Populism vs. Democracy

I have always been intrigued by the dynamics that govern the working of a nation. And when it comes to a country like India that has been an epitome of amalgamating cultures, thoughts and influences, the science becomes even more compelling. I call it ‘Science’ because on the face of it, it boasts to be backed by rationality, logic and evidence. But had every science been so simple, every entity in this vast universe would have been in sync illustrated by perfect order, harmony and acceptance. Certainly not the case that exists! Here rationalities are superimposed by emotional instincts, and logic is latently oriented towards personal goals and political wills.

A parallel story runs for the Indian Republic.

Populism, as a political doctrine is defined as support and concern for the rights of the common people; democracy is a political system in which the people rule. So, the ideal school of thought must think of populism and democracy going cheerfully and romantically hands-in-hands, right? Unfortunately, we could just wish! The reality poses a stark distinction far from idealistic fantasy. Pragmatically, they compete in their race for supremacy. The inconspicuous battle between the two is raising some serious questions in India and across the world.

In India, populism has always enjoyed an upper hand over democracy, economics and morality. The recent urgency by the government to pass a new ‘Sexual Assault Law’ is a flashy testimony to that. It has been a hot topic of debate and much has been fancifully pitched about it. And why not! After all the government is taking concerted measures to safeguard its citizens. But I guess too much of hasty window dressing has been done to make it a populist endeavor to the Indian eye.  They call it a law on sexual assault. But I call it missing the stars in their search for the moon. I must add some flesh and form to my ideas now. The language used in the latest ordinance is too lose and ambiguous. There are many terms and provisions in the law which clearly suggest that it has been prepared hastily and it lacks proper and in-depth thinking and application of mind. Aren’t we creating a mockery of ourselves by passing a sexual assault law in which the definition of ‘rape’ itself is evidently unclear? Isn’t there a possibility that something that has been incarnated to protect, be exploited for ruthlessness? Doesn’t this impinge some serious questions on our judicial efficacy? Unfortunately, it certainly does!

Had they been aptly addressed, these questions are too heavy and demanding to the comfort of the Indian lawmakers. But when things are done in the name of populism, these loopholes are superficially capped. For us, the real concern is that they still remain hollow and weak within. This is just another example of the government satisfying the juntas’ demand to gain popularity and support. I must make my stance fairly clear. I am in total agreement that once the law is passed, it would be more effective than the existing law. But the bone of contention still is: However strict the law may be, will it actually deliver? I would surely stand in denial. It would be impossible to put in effective implementation of such a law without administrative, judicial and police reforms. Our wait for such reformist measures has been too long to endure. They have been stalled for decades and we shall still hold failing hopes. The reason is that we have politicians who diligently restrict such measures to retain their hold on national governing bodies. The end result is a battery of futile national efforts to pass laws that aren’t muscled by reforms.

Another crucial question that I feel lingering on the lawmakers is: Do we have efficient machineries to deliver speedy justice? The 95000+ rape cases pending in the 1200 privileged fast-track courts of  India answer a disgraceful story to the above question.  Government rather than hurrying over this law should pass other administrative reforms that ensure quick and unbiased justice. To protect the women of this country, the law against sexual assault must be made more effective but what’s the meaning of any such law unless it can’t give justice.

The story has to go on!  It is not just the country’s social and legal interests that have been bitten by the vice of disguised populism. The economic interests of the nation also fall prey to such a beautiful beast.  The resignation of the Indian railway minister, Mr. Dinesh Trivedi, on the day he presented the Railway budget in 2012 was a pity event in Indian politics. Is it such a heinous crime to raise the railway fares marginally even when you know of the financial bog the Indian Railways was trapped into? If not anyone else, at least Ms. Mamta Banerjee thought on the same lines. And all we could do was to sympathize with Mr. Dinesh Trivedi who was forced to resign by his very own Trinamool Congress party leader Ms. Mamta Banarjee. The fare hike was rolled back. It does not need a degree in psychology to understand that it was all done to gain political advantage and support of the BPL people.  According to many experts, the budget was actually a reformist budget. But these opinions could just soothe the national wound and could not heal it. This is not the only instance where the economic interests of the nation conflicted with populism. The deregulation of steel industry in 1980’s, economic liberalization in 1991, FDI in retail etc. speak volumes of the conflict.

Castles are built because we somehow want them to be built! And once it is built we hardly care who lives in it! All we care about is that “they are built” because they make the world an interesting and beautiful place to live in.  I can draw an analogy here. Populism thrives because we somehow want it to thrive. And when things come in the name of populism who cares of the ultimate beneficiary. All we care about is that “there is a so-called concern for the rights of the common people” because we like to be cared of no matter which way it comes. The analogy is supported by the fact that we (The people) always tend to think emotionally rather than rationally. We take decisions based on feelings and affection rather than hard realities.

I have one such memory of a Salman Khan show named ‘Dus ka Dum’ in which Sanjay Dutt had come as a celebrity-contestant. The episode started off with cheers and applause and was meticulously driven by Salman Khan boasting about Mr.Dutt’s  generosity towards his friends .The audience as mesmerized by the charisma of the two superstars and even more emotionally engrossed in the eulogy. In the midst of all this drama, Sanjay Dutt shared  his experiences of jail when he was imprisoned due to his involvement in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case. Suddenly there was an uproar and Salman threw a rhetoric statement to the audience-  ‘Do you believe that a person like Mr. Sanjay Dutt can help murderers?’  And the people drowned in emotions declared their judgment by shouting  ‘ No…. No…No’. Once again, the facts were sidelined and realities took a backseat when it came to making a judgement. All this was witnessed just because we like these superstars unconditionally, and we have an emotional connect to them that blinds us of all rationality. This judgmental flaw of ours can easily be extrapolated to the national scene.

I reiterate my opinion that Populism is not a vice when it comes in its natural form-naked and pure . But the more you try to decorate it with personal interests, the more it distorts and harms.  Populism should propel the government  to act in ways that  benefit the country in future. The democratic setup must ensure that all its three pillars i.e. government, judiciary and legislature hear peoples’ demand and act for their well being. But these demands should not be fulfilled by going beyond any of these pillars. Laws and its provisions should be made after considering its vitality, applicability and human rights. The common economic well-being should be prioritized over catering unjust demands of a particular group of people.

Time has come for us to ask ourselves a similar question that late Mr. John F. Kennedy famously asked to Americans but in a different way “Ask not what your country thinks for you, ask what you can think for your country.”

*I sincerely want to thank Jagdish Devjani (MBA-FT-2011-13) for his help in narration of the article.

Authored by:

Nilang Patel MBA (FT) 2011-13

Nilang Patel
MBA (FT) 2011-13

Member of the Placement Committee, Nilang’s interest include economics, politics, sports, swimming and playing guitar.


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