Democracy and Inequality


What ails democracy in
India? As a question this is cliché. But if one looks around for answers, not too many answers would be counted as sane. One is either a eulogist or a cynic. Or a balancer without insight.
The argument offered by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen has the advantage of concrete categories that admit statistics and at the same time attends to contemporary conditions. We see that in
India democracy as a political form is rendered lame by the socio-cultural situation that perpetuates all barbaric forms of social existence even as modernization takes place. As Ambedkar said, until social equity is not achieved, political equity becomes not only meaningless, but potentially dangerous. The various separatist movements in
India are related to the iniquitous conditions. Surely the simmering anger against social inequity gets articulated as a desire to break the surface peace. This is only one of the elements that feed the million disturbances in
India. But this is also an ancient one and has the power therefore to wage the most resilient of battles. Lest we listen and change.
Dreze and Sen from: Journal of Asian and African Studies, 37(2):6-37 ( 


The main limitations of Indian democracy do not relate so much to democratic institutions as to democratic practice. The performance of democratic institutions is contingent on a wide range of social conditions, from educational levels and political traditions to the nature of social inequalities and popular organizations. Democratic practice in
India has often been deeply compromised by a variety of social limitations inherited from the past. To illustrate, consider one of the most basic democratic freedoms
the right to vote.
India has an impressive electoral system (monitored by an independent Election Commission), which has proved its credibility and resilience on numerous occasions since independence. Voter turnouts in
India are also quite respectable by international standards, especially among underprivileged groups. However, the
right to vote is not a momentous freedom when voters are so poorly informed that they are unable to distinguish between different political parties, as is still the case in some areas today. Similarly, while Indian elections are formally “free and fair” in most cases, their effective fairness has been compromised by nepotism, the criminalization of politics, and pervasive inequalities in electoral opportunities as a result of disparities in economic wealth and social privileges.Another example concerns the legal system. An impartial and efficient judiciary is indispensable for genuine democracy.
India’s legal system has sound institutional foundations, which incorporate basic democratic principles such as impartiality, secularism, and equality before the law. In practice, however, its functioning is, in many ways, at variance with democratic ideals. For one thing, the legal system is virtually paralyzed by a backlog of millions of “pending cases”
about 30 million according to one estimate (Debroy 2000). Legal proceedings can take years (if not decades) to be completed, and are often far from intelligible for the average citizen. For this and other reasons, legal protection tends to remain beyond the effective reach of most, especially the poor. In fact, the legal system can also be used as an instrument of harassment (rather than as an efficient means of dispensing justice). Those at the receiving end of the system
can end up suffering terrible injustice. For instance, undertrial prisoners (there are some 250,000 of them in
India at this time, according to the Home Ministry) often languish in prison for years without any legal recourse. 

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