Democracy and Discipline
Posted on 1-July-2006
Once, when a few years ago, a Thai journalist asked me in a television interview, whether the reason why India's economic performance lagged behind that of Southeast and East Asia was democracy, I felt embarrassed. Constrained by the limitations of the office I held then, I could not say what I really thought and waffled unconvincingly instead. But not many people in India are embarrassed to blame the slow economic progress of India in comparison to that of China on India's democratic system of governance. They would even add that democratic processes are inherently messy and slow. It is a little difficult to agree with such assertions uncritically for two reasons: one, there is nothing in the experience of some of the older democracies in the present day world to suggest that democratic freedoms cannot co-exist with discipline in public life and social behaviour or that open debates in a democratic society preclude efficiency in the execution of public policy and two, that such assertions look suspiciously like the Indian elite's unwillingness to look frontally at some of the ugly realities of public life in the country.
Governments and public institutions cannot be blamed for all the lack of discipline in the social behaviour of private citizens. For much of unruliness in social behaviour it is citizens themselves who are to blame. Take something as simple as forming a queue while waiting for one's turn at a counter or an entrance. There will always be some people trying to get out of turn what others before them are waiting for and for this they will either wave some badge of honour or simply their muscles. Yet others will gladly wash their cars or the paved areas inside their boundary walls and let the water flow on the street, unmindful of the squalor they create on the roads. Littering, ignoring traffic rules while driving, creating noise in public through loudspeakers in temples, mosques, at weddings, public sermons of holy men or different forms of worship are far too common to need being described in detail. Add to all that the totally unruly behaviour of members in legislative bodies in the states or at the federal level. Such unsocial conduct--as common among the "educated" and the well heeled as among the illiterate and the indigent--is so widespread that it cannot be dealt with by necessarily small numbers of enforcers of rules of conduct in the manner in which aberrant social behaviour by limited numbers can.
While public institutions cannot be blamed for widespread lack of respect for rules of conduct among the citizenry, responsibility for enforcing the law lies with them. Failure to do so is dismayingly frequent. A few years ago, a serveuse in a bar in Delhi was shot dead in the view of tens of eyewitnesses. All the suspects were acquitted by the trial court seven years later, obviously because witnesses were suborned by many people in positions of power and authority. For the last several years many analysts, commenting on large bad debt portfolios of Indian banks, have said that most of these loans are to large business houses. Successive ministers of finance have promised action. Yet the problem remains. The presence of criminals in legislative bodies has been the staple of a great deal of public discourse. Some members of these bodies get indicted from time to time, but no one is ever convicted. A busy inter-city road passes by near the place I live in. For much of its length it is a dual carriageway, except one stretch of about thirty metres. About twenty years ago, I heard that a small businessman who had a kiln by the road side had filed a suit against the government because, he said, his kiln and livelihood would be destroyed if a divider were built and that section of the road widened like the rest of its length. Twenty years later that section of that road is still without a divider and as narrow as ever while the kiln has been replaced by a series of motor repair shops. In Delhi I know of one mosque built on a traffic island and one on a major street, abutting the side-walk. Over the last thirty years or so, the former has expanded to occupy nearly the whole of the island and the latter has not only blocked all the side-walk but now overflows to occupy a part of the road surface. About two years ago, someone started building a platform on the median divider on the highway from Delhi to Agra to honour the departed spirit of some pious Hindu. The platform has slowly acquired all the attributes of a permanent shrine with a man sitting there in attendance and passing motorists stop by in the middle of the road to make their offerings to the holy spirit, unconcerned that they might be creating not only traffic snarls but also traffic hazards on a busy road. In the locality I live in, there was, twenty years ago, a lone, unattended and untended peepul tree by the side of one of the main roads. Since then that road has been widened so that the tree, grown much larger, now stands in the middle of the paved surface testing the navigational skills of those who use the road. A platform has been constructed by someone; the tree has acquired daubs of vermillion and oil and several strands of yarn tied round it; a man with a trident sits under it when the weather is not very hot or when it is not raining, apparently collecting offerings from passers by. Evidently administrative authorities have not thought of cutting the tree down, though it is neither a rare botanical specimen--peepul in India cannot be--nor a tree of any historical significance nor is it that such trees are not cut down.
