Travails of democracy

Democracy must widen to cover international politics and institutions

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

the United Nation Development Programme's (undp) latest Human Development Report (hdr 2002) has reiterated what we have always talked about: that mere democracy is not enough, deepening of democracy through the empowerment of people is the real route to development. And also that democracy and equity are words that the industrialised countries reserve for the rest of the world, but not to be practiced at the global level. There is no "good governance" here that the industrialised world is willing to practice.

If one were to go by the theme of the hdr 2002, India, by virtue of being one of the largest and oldest functioning democracies in the world, should have figured way up on the report's Human Development Index (hdi). What we find instead is that it is ranked at 124 among 173 countries. What makes it worse is that India ranks below countries like China, Cuba and Vietnam, none of them an exemplary of democracy. So what is the hdr 2002, with its theme 'Deepening democracy in a fragmented world', trying to say? That democracy is essential for development but not good enough for progress? (see 'Half a cheer for democracy')

On the other hand, if we were to do a little soul searching, the answer is not too far. As this issue's cover story ('The second independence') shows, participatory democracy has been at the core of the development debate in India. Democracy is not about elections, but about the rights of local communities to participate in the day to day affairs of development. Unfortunately, till now we have merely reduced democracy to enabling citizens to elect a government, rather than empowering them to hold elected representatives accountable. For the vast majority of our one billion strong population, democracy means nothing beyond exercising their franchise, once every five years. But the message is taking shape. Across the country people and even some governments are realising the need for a second independence.

We can only say that we are happy that the un is recognising this cardinal truth of development. But we can only hope that the un will be equally pushy about the need for reform at the global level as well, where issues of governance and justice take a beating from international institutions and rich nations. Who will teach the rich and powerful the fundamental lessons of democracy -- fair play and participation in decision making? undp?

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