Monday, August 6, 2018

Social Values and Traditions that Sustain and Strengthen Indian Democracy

India has always been cited as a shining example of peaceful transfer of power through electoral process anywhere outside the western hemisphere. Given its massive population with multiplicity of linguistic, ethnic and religious identities, and overall enormity of governance challenges, it must be an unparalleled feat by any imagination to have a successful, thriving and vibrant democracy, which, despite all its deficiencies, has provided political stability as well as fairly respectable levels of growth over the years. Ironically, the intellectual discourse on democracy in the Western world, pays inadequate attention to values, ethos and traditions that have sustained and helped democracy flourish in India, despite adversities and constraints.

Some of the model democracies in the world, largely in Scandinavian countries, or Western Europe, or even Japan and New Zealand, are far too small in size, with average levels of prosperity and literacy being quite high. These make it easier to build and sustain community bonds, which lead to higher quality of  social harmony and cohesion and an ambience of trust among people. These automatically enhance the quality of output, efficiency and transparency of governance institutions. It is indeed remarkable that democracy has progressed and evolved in India even in face of poverty, illiteracy and several inherent contradictions in our institutions. A recurrent complaint from some of the brightest civil servants, or even forward looking politicians or corporate leaders,  has been absence of incentives, or even safeguards, for high quality of professional output with integrity. We shall discuss these contradictions separately.  

Against this background, one has to concede that there must be something extra ordinary in the Indian values and traditions that has prevented the country from drifting towards authoritarianism, despite severe dysfunctionality of many of our institutions. Buried deep among these, are innumerable tales of so many nameless and faceless individual heroes, who have displayed exceptional valour, passion and supreme personal sacrifices and commitment to excellence. These are manifest in the best form in our armed forces but the spirit does extend in its own form and context to some of our institutions of excellence like Indian Space research Organisation to Metro Rails and so many others, which are pride of the nation.  Amidst allegations of all round corruption and subversion, there are so many examples in different walks of life, varying from government to non-government sectors to NGOs or Media, where people have stuck to their values and not hesitated from making even the supreme sacrifice in what is perceived as defence of India, Indian values, Indian democracy and integrity of their personal character. They are real leaders in every sense. One can only visualize what can happen if there are inbuilt incentives, support and recognition for high quality output and leadership in our political, bureaucratic, professional and corporate structures.

One wonders from where do these Indians, or at least some of them, derive this energy to work for their society, values and the country, even without incentives? And many of them are willing to pay even the highest form of personal cost? It would be  grossly insulting to assume that the spirit of democracy suddenly sprang in India after its colonial subjugation to the United Kingdom. Many Britons in colonial era found  Maxmuller’s glowing tribute to India’s ancient social values and heritage quite offensive. In his brazen arrogance, Macaulay had  once claimed that books on a shelf of a library in England contained more wisdom than what the entire Indian civilization had to offer over centuries. Of course, subsequent developments based on scientific researches by many experts, including several British men and women, exposed shallowness of such audacity.

The spirit of social trust and fairness, on which Democracy rests, has had a long tradition in India. Fortunately, this has not yet been eclipsed entirely, despite aberrations, subversion and distortions emanating from inconsistent governance of centuries, or poor quality and character of entities that controlled seats of power in Delhi and beyond. Until the advent of the British, India was known for its self-sufficient village autarchies, even though many Indian intellectuals have contested the idea.  While none of the two extremes- complete isolation or comprehensive integration- appear plausible, a high degree of village or local level  autonomy, with suitable variations in different parts of the sub-continent appear most logical image of this era. Until the early years of British colonialism, most villages, or a groups of villages, could be considered virtually independent as they handled most, if not all, their matters on their own. There was no centralised authority with presence in each and every part of the sub-continent. Peoples’ association with the rulers in major power centres, or the latter’s control over the former, was quite loose and largely confined to payment of taxes that varied from one fourth of the produce to one tenth. While, it will not be fair to compare these societies with model societies of advanced democracies of 21st Century, there is little doubt that a large number of these villages and communities upheld or adhered to social values or behavioural norms, that contributed to a trust-based society that we consider both the goal and foundation for a harmonious and vibrant democracy. There were of course many darker aspects including  clandestine crimes like 'thugee' to traditions of 'Sati' and the like. 

