Seats have been reserved in educational institutions/employment for weaker/ marginalised sections of the population such as the Scheduled Castes/Tribes (SCs/ STs) as well as the Other Backward Castes (OBCs).
These sections have also been granted various types of scholarships, as well as reimbursement in fees for pursuing their education at various levels. They have also been granted relaxation in age for competing for government jobs. As for the women who constitute nearly half of the population, the practice of dowry was banned way back in 1961. In several states of the Indian Union, measures have been taken to provide free education to girl’s up to a certain level in government – run schools.
The practice of sex determination tests has been banned. A lot of advocacy and campaigning has been undertaken to promote the girl child. In the arena of political participation, 33 per cent of seats have been reserved for female candidates in elections to the panchayats. As already pointed out, quite a few women have got elected as sarpanches and have done their bit to improve the lot of their fellow rural women. As for the religious minorities, the Constitution grants them cultural and educational rights to pursue their way of life. The minorities have had their grievances, however, on balance, the Indian State’s handling of it minorities can be considered reasonable, if not too good. Regarding the bureaucracy, its record in the arena of development administration can at best be termed average. The majority of civil servants in India have had an elitist, superior attitude, taking pride in distancing themselves from the masses that they are supposed to serve.
In the pre-globalisation era the era of the socialist mixed economy the bureaucracy was all powerful and pretty much did as it wished, at times even bypassing its political masters. In fact, the nexus of the politicians-bureaucrats- businessmen in the era of the licence permit quota raj led to unprecedented levels of corruption in the country making a mockery of the democratic process according to critics. In the post-globalisation period, as the power of the civil servants is being curtailed due to disinvestment and debureaucracy, there has been an improvement in atmospherics.
Now one often hears a lot about citizen friendly administration and of administrators becoming facilitators. It is, however, too early in time to pass a judgement on whether the Indian bureaucracy has really turned a new leaf. As for the political leadership and the political parties, they have been more democratic than those in India’s neighbourhood, as well as those in many other African/ Latin American nations, but still not really at par with liberal democracies of the West. However, keeping in mind the size (physical as well as population) of the country as well as its immense diversity, India’s political establishment cannot be given too negative a ranking insofar as the dynamics of the democratic process are concerned.
In more than five decades after independence, the major blot on India’s democracy was the national emergency imposed in 1975. This was universally condemned, not the least by the Indian citizenry, which voted out the government of the day in the parliamentary elections, held subsequent to the lifting of the emergency. Coming to the judiciary, the other major component of the formal governmental structure, it has by and large upheld the rule of law and the principle of equality before law. In recent years, the judiciary led by the apex court of the country, the Supreme Court has been in the vanguard of protecting the citizen’s democratic rights so much so that the term ‘Judicial Activism’ (denoting the judiciary’s activist role) has come into vogue. The Supreme Court itself has taken due cognisance of many 8 Public Interest Litigations, (PILs) filed by private citizens/groups and pronounced far-reaching judgements strengthening the democratic process in the country. It may be mentioned at this juncture that arguably the most heartening feature of the democratic process in the country has been the democratic spirit, which is deeply embedded in the voice of majority of its citizens.
This spirit has been most significantly reflected in the exercise of the voting right to throw out any government that has been authoritarian/unresponsive to the citizens’ demands. As already mentioned, in independent India’s history, the most notable instance of this has been the defeat of the Congress party under the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after the emergency experience of 1975-77. Indian elections have often been great levellers in that the rich and the powerful have lost high political office through the democratic exercise of vote by the poor and the marginalised. In this sense, though a bit narrow, Indian democracy has certainly been a shining example for others. So much for the operational aspect of the formal governmental structure in independent India. Now, coming to the local self-governing institutions, the Panchayati Raj system introduced in India in the late 1950s. The Panchayati Raj system in rural India has been a reasonably effective exercise in devolution of governmental power.
The mere fact of devolution of governmental power at the grassroots level has strengthened the democratic process in the countryside. The Panchayati Raj system has also facilitated the task of development administration in that it has speeded up the delivery component of various poverty eradication programmes. The main point when appraising the working of the Central Election Commission of India is that though it is a fully autonomous statutory body created by the Constitution, it is only in the last decade or so that it has really become a watchdog of Indian democracy: to be precise of the various political parties and the candidates put forth by them for elective political office. This has been largely due to the efforts of a former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). In fact, polls are now being conducted fairly and freely and this can be considered possibly the biggest achievement of India’s democratic process.
Our overview and appraisal of the democratic process cannot be complete without a consideration of the civil society comprising majorly the NGOs, pressure groups/lobbies and people’s movements. One need not consider them separately here. Broadly, all these components of civil society have succeeded in putting the required pressure on the three organs of government (judiciary included) to make their words and actions conducive to the democratic tenets of political participation, equality and liberty. The authoritarian/dictatorial tendencies of the legislative/ executive arm of the government have been resisted whenever such tendencies have surfaced (the opposition to the emergency of 1975-77).
Many citizen responsive legislations and executive orders have come about solely because of the vigilance and pressure of India’s civil society. Though there have been lunatic fringes present-basically socio-religious bigots they have not been able to overwhelm India’s basic secular, plural, liberal and democratic ethos. We can, thus, safely conclude that in the period after independence, the process or working of democracy in our country has had its ups and downs, but has not deviated from the basic essence of democracy.