Democracies are only as healthy as their institutions: A conversation with Gurcharan Das.
The US and India live in an “Age of Hatred.” What’s worse is that the aversion has been fomented by their respective top leaders.
The key lesson to be drawn globally from the events in Washington, D.C. on the afternoon and evening of January 6, 2021 is this: Liberal democracies are only as robust as their institutions are independent and their officers are honest.
By that same token, presidents or prime ministers who are hell-bent on undermining their nation’s institutions risk taking their respective nations into the abyss.
So says Gurcharan Das, one of India’s most incisive and global-minded thinkers. He is rightfully famous for his trenchant observation “India grows at night, while the government sleeps.”
The danger of weak institutions
As regards the impact of the storming of the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Das argues that the lesson for India is clear: Just like the United States, his country has a crying need to reform and strengthen its weak institutions.
In our conversation, he was deeply worried. After all, the United States is the world’s oldest democracy — and India is the world’s largest democracy. If their democracies teeter, that is bound to have major global ramifications.
India’s incendiary politics
How clear and present this danger is in the case of India is underscored by the current uncivil polarization in India between Hindus and Muslims. It is as tragic as the political divide in the United States.
As a result, says Das, both nations are living in the self-imposed and highly explosive “Age of Hatred.”
What’s much worse is that the aversion has been fomented by their respective top leaders.
Tribal politics in New Delhi and Washington
There is no denying that India’s two major parties — the BJP and Congress — resemble the United States’ Republicans and Democrats.
In Das’s view, they behave like pre-historic tribes that live in wholly different realities — determined to annihilate each other.
Both in India and the United States, the notion that the very foundation of a democracy rests on the idea that we are one people, and one nation, seems to have been forgotten.
And that, in order to resolve one’s domestic differences, any effort must start with accepting one’s common humanity.
The problem is not democracy
Unlike what Chinese and Russian propaganda might want to tell us, the problem is not democracy.
Democracy accepts differences and dislikes, allows room for protest and disagreement — but always under the basic rules of cooperation.
The most important lesson for India’s ever more divisive politics is that the armed insurrection in the United States proved not to be limited to a lunatic fringe.
The (un)civil war, viewed through opinion polls
According to a YouGov survey, 45% of Republicans approved of the storming of the Capitol Building.
And, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 68% of Republicans believe that the recent U.S. election was “rigged,” — while 52% believe that Trump had “rightfully won.”
Since 73 million people voted for Trump, this means that nearly 50 million people in the United States doubt the election’s legitimacy.
That the United States is in the middle of an (un)civil war is underscored by the fact that, while 78% of Democrats called the mob on Capitol Hill “domestic terrorists,” 50% of Republicans said they were “protesters” — and a third even called them “patriots.”
A personal tale of polarization
Living in New Delhi, Gurcharan Das says, that this is far from an academic debate to him. He recalls how, in a small but very telling way, just recently he too became a victim of his country’s own uncivil polarization.
Earlier this month, he was called vile names by trolls while he was defending the recent sensible reforms in agriculture. This occurred after a TV channel had headlined only the first part of his statement: “It’s difficult to do reforms in a democracy.”
Quick with their ever so impulsive fingers, the trolls accused him of supporting dictatorship.
What he had said, in fact, was this: “It’s difficult to do reforms in a democracy. Hence, smart reformers spend 20% of their time doing reforms, 80% selling them, carrying people along. Mr. Modi failed to do this and he’s got farmer protests.”
Lessons for the U.S. from India
Nevertheless, Das argues that there are indeed institutions in which Indians can take real pride for outstanding achievements.
One of these is India’s election commission — which is tasked with conducting much larger elections than in the United States. It executes its gigantic task impeccably — with only rare complaints from the losers.
In contrast, U.S. elections are mostly run not by apolitical federal officials, but by local politicians. As the last elections showed, they can be put under unrelenting pressure by their party leadership to delay or reject the routine certification of election results.
Lessons from the U.S. for India
One of the most shocking statistics of India’s institutional failure is that one in four lawmakers has a criminal record. Gurcharan Das explains that this applies both to the central parliament in Delhi and to legislatures in the states.
Mind you, these are not convictions. They have been charged — but the case has not come up for trial. They sometimes reflect frivolous cases lodged by political opponents.
But what this points to is the shocking delay in disposing cases by the judiciary. Indians routinely moan: “Why does it take 10-15 years to decide a case in our country?”
In many situations, says Das, India is a telltale example of “justice delayed is justice denied.”
Similar institutional failures apply to India’s bureaucracy. Because it’s a job for life, there is little accountability.
Many Indians wonder, why a civil servant, who is outstanding and who works ten to twelve hours a day, gets promoted on the same day and gets the same salary as the one who passes time, working two hours a day?
India and the U.S.: Dangerous parallels
When it comes to the police, there are major reforms needed in both the United States and in India.
Many U.S. lawmakers asked during the siege of the Capitol last week: “But where are the police?” It was incomprehensible that it took so long for help to arrive.
Indians face the same sort of situation all too often in their daily life — the police are guarding VIPs and the common man is ignored.
The fact is that the Indian police are the handmaiden of the chief minister in each state — and are sometimes employed to settle scores with political opponents.
A low caste Indian fears coming near a police station — not unlike an African American in the United States.
Beyond the police, India needs more intra-party democracy within its political parties. There is too much nepotism — and too many family dynasties rule most parties.
The most egregious example being the Congress Party, which has been led by one family — the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty — for over 70 years.
In both India and the United States, campaign spending is too high — and special interests too powerful.
As our conversation wraps up, it has become self-evident that, if there is an upside to the COVID 19 pandemic, it is giving both the United States and India a chance to heal the wounds of divisive politics.
It is an opportunity to show that its citizens are one people.
In the United States, old revulsions — going back as far as the Civil War — must not be allowed to return.
In India, refuelling the religious divide as a tool of domestic power politics risks more than just an implosion one day.
Both of these animosities are extracting too heavy a price in both nations. Worse, they consume the energy that should go to restoring their economies after the pandemic.
Both the United States and India must stop their uncievil wars
This article has been adapted from its original source