When I used to live in India, I did kind of take Indian democracy for granted. But only now, when I look at it from a distance do I see how historic, inspirational and remarkable the whole thing is.
Because what is happening this month (Mid-April to Mid-May '09) is the largest exercise of democracy in the history of humanity. With 700 Million potential voters and turn outs of the order 60%, this is a mammoth undertaking. The number of ballots cast will be larger than the entire population of the world's second largest democracy, the US! Every subsequent Indian general election that happens from now till around 2050 (when the Indian population is expected to peak) will set the record for being the largest the planet has ever seen.
What I meant when I said that I used to take Indian Democracy for granted, was that I assumed it was infinitely robust. I thought Indian democracy would stay until infinity. But a little time away from home (and regular perusal of world news) later, I realize how feeble the whole thing actually is - and how close India is to being an illiberal democracy.
The single largest threat to Indian democracy is not Islamic terror. It is not Hindu terror. They are irritants - the latter, possibly more so than the former. It is not jingoistic Nationalism. If America has its Glenn Becks, then India does need every square cubic centimeter of its chauvanists. (Perhaps more nationalistic versions of Bal Thakeray?) . Don't get me wrong: I will still hate them. But I will hate them less than I hate the current Thakeray. Nationalism is necessary to prevent India from disintegrating into little nation states fighting against each other.
In my opinion, the single largest threat has more to do Maoist terror than with religious extremism. It is extreme poverty. With 14% of India living on less than Rs 20 a day - and 1,500 farmers taking their own lives this year (in Chattisgharh alone), one can appreciate how seductive a call for revolution - a call to over-throw the 'oppressors' can sound. Suppose, for argument's sake, your Dad is a cotton farmer in Vidarbha. And suppose he takes on some debt to sow some crop. And suppose that either (a) the monsoon fails (b) The monsoon succeeds and everyone has a bumper crop pushing down prices and the big farmer with his larger fleet of trucks reaches the market first. Then he (your dad) is left with a huge loss and a loan shark pursuing him. He has no option but to commit suicide.
Of course, Milton Friedman (and the like) would probably interject at this point and claim that the business model of the farmer is fundamentally flawed. He should not be sowing cotton in his field, they will claim. He should sow something that fetches him more reliable profit. But one would do well to remember that we are talking about some of the poorest of the poor farmers in the world. It is not likely that these folks will be able to hire McKinsey to tell them what to sow.
And now you, after seeing your father die because either
(a) The government did not intervene and help him out in a drought
(b) The big farmer manages to sell all his cotton before your father could even get his produce to the market
you are justifiably disillusioned with the whole system. You are convinced that the system that we are living is has ceased to function. The notion that a revolution is necessary is becoming more and more evident to you. You would only be rational to respond entusiastically to a call to arms; to a call to spread Anarchy and exact revenge on you deem a hearltless, exploitatory society. You, along with your cohorts then proceed to hijack a train or something.
India's economic reforms have left some of its poor behind. Though poverty has indeed reduced in India in the last few years - and the middle class has indeed become richer, the prosperity is yet to trickle down to a staggering percentage of Indians. Can we really blame the opressed for feeling that Democracy has failed them?
That being as it may, it still can be argued that Indian elections is the lone voice of a suffering people. Every five years, the long suffering farmers in rural India have a chance to throw out candidates who do not address their plight. And they do faithfully reject these failed candidates. India's suffering multitudes are quite politically savvy. They attened their rallies, they listen to their candidates - and they have a track record of throwing out elitists. (The BJP government is a case in point, as is the Naidu government in AP). They throw out tyrants (Ms. Indira Gandhi). They respect development and honesty (I will grudgingly admit that Gujarat's butcher, Modi comes to mind here).
You vote out one set of jerks. But if the new bunch of people are also a set of jerks who are unlikely to help you, then how long does it take for you to lose faith in the system and then radicalize and become a Maoist (or something similar)? I say this because the numbers are extraordinary. More than one lakh (100,000) farmers have committed suicide in India in the last decade! If this is the number of people who have actually taken the drastic step of committing suicide, then the number of discontented people must at least be 5-10 times more. And that's as many people as we have in the Indian Army.