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Debashis Basu: Ruling democracy vs serving democracy

The objective and provisions of many of our laws were not designed for democracy

Debashis Basu 

Debashis Basu

On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a Townhall meeting, where he touched upon the idea of governance and participatory democracy. Among the many things he said were "we want to develop good governance, where processes are less and things get done easy for citizens. Every responsible person holding a position should be questioned. People should easily get what they want. Last-mile delivery is important. Participatory democracy is very important for India." His comments drew praise from many, including his critics. But it's a bit premature to talk about participatory democracy, when the current system empowers the elite to act like rajas while the last mile is a vast system of harassment and extortion of the praja.

In the run up to the 2014 elections, Mr Modi often referred to the previous government as the Delhi Sultanate. It resonated deeply with the people of India. The government and its various arms are seen as remote rulers, often acting in a capricious, cruel and self-serving manner. Our daily dose of news could include:

> Police beating to death citizens for refusing to pay a bribe

> A film star walking out untouched in a hit-and-run case, despite several dead victims

> Legislators beating up government officials for trying to enforce a rule

> Political workers, with full patronage of their leaders, destroying equipment worth crores in a top-class hospital following the death of one of their leaders

> A municipal engineer in charge of building permits, caught with a stash of over Rs 20 core in his house

India is anything but a democracy, where all are equal in the eyes of law. One retired senior government official, who has seen the system closely for 45 years, put it very perceptively to me: "India is a ruling democracy, not a serving democracy." It is meant for those in power to rule us, not serve us. This has many roots, one of which could be this: The objective and provisions of many of our laws were not designed for democracy. The British Empire had designed them to rule over us, and keep its subjects - the uncivilised and the illiterate - under its control. Read the Press and Registration of Books Act of 1867 and you would know. To change the price of a publication, the address or the name of the printer, publishers have to stand in a witness box and testify before a magistrate. This was designed to control the swadeshi pamphleteers from spreading disaffection about the British Raj. Such laws have been smoothly carried forward from the British era to a democratic India.

At the upper end, the laws, rules and procedures rarely apply to the powerful new maharajas (legislators, socialites, film stars, businessmen, sportsmen, senior officials etc.) They can often get away after breaking the law because of their power and influence. Thanks to social media and close circuit television, a lot of these cases of perversion of law are now visible every day. In 2012, the video of a gun-toting Gujarat Congress member of Parliament threatening toll-booth employees went viral. He was incensed that anyone could dare treat him like anyone of us, and ask him to pay toll. He is part of the new powerful elite "the elected representatives of people", the lawmakers, who are above the law. Before the 2014 elections, he switched sides and went on to join Mr Modi in Parliament on a Bhartiya Janata Party ticket. Maybe we should ask him the meaning of participatory democracy, the last mile, the rule of law etc.

That the laws often do not apply to the ruling elite is bad enough. But, there is a second travesty. At the lower end, the complex and illogical laws, rules and procedures have become tools in the hands of a vast army of government employees, who exercise control over our daily lives through an informal but well-oiled system of harassment and extortion. Not only is there no sign of change at this level, but newer laws have even more draconian provisions, whether it is the Companies Act, amended Act of Securities and Exchange Board of India, Sexual Harassment Act etc. In a corrupt system, where delivery of justice is slow and perverse, the more oppressive the provision, the easier it is to harass and extort.

In his first Independence Day speech, Mr Modi called himself Pradhan Sevak. But, we need to take many steps to change India from a democracy where new rajas rule, to one where the praja is served. Meanwhile, Mr Modi can ask his Maharashtra chief minister about the outcome of Government Servants Regulation of Transfers and Prevention of Delay in Discharge of Official Duties Act. Especially, since he has said that he plans to introduce a similar law at the national level. That would, at least, take the issue beyond sound bites and headlines.

The writer is the editor of

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First Published: Sun, August 07 2016. 21:48 IST