In the context of wider social values of trust and integrity, I often quote a story written by the legend of Hindi story writing Munshi Prem Chand in early 20th Century, named “Panch Parmeshwar”.   The story narrates a tale of two close buddies named ‘Algu Chaudhary’ and ‘Jumman Sheikh’ in some remote village of North-Central India. Their friendship breaks apart following Chaudhary’s fair pronouncements in course of an arbitration in a dispute involving Sheikh and his aunt. Sheikh’s widowed aunt had accused her nephew of neglecting her after she had transferred all her assets in the name of Sheikh. Chaudhary overlooked emotions of friendship with Sheikh and delivered a verdict that adhered to established norms of justice.

The story goes on to state that many years after Sheikh had felt betrayed by his close buddy and treated him as foe, he eventually had a chance to take revenge from Chaudhary. Sheikh was nominated arbitrator in a dispute between Chaudhary and the latter's neighbour who had cleverly wanted to exploit bitterness between two erstwhile friends. However, after examining facts of the dispute, Sheikh delivered a fair verdict in favour of Chaudhary to the  surprise of  most. Sheikh admitted that once being nominated as arbitrator (or Panch), one had to represent ‘the voice of the God’ and act fairly. He was better able to appreciate the adverse verdict handed over against him by his former friend years ago and their friendship resumed. While, this may be an exaggeration to claim that everything was absolutely perfect and ideal in those societies but at the same time, one has to concede that people, by and large, must   have been familiar with, and largely observant to, the  known ideas of fairness and justice. The quality of social harmony and  values of integrity  did exist which must have been sharpened by freedom struggle to eventually sustain a vibrant democracy. 

Such values must have been part of a longer tradition of social and behavioural norms, which evolve gradually and do not change abruptly. Security of Indian sub-continent has been breached repeatedly by external invasions. These disruptions must have dislocated political as well as social values, systems and structures. Their natural course of evolution too would have been impeded.  While no political system and authority can entirely neglect people, collective well-being of people was certainly not the primary focus of governance during most of the medieval era almost everywhere in the world. Nevertheless, some rulers in India varying from Sher Shah Suri to Akbar did lay emphasis on building some public infrastructure and introducing administrative reforms that were akin to welfare states. However, medieval era, almost everywhere in the world, is considered a dark age for people-centric governance. This was the time when Churches in Europe had usurped all political powers without corresponding responsibility or accountability to the people. Rulers in most parts of the world used coercion, repression and intimidation to silence people into submission and often claimed divine sanction, to glorify themselves, instead of showing any kind of accountability to the  masses or show respect to even those divine notions that enshrine good of entire mankind.
The Indian sub-continent, however, presents the earliest example of people-centric governance during Kautilya or may be even pre-Kautilya era. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, which is one of the earliest and yet most brilliant treatises on governance and national security, written anywhere in the world, offers a deep insight into nature of political and social system of the ancient India, especially the Mauryan polity.  It offers strong foundation of principled and ethical governance, based on Dharma, that had eventually contributed to exceptional levels of economic prosperity, social stability and of-course sustained protection of the sub-continent from external threats and aggression.  Despite political changes, there had been a fair amount of continuity in India’s economic strength, social harmony and stability with subsequent Gupta era in North or Cholas and Pandyas in South pushing the entire sub-continent to a sustained economic, cultural and scientific  advancement with a high degree of political stability backed by military power. Rulers in the  South were particularly known for their naval prowess, which explains dominant Indian influence in most of East Asia. 

We shall discuss the people-centric welfare dimension of Mauryan State that combined certain critical ingredients of contemporary idea of national security in the next post.

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