I have been an entrepreneur all my life. At 22, I quit college to start a small steel-trading firm so that I could get married. My subsequent working career was as a professional entrepreneur in a large multinational, pushing my organization to take new risks. The last 10 years of my life have been spent as a social entrepreneur, undertaking grass-roots work and advocacy with the government at all levels. The journey has had learnings on many “twin” dimensions—leadership and institutions, public change and personal values, ethics and ambition, politics and activism. I have learned that the relationship between state, market and society is not across silos, but more of a continuum.
I start with democracy. There is a lot more to it than we think. Ten years ago, I knew very little about the subject. I can say this now. Back then, I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
The 2007 special issue of The Economist had a rating of democracies across the world. Their ‘Democracy Index’ is based on five criteria—electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. They classified countries into four categories: full democracies, flawed democracies, authoritarian regimes and hybrid regimes. India is a “flawed democracy”. We have the institutional framework of legislature, executive, judiciary. We have adult franchise and hold regular elections. But “electoral processes” and “functioning of government” are only two dimensions. “Political participation” and “political culture” are also key criteria. Most middle-class Indians hold a low view of politics. We often hear Indians say, “Maamla shouldn’t get politicized.”
The World Values Survey, one of the sources used by The Economist for its ratings, tracks values across countries. It provides interesting insights into our complicated views on democracy.
When asked about the political system they would prefer, 90% of Indians plumped for democracy. But we also want a command-and-control leadership: More than 60% wanted a strong leader who didn’t have to deal with the messy realities of parliament and elections. While 60% prefer a society that assures safety and stability through regulations, only 25% wanted a deregulated society where people are responsible for their own actions.
It seems we want strong leaders to take us to the “promised land”, minimal responsibility for ourselves in this process, and the authority to fire leaders who fail us. Democracy in India is a bit like cricket—a spectator sport. We have built the scaffolding of democracy, but not imbibed its soul.
These flaws in our democracy don’t have quick fixes; they are not about new laws or transparency in government. They are about us as a people. Democracy’s role has evolved over the past 50 years. At first, it helped hold the country together. Today, in the India of 9% GDP growth, it is about conflict resolution of a different kind. When the pace of change in a society is slow, the distance between the leading and lagging edge isn’t very significant. When it quickens, the disparities become visible, the schisms can have material consequences. Almost a third of India falls in the “red corridor”, where the social fabric is tearing. Economic exclusion and political disenchantment are interlinked.
As we begin to shed our discomfort for economic liberalization, more Indians can see the market as an efficient discovery mechanism for prices. We need to extend this thinking and realize that democracy is the best discovery mechanism for decisions. Democracy demands that more citizens engage in the rough-and-tumble of issues that matter to them. In the journey across the river of democracy, India is only halfway across. We can’t reap the dividends of a full democracy. So, we look back enviously at China, on one bank of this river, and admiringly at the mature democracies on the other. We have no option but to push ahead, in the manner of the old proverb, by “crossing the river, feeling one pebble at a time”. This is the obligation of our generation.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder of Janagraha. Mobius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, will blur boundaries. It will be about the continuum between the state, market and our society. Your views are welcome at email@example.com.