In my last column, I lamented the poor quality of the general political leadership in our country. Today I want to develop the theme in a slightly different direction. My concern is not just the dangers this poses to the country as a whole, but specifically to the faith in the system of what R. K. Laxman taught us to think of as ‘‘the common man’’.

Let us make no mistake about it: the common man is the bedrock of Indian democracy. Whereas psephological studies in the United States have demonstrated that the poor do not vote in significant numbers during elections (the turnout in the black district of Harlem during the last US presidential elections was 23 per cent), the opposite is true in India. Here it is the poor who take the time to queue up in the hot sun, believing their votes will make a difference, whereas the more privileged members of society, knowing their views and numbers will do little to influence the outcome, have been staying away from the hustings. Voter studies of the 1996 elections demonstrated that the lowest stratum of Indian society vote in numbers well above the national average, while graduates turn out in numbers well below.

Yet they are the ones who also see how little they can expect from their leaders. It is not just the disgrace of fisticuffs, jostling and the flinging of footwear in our state Assembles; not just the legion of unfulfilled campaign promises, crumbling foundation stones of bridges and roads ‘‘inaugurated’’ just before an election and never completed, fodder scams and siphoned-off funds of development banks; not even the lordly air with which our elected representatives treat their masters — the people. It is rather that even the pretense of accountability is absent from the actions of so many of our politicians. They see themselves as having been elected not to serve, but to exercise power and enjoy its benefits. But even this would be forgivable if the power was used to protect people from the vicissitudes of life. Instead the ‘‘common man’’ feels far more vulnerable than before.

Violence is an inescapable reality for the ordinary Indian: we cannot escape being sickened by the daily occurrence of riots, rapes in custody, murders by those who believe their power confers immunity and rampant incidents of the powerful taking the law into their own hands. If that sounds like an exaggeration, how often have you read episodes of poor women in rural India being stripped naked and paraded through streets to humiliate them or members of their family into doing as they are told?

Though individual police officers, administrators and judges have shown courage and commitment in the pursuit of justice, the democratic Indian state as a whole seems to be able to do little to end such occurrences. Indeed the Marathi newspaper Navakal once compared the Indian state system to the drunken husband who contributes nothing to the household himself but beats his wife to obtain the money she has worked hard to earn — a telling image in a country where such domestic events are commonplace.

We simply cannot allow our politicians to continue to treat our people this way. There is no doubt that the combination of violence and corruption, flourishing with impunity under the protection of the democratic state, discredits democracy itself. At the risk of repeating myself, I think it deeply sad that so many cynics see democracy in India as a process that has given free reign to criminals and corrupt cops, opportunists and fixers, murderous musclemen and grasping middlemen, kickback-making politicos and bribe-taking bureaucrats, mafia dons and private armies, caste groups and religious extremists. Worse, the danger is that ordinary people will themselves react by seeking solutions outside the democratic system.

How many people today remember what happened with the biggest hit film of 1996 — Indian, a Tamil film that went on to become a national success in a dubbed Hindi version, Hindustani? The eponymous hero of the film is a serial killer who murders one archetype after another of the Indian establishment — a policeman, a politician, a revenue official, a senior administrator. Each killing was greeted in the movie halls of the nation with prolonged applause; friends reported witnessing standing ovations. This was not film-criticism of the ‘‘I saw a movie being shot, and the actors deserved to be’’ variety: the audience’s own fantasies about the punishment of the powerful were being sublimated on screen.

The level of popular cynicism this reflects about the workings of Indian democracy in the eyes of the ‘‘common man’’ suggest that many wrongs still need to be set right.

The basis of democracy is, of course, the rule of the demos, the people; the rule, in other words, of all rather than few

Source: Indian Express