Real democratic freedom is impossible without economic equality

Every functioning system needs regular corrections. Otherwise, it accumulates undesirable tendencies. This applies to the largest democracy, which is often praised for conducting “free and fair elections”. It is high time we asked whether we have imbibed the democratic spirit and if we exercise it without fear or favour.

Democracy is quintessentially about freedom. Rosa Luxemburg famously opined that real freedom is the freedom to disagree. In a functional sense, democracy means discussion, debate and dissent. But in India, these are fast disappearing. There is a deliberative deficit. Public space is shrinking. There are only some spaces provided by political parties wherein discussions are directed and controlled. It is a “give and take” exercise, leaders give and cadres take — but not in the sense we are familiar with. Structurally, democracy must mean equality; but equality is possible only in a non-hierarchical situation.

In India’s case, inequality is the very base of our culture, an unquestioning acceptance of a “culture of inequality.” Democracy is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end that should be socially defined and determined. For instance, development, in a democratic sense, must be inclusive, equitable and sustainable. People should be the primary agents in the formulation, implementation, overseeing and evaluation of programmes and projects. In the dirigiste era, people were regarded only as the objects of development. Development “occurred” intransitively: Roads were constructed for them and houses were built for them.

There is no gainsaying that India has an accommodative democracy. It accommodates socio-economic inequalities, regional and sectoral imbalances, and what not?

Under the much-acclaimed democratic decentralisation, what really happened was the devolution of certain centrally determined functions, responsibilities and resources to lower tiers of administration, without changing the power structures — social, economic, political, and religious.

Power , whether at the national, regional, local, corporate or family level, always tends towards centralisation. In this sense, power cannot be decentralised. In other words, centralisation of power is not the problem and its decentralisation is not the solution. Power itself is the problem, as it is always used by the powerful against the powerless, by the strong against the weak, by the rich against the poor. History testifies that in a class-divided society, the state, which epitomises power, protects the rich and powerful from or against the poor and the oppressed. Thus, the state is an instrument of oppression. The more unequal a society, the more authoritarian the state. Ideally, in an egalitarian system, state power has no place. Marx had said that in a classless society, state would wither away. In India, because economic inequalities are egregious and increasing, the state is becoming more and more authoritarian. It is even argued that India is becoming a democracy without freedom. Rulers fear freedom. Always and everywhere, rulers are enemies of freedom.

Leaders are a vanishing species. We have only rulers. We have efficient rulers, efficient administrators, and an efficient police force. Democracy means efficient administration, strengthening and maintaining the status quo, and not changing the system. Stability and continuity are preferred. Questioning inequities invites draconian laws, reminding us of the statement made in the Madras High Court by famous lawyer and human rights activist Kannabiran: “Crime is defined by law, but the criminal is determined by the state.” Recall how migrant workers were treated in the lockdown last year. Or the incident in 2018 in which a starving Adivasi in Attappadi, Kerala, was beaten to death for stealing some food.

Real democracy is economic democracy, as Ambedkar stressed. A starting point is ensuring economic security to all, not through an income transfer programme (universal basic income), but through the provision of universal property rights. The poor should be treated not as welfare scroungers, but as consumers, active producers, and potential entrepreneurs. This should be ensured by the new economic package being put in place by the Modi government.

MGNREGA allocation must be utilised not for creating wage-employment but for building the asset base of the poor, developing entrepreneurship (business as well as social) among them, building idea/incubation centres and helping undertake production/ business units, individually or on a group basis. Let them pursue and explore the fortunes on the margins, like C K Prahalad’s exhortation to explore the “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid”. The founder of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank Muhammad Yunus describes the poor as “natural entrepreneurs”. Let’s treat the underclass not just as wage workers/passive recipients of welfare benefits, but as potential producers. Let’s trust them. And build a democracy of “freely associated producers.”