If public institutions have been remiss in their primary duty of enforcing the law of the land, some people in leadership positions show no great respect for the law or for law enforcement agencies either. Recently, the son of a former minister of Government of India became a suspect in a case of drug abuse and drug trafficking, a case in which the man's companion died. While the police was investigating, a former prime minister of India not only said that such mistakes happened in youth but also urged his political party to speak up in defence of the man. In the same case, doctors at a reputed Delhi hospital issued a certificate saying no drug or narcotic circumstances were found in the man's blood. Later analysis elsewhere showed that the doctors had issued a false certificate. There have been reports about the police questioning the doctors but none about any action contemplated by the Medical Council of India for the violation by the doctors of the professional code of conduct. The Indian prime minister of the time and his party men became defenders of Hinduism rather than defenders of law enforcement agencies when a Hindu "holy man" was charged with conspiracy to murder by the police in one of the Indian states . A prominent matinee idol was served a notice by income tax authorities. Rather than let the gentleman respond to that notice personally or through his tax attorney without fuss or ado, his friends and admirers tried to make this simple administrative action of tax authorities--whether or not it was under pressure from interested political quarters is beside the point--look like an act of political vendetta.
The contrast with, for example, the USA or the UK or France, where democratic freedoms are as well if not better protected than in India, is almost blinding. Years ago, the US Vice-President Spiro Agnew had to leave because he was accused of tax fraud. Recently the majority leader in the House of Representatives had to leave even before he was formally indicted on charges of misuse of office for personal gain. Another member of the House of Representatives was jailed on charges of bribery. The Chairman of a major US insurance company was made to leave and is facing legal action on charges of breaking disclosure laws. The Chief Executive of an energy company has been sentenced to a very long term in jail for breaking laws about companies. In the UK one minister had to quit because of disclosures that he might have spoken to some Home Department officials about someone's passport application and another because her husband had accepted a free holiday trip from someone. In France one minister was jailed for having several decades earlier helped the Nazis transport Jews from the region of Lyons. A former Prime Minister, from the same political party as the President of the Republic, was tried and sentenced. Even in the Republic of Korea not long ago two former Presidents were tried and sentenced. And ethical codes and the law apply not only to the rich and the powerful. Common citizens in the USA, the UK or France, for example, know that it is very difficult for lawbreakers to escape being punished. Likewise unruly social behaviour by ordinary citizens, so endemic in India, is rare.
Liberals tend to depict Singapore, so well reputed for its strict enforcement of laws, as if it was a police state. Switzerland, which has more direct democracy than practically any other country, is also an exemplar of disciplined and lawful social behaviour of its citizens. Besides, it is prosperous, efficient, well ordered and multilingual--so that many warm-hearted and red-blooded Indians find the place too cold. No one suggests that other European or North American democracies are like Singapore. Yet, neither democratic freedoms, nor open public debate come in the way of law enforcement. Neither the not so rare stalemates between the US President and the Congress, nor the stout legal defence of their rights often put up by individuals or groups come in the way of economic, social or scientific advance. In other western democracies too governmental authority is equally prone to political or legal challenges and yet these do not block progress.
There is no contradiction between democratic freedoms on the one hand and discipline and rule of law on the other. In fact democratic freedoms create an obligation on all citizens, elites and common people, public and private institutions, to respect public interest, codes of social conduct and the law. An ordered society is also an efficient society and a state of orderliness is necessary for economic and social progress. If India lags behind in many fields of human development it is not because of India's democratic institutions but because of the absence of a sense of discipline and order. India has all the appurtenances of a democracy but it is also what Gunnar Myrdal called years ago, a soft state. Far too often freedoms are abused and laws subverted with impunity. To pretend otherwise is to refuse to recognise reality. And no doctor is ever able to cure a disease without a correct diagnosis. Or may be, what I call a disease is the very raison d' etre of homo indicus and any attempt at changing his social behaviour will kill his soul--an anthropological disaster dearly to be avoided.