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A New Beginning

As part of our year-long look at fifty years of freedom, we have invited some of the bestknown thinkers in this country and elsewhere to reflect on India's past and future. Rajni Kothari points towards a new democratic alignment.

As we enter the last few years of this century and move into the next millennium, the country seems to be in the throes of a series of changes in both the structure and culture of political power, the ground for which had already been laid before the end of the half century of independent nationhood. These 50 years encompass both a blossoming of the democratic enterprise that the country had set its heart on and its gradual erosion and dissipation.

Historical change, however, cannot be described as a mere sequence of ups and downs. Despite the steady erosion of both institutions and the values that were cherished in the early decades after Independence, much of what had started then is still part of our national consciousness. The peculiar bland of creative nationalism and persisting pluralism of indigenous society that had produced India's democratic culture is still with us. It is still woven into whatever remains of the institutional fabric of the polity. These characteristics will continue to inform the emerging future of democracy in India, even though the key actors and their social bases as well as ideological moorings will change in some basic ways.

The problem with the first 50 years after Independence was that while it should have been clear from the beginning that democracy entailed a political process where the majority of the people should be deciding the course of events, as also that notions of justice and equity were inherent in the democratic idea and therefore there was a necessary and compelling socio-economic logic to it, the leadership (including Nehru and other 'founding fathers') had failed to build into the scheme of things an egalitarian ideology and a corresponding set of policies and programmes. This led to a situation in which a small minority of people continue to dominate the working of the polity and, over time, the politics of manipulation and willful deceit got the better of the politics of fulfilling the inherent logic of democracy.

This having been the case, both the failure to live up to the expectations of the people from the system, and the gradual erosion and eventual undermining of the institutional fabric through which these expectations were to be realised became inevitable. Failure to build into the democratic edifice a set of ideological contours necessarily resulted in steady decline and growing redundancy of the democratic spirit. There were still a large number of individuals, both within the confines of the system and pressing on it from outside, who were keen to preserve the values of justice, equity and democracy as spelt out in considerable detail in the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution. But in the end they proved powerless (including those who happened to be 'in power' whether in governments, in the running of the economy, in diplomacy, in business or in the voluntary sector) and failed to produce results. Inevitably, they got increasingly driven to merely making rhetorical noises.