building and maintaining the skyscraper that is our democracy. Now, you and I, fellow BuzzFeed reader, are citizens of the 200th floor. We want unicorns to run around in our terrace gardens.
But the tragedy is we are living so high up in the air that we never hear the foundations crack; never see the faultlines in the pillars on which our democracy stands.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, a bit of exposition...
Our democracy rests on three fundamental pillars: the legislature, executive, and judiciary. The fourth pillar, which varies in importance depending on who you ask, is the media.
The job of the legislature is to make laws. We, the residents of the building, elect legislators, and it's their job to dream up ideas and write them down on paper, turning them into rules. The executive is supposed to, well, execute. When the legislature says "Let there be a new floor", the minions of the executive will scurry around trying to get it done. And the judiciary is supposed to settle fights and keep an eye on everything to ensure that everybody's following the rules.
Together, they make laws, implement them, review and make changes to them, and implement the revised laws. Rinse and repeat, ad infinitum.
The entire mechanism only gets activated when we get really angry and worked up and start outraging about something.
But the force that really keeps the lights on in the building is us, the residents. Because the entire mechanism only gets activated when we get really angry and worked up and start outraging about something. Our anger is amplified by the fourth pillar: the media.
In addition to conveying citizens' displeasure to the legislature, the media also keep us informed about how well our skyscraper is being run. So even though the media aren't directly a part of the process that keeps the building intact and running, they're pretty vital to the whole damn operation.
Now, let's get back to those cracks in the pillars
Take a long, hard look at the pillars and you’ll see some cracks that dwarf all the others. These cracks are beyond quick fixes, and any attempts at development at the top immediately make them worse. Allow me to give you a quick tour.
Enacted back in 1985, the Anti-Defection Law ensures that our MLAs and MPs agree – unconditionally – with their party bosses. If they don’t, they lose their seats. With decision-making centralised in the hands of a few people, the entire purpose of directly electing our leaders is defeated.
In an ideal skyscraper where this law doesn't exist, the floor plans would have to be approved by all of our representatives, not just a few people who might not give a crap about what you or the people on your floor think.
The bureaucrats in the executive enjoy a level of job security that isn't available in any other profession, thanks to Article 311 of the Constitution, which states that they cannot be fired even if they don’t do their jobs – unless they indulge in corruption. But even then, they're protected by inquiries that take years to conclude. And while they can't be fired, they can be transferred at will by their political bosses.
This is why it’s easier for bureaucrats to collude with politicians to execute massive scams than to actually do their jobs right.
The judiciary, for all its enforcing of rules, is not answerable to anyone. A committee called the Collegium, which consists of senior judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts, chooses the other brother judges. They’re usually "brothers" because inherent bias creeps in here. Judges are often selected based on gender, caste, religion, and even political considerations.
The Collegium is a closed system where nobody really knows why a person is chosen to be a judge. And if you question the judiciary, it will come down on you with extreme precision and force.
(The Supreme Court recently decided that the reasoning behind Collegium recommendations will be made public. While the resolution was a step in the right direction, it also contained a rather curious sentence stating that the new measure would “ensure transparency and yet maintain confidentiality”. Digest that contradiction with a spoonful of salt.)
The media, which are supposed to amplify the concerns of the citizens and be critical of the ruling dispensation, are often forced by a broken business model to look away to ensure their own survival.
We, the citizens who stand to benefit the most from the news being reported accurately, are increasingly unwilling to pay the true cost of that service, so the media are largely dependent on advertisers for funding. And these advertisers use the media to push for laws that would benefit them and force the media to filter their content.
Another big source of funds for the media is government ads. Smaller newspapers depend almost entirely on the government printing notifications of public tenders and schemes in their pages. So if a legislator is colluding with a businessman to build an unnecessary new floor in the skyscraper with substandard materials, the newspaper can either choose to expose it and face their combined wrath, or just keep quiet and continue to get ad money from both.
Are these issues really such a big deal?
Yes. Regardless of the party in power, the structural flaws in our system mean the nature and quality of government remains the same. Many have wondered, time and again, why the current NDA government is constantly doing the same things the UPA did. Aadhaar is one shining example of a program the BJP opposed before it came to power, only to do a complete U-turn and implement it even more aggressively than before after it got elected.
There are so many examples that it’s difficult to keep track of.
This bizarre pattern of promising something and doing the opposite has come to define our political class. If the current BJP-run government is replaced by a Congress-run government at some point in the future, it is unlikely that it will make any real difference.(As Arun Shourie puts it, BJP = Congress + Cow.)
We will continue to be stuck in a rut, voting in one disappointment after the other, until we take a long, hard look at the structural deficiencies in our democracy. Nothing will change unless someone stands up and says, “For the next five years, all I’m going to do is fix stuff. Everything that is broken, we will try and fix. We shall start from the very bottom. NO MORE NEW FLOORS TILL WE FIX THE PILLARS AT THE BOTTOM!”
Of course, this would practically be political suicide.
The folks up on the 200th floor would think this person has gone bonkers. “But, but, what about the unicorns?” they'd cry. “I was promised a unicorn for my terrace garden and that is what I want!”
The people occupying the lowest floors in the skyscraper – the tribals who keep losing their land; the garbage collectors who fight fire every day atop mountains of filth; the little people who go to school because they get a midday meal there; those kids' construction-worker parents, the ones who die after falling off literal skyscrapers – are not demanding unicorns. They don’t care about the cracks in our democratic pillars either, because they have to keep their head down and work in order to survive.
The bureaucrats who get transferred to these floors don't want to deal with the squalor. They want to go back to the 200th floor where life was so frikkin' good. The politicians go downstairs only to ask for votes, promising better pipes and wires, better apartments, better healthcare. Once elected, they go back to their houses in the top floors and listen only to those who live around them. The judges are so overwhelmed by the number of fights that constantly break out that they set up a fast-tracking mechanism for important cases, but only end up using it for people on the top floors. The little person fighting for a proper daily wage and better living conditions in the bottom floor has to wait endlessly for the slow wheels of justice to move and for their chance to arrive.
We will continue to be stuck in a rut, until we take a long, hard look at the structural deficiencies in our democracy.
We, the educated, the Twitterati, the Instagrammers and the Facebookers, the people on the internet, have the luxury to think about the larger problems affecting the building, because our bellies are full and we are reading articles like this one on fancy smartphones. When we keep asking for unicorns in our apartments, we end up ignoring the mess in the lower floors. And as we've already established, the problems below jeopardise the entire building.
This is why it is vital that we ask for the cracks in the pillars to be fixed. It’s time to make sure that those we elect, those who execute, those who judge, and those who report and analyse also recognise that this is what is needed.
If we don’t, then let’s just be happy with the insane circle jerk of a "theoretical" democracy we are stuck in and hope the skyscraper doesn’t collapse, taking our precious malls and apartments with it.
Wait, what? The skyscraper will collapse?!
Our democracy is more resilient than you might think, but it’s not invincible.
The collapse will begin slowly. You might be noticing the subtle tremors right now. Did you notice that political funding for parties has practically become anonymous? Did you realise how we still don’t have a Lokpal and the existing law continues to be silently diluted till it’s practically ineffective? Do you see how the judiciary refuses to give a judgment on Aadhaar, allowing the government to bulldoze citizens into compliance?
The most recent tremor was felt in Rajasthan, where the government passed an ordinance that protects serving and former judges, magistrates, and public servants in the state from being investigated, without its prior sanction.
These tremors are getting more and more regular with every passing day. The tremors might eventually become an earthquake that threatens the very foundation of our democracy.
Maybe then we would wish we had fixed those cracks while we had the chance.