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Democracy in India

"New Delhi will not be Berlin any time soon"

March 7, 2013 | by SGI NEWS

Mira Kamdar from the World Policy Institute in New York about democratic governance and women safety in India and the country's challenges of global warming.

SGI News: Dr. Kamdar, the India report of the SGI BRICS study, which examines governance in the emerging powers Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, holds that India is facing immense problems but has a distinct national-level capacity for reform. Do you agree with this assessment?

Mira Kamdar © Tomas van Houtryve

Mira Kamdar: I think India is facing extremely serious governance challenges right now at all levels, the national level and the different state levels. One area where this is apparent is in recent attacks on free speech and expression. While free speech is not protected in India the same way it is in the United States or even in Europe, it is shocking to see a country hailed as one of the world’s great democracies become a place where novelists, artists and intellectuals are regularly hounded into silence by groups that claim offence or banned by government decree. In India, teenage girls in Kashmir were recently forced to abandon their rock band, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is banned and his participation at events is denied, a movie approved by the country’s film board was banned by astate government, ordinary citizens are arrested for tame remarks or even for just “liking” remarks on Facebook which is monitored by the federal, state and local governments, and Twitter accounts are arbitrarily closed. These are not behaviors one associates with democracy. It goes down to the level of city governance. As the population urbanizes the issue of city governance is going to become more and more pressing. Cities must be able to deliver basic services to their citizens including a basic level of safety, safety to move around in public and safety to express ideas and create art. We’ve just seen the huge demonstrations after this horrific gang rape in New Delhi. This was really a crying out – especially of the rising middle class population – for the government to deliver just some basic level of functioning services in the urban infrastructure.

SGI News: These demonstrations directly addressed state institutions such as the police and the judiciary which weren't doing their job. We found in our report too that the public trust in these institutions has been deteriorating for years.

Kamdar: Indeed, many Indians I know think the last people you want to go to in India if you have a problem is the police, especially if you are a woman. The potential for good governance is there in India because the institutions are there, but they are highly dysfunctional. There are parts of government that function extremely well: the Planning Commission, for example. There also exist a variety of social safety net programs that the current government has put forward for several years now such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. This has had about as much success as such programs can have given the level of corruption in India. The country also has an extremely professional diplomatic corps, but it’s very understaffed. The same is true in academia, public health or the economy: There are very competent people at work but their number is small compared to the size of the country and the dimension of the challenges.

SGI News: What are these challenges with regards to sustainable governance in India?

Kamdar: There is a yawning chasm between the increased expectations of the population in the wake of the economic liberalization and the opening up to the world and the fulfillment of these expectations. The expectations have been raised so high, but the government and the private sector have been unable to deliver the goods: jobs, safety, health care, infrastructure, to name just a few. It also seems the government just doesn’t know how to handle the media and communications revolution – television and social media – while practicing a politics of capturing “vote banks”, as they are called in India, or groups of voters who define themselves along religious, regional or caste lines. By banning a book, film or work of art one of these groups claims to be offensive, politicians hope to guarantee the votes of these groups. These groups, in turn, try to increase their importance in the eyes of politicians by threatening violence unless a work or art or a comment they’ve deemed offensive is sanctioned. It's an alarming state of affairs for Indian democracy. Meanwhile, all the emotional debate over this or that offensive writer or artist detracts from what India’s government can’t deliver: education, jobs, housing, public transportation and all the rest to all of the country’s people, regardless of religion, region or caste.

SGI News: What role does the demographic development in India play here?

Kamdar: The relative demographics in the developed and emerging countries – that means aging populations in the West and young populations in many of the BRICS countries – is usually referred to as a dividend. However, this is true only if India is able to get the economic growth back up at some high level close to 10 percent, which is not guaranteed and it is able to insure that growth is inclusive. In 2012, annual growth was under 6 percent. And India doesn't exist outside the global economy, which is in dire straits still and where the wealth gap has increased around the world. Moreover, even with high growth, India still faces the challenge of generating employment at the level of hundred of thousands of jobs per year which it has not been able to do. Can India deliver education, housing, jobs and safety to all its young people? And what about rebalancing the gender gap where there are far more young males than females in several states of India? If not, the demographic development is potentially a destabilizing liability because you have millions of young people whose expectations will be thwarted if they can't get a job, a house or a family.

