The Constitution proclaims India to be "a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic." By the time the adjectives "socialist" and "secular" were included in this phrase in 1976, people were already feeling its hollowness. The recent leak of Radia taps has further confirmed what people had inkling for a long time.
What has come in the press is that Ms. Niira Radia had been retained by some of the biggest business houses in India and represented the interest of the likes of Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani. She was allegedly under investigation by the income tax department who got her phone calls tapped. Some 5800 conversations were recorded between August 2008 and July last year.
From the telephone conversations released, it is obvious that Niira Radia was an insider of this system and had direct access to not only the top capitalists but also Ministers, bureaucrats and media persons.
Some selected tapped conversations have been leaked and the transcripts of some of them are available in the Internet. They give a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the system, called the Indian democracy.
What do the tapped conversations show?
The tapped conversations reveal that there is a mechanism by which major decisions, like selection of ministers and working out of the economic policies, are taken. This mechanism is kept hidden from the public. The big industrialists, through their associations or their public relations / publicity / management consultants, act as behind-the-scene kingmakers and are the key players in the decision making of the government. Tatas and Ambanis do not even need to directly deal with the government. These highly paid agents do it for them. Niira Radia could call up ministers, media bigwigs and bureaucrats to make sure that someone who is committed to the agenda of the particular capitalist group she is representing does the job for it. At the behest of her capitalist paymasters she could even exercise her influence to ensure who heads a particular ministry. She could even manage how the opposition had to behave in the parliament so that a certain policy will get through. One of Radia’s companies (Noesis) had employed former TRAI chairman, who had detailed knowledge of the workings of the telecom sector to ensure that the ‘right’ decisions are made.
This is typically the way such agents deal with the centers of power while ensuring that the interests of their clients are safeguarded and their image remains clean.
The nature of Indian democracy
We are made to believe that the Parliament is the place where policies are debated and thrashed out. However, what is becoming clearer day-by-day is that this is the theatre where politicians play to the gallery in front of the media; talk of principles and ethics, while the real decisions are made behind the scenes.
In fact, the ruling party or coalition does not even need to take important issues to the parliament. The Cabinet of Ministers can take the decisions in the form of ordinances and even sign international treaties without a debate in the parliament, as long as the ruling coalition continues to have majority in the Parliament (which too can be managed with some give and take!). Compromises between different interests are struck behind closed doors in the numerous parliamentary standing committees, which have members from all parties in parliament.
So where does it leave the ordinary working people? How do their problems get addressed? The fact of the matter is that they don’t. As the decades of experience of the people shows, the bulk of the population does not gain in this system. The disparity between those who are able to manipulate the system to serve their own narrow selfish interests and the rest of the people keeps growing.
How can people’s interest be safeguarded?
The full import of the recent revelations needs to be understood. The reality may be shocking but it cannot be dismissed. The truth is that the prevailing system in India, touted as democracy, serves a miniscule fraction of the population. It serves a handful of super rich – the top industrialists, the top bureaucrats, the top leaders of established political parties.
For all those who want a different reality where the government and the institutions of the state serve the majority of the people, that is labourers, farmers, intellectuals and other people who work to make a livelihood, we need to grasp the real nature of this system and reconstitute it to bring people to the centre stage. We need to understand that the source of the problems of the people lies in this system and not in some corrupt individuals.
This present system keeps people completely marginalized and disabled from making any decisions that affect their lives. In fact this system is organized to depoliticize and divide people so as to prevent them from organizing to defend their interests; thus it marginalizes them further. What we need is a new system that would be its political antithesis, which will have mechanisms to enable people to make decisions, to ensure that the interest of the people gets the highest priority.
The touchstone of a system that brings people to the centre stage is that it has to enable the people to get organized and assert their rights. People have to get organised in committees in their residential areas and in places of their work. Without such organisations, all talk of people’s empowerment is hollow. These committees have to unite the people around their common problems and lead them to solve them in a lasting manner.
The established political parties do the opposite, i.e., they tell the people to line up behind their party. They tell people to leave the solution of their problems to them and sit quietly in their homes. When the problems are not solved, and this is natural since addressing these problems is never their priority, then people are told to be patient. The only reason people’s problems are even talked about is from the angle of managing the situation; that people should not completely lose faith in the system and start revolting. The choice that this democracy is willing to concede is to allow the people to vote for another party. But the electoral process is so designed that only a party of the establishment or a coalition of such parties can come to power.
What is needed is not to stabilize the same system but to bring about changes by developing new processes and institutions of representation that will break the stranglehold of established parties and will enable people to exercise political power. It is obvious that those in power today are not interested in such a change, and therefore, building and strengthening people’s organizations is crucial. Only when people will get organized to defend their rights and interests in major regions in India will they be able to challenge the status quo and force such a change in the system.
by Prof. Bharat Seth