SGI News: In addition to these domestic challenges, what else do you see as important issues for Indian governance?

Kamdar: There are also external pressures posed by the rapidly changing, uncertain global systems. Increasingly inseparable from that is the question of environmental collapse given global warming and resource exhaustion. India is a microcosm of the world with all its problems. But it faces these problems more intensely because of the size of its population and the time issue. India has to find answers very quickly.

SGI News: Why are these global issues particularly pressing for India?

Kamdar: India is going to be slammed very hard by global warming. Think about the big cities on the coast, Chennai, Calcutta, Mumbai, with huge populations. Moreover, 80 per cent of the farming in India is based on rain-fed irrigation, so it depends on the monsoon. And the monsoon is becoming very unpredictable.

SGI News: These are problems many BRICS countries face. Do you think India might be better equipped to overcome them because at least the structures for sustainable governance are there?

Kamdar: I don’t think India is better equipped than China, for example, even though I would like India to be better because I believe in democracy. I do think the response of India’s citizens, hitting the streets, protesting, is a very positive sign. It is putting pressure on the government to deliver and to make India’s institutions of governance and the rule of law work better. But I don’t think one can expect some kind of miracle where India will overcome 90 percent of its problems overnight. New Delhi will not be Berlin any time soon. I think the best one can hope for is that there will be more forward movement than backward movement. I don’t think that’s a pessimistic view to take if you consider the rate and scale of change India is going through and the challenges it faces: resource scarcity, global warming, global economic crisis along with a host of domestic challenges.

SGI News: What impact will India have as a BRICS nation on global governance?

Kamdar: In the West, there was this notion that the globalization and the rise of the BRICS meant that a certain number of fast growing economies outside the West would quickly become as the West. And that’s not how those emerging economies see it. They see the West as slowing down and aging, while they themselves are young and speeding up. They’ve seen a shift wealth and power from the West to the BRICS. With this shift they are increasingly asking for the institutions of global governance, the U.N., the IMF, the World Bank, to also shift and be modified to accommodate them. One thing that is very important for India and the other BIRCS countries is national sovereignty and non-intervention.

SGI News: Why is that?

Kamdar: All of these countries have a lot of problems with internal dissent, with the integrity of their national borders and with different ethnic groups. They are extremely sensitive to any kind of intervention. One of the lines that I see as being drawn in the sand by the BRICS countries for the West is: Our borders are sacrosanct. Whatever you think about what’s happening inside, you have no right to judge us or interfere – whether it’s Russia with Chechnya or India with Kashmir or China with Waziristan. That calls into question a whole notion we have of global order and universal values. It’s especially a problem for Europe because the idea of the EU is based on a notion of shared values anchored on some idea of universal values that are transnational. Nationalism is important for the BRICS, and they are saying: "What you call universal values, we call European values and we are not necessarily subscribing to all of them."

SGI News: How does this affect India’s alliances?

Kamdar: India is involved in all kinds of different global relationships. It’s very active in the BRICS but also in the IBSA Dialogue Forum with Brazil and South Africa; it has active bilateral relations with the U.S. but also with Russia and China – outside the BRICS. India doesn’t know how to deal with the EU but it deals with different countries in the EU like France and Germany. It looks east towards Burma and to the ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It’s not as if India is exchanging old alliances which are based on the institutions that it inherited from the British – the institutions of government, the system of law or the English language – for the relationships it forged during the Non Aligned Movement and for new institutions that may emerge with the BRICS. So far, it’s been able to add new relationships to its existing portfolio. I don’t know how long it will be able to play everything at the same time – good relations with Russia and China along with good relations with the United States and Europe, for example – but so far it has managed, which is quite an achievement.

Mira Kamdar is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York. Her next book "What Everyone Needs to Know about India in the 21st Century" will be published by Oxford University Press this year.

Interview: SGI News

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