Tendency of elected leaders to shy away from political challenges can undermine democracy

The growing public support for Anna Hazare-style protests, led by unelected campaigners, bode ill for Indian democracy, distinguished academic and Labour Peer Bhikhu Parekh warned while delivering the 2011 Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture here on Monday.

The Indian democracy, he said, was in danger of losing legitimacy if elected politicians failed to meet public expectations and people, in frustration, started mobilizing around “leaders” who had no democratic mandate but could have plenty of self-serving agendas.

Lord Parekh pointed out how during the Hazare campaign elected politicians virtually took flight leaving the field open for unelected activists. The tendency of elected leaders to shy away from political challenges could “undermine” democracy as it paved the way for often divisive forces, acting in the name of the people, to step into the “political vacuum.”

Lord Parekh, speaking on “The Crisis in Indian Democracy” in front of a select gathering of academics among whom were a number of avowed Nehruvians, called for “revitalising” India's democratic structures.

Identifying the causes of the crisis, he said many of India's representative institutions, including Parliament, no longer commanded people's trust. Members of Parliament voted in with the help of money and muscle power, were completely out of touch with the people they claimed to represent.

“Elected yes, but they don't represent anyone or anything,” he said.

Quality of democracy

India took pride in being the world's largest democracy but what about the quality of Indian democracy? he asked, pointing to widespread corruption, lack of accountability, disregard for democratic institutions, a media in hock to “corporate consensus” and the growing disparities between the rich and the poor despite impressive economic growth in recent years.

By all accounts, Indian democracy was under enormous pressure and this had led to the emergence of forms of public protests that were often undemocratic and amounted to “political blackmail.”

Lord Parekh said Indian democracy had been a profoundly transforming experience for millions of Indians but, sadly, it appeared to be running out of steam, ironically at a time when other countries were waking up to democracy. But there was still enough meat in the old beast to revitalise itself.

Previous speakers in the lecture series include Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gopal Gandhi, former Governor of West Bengal.

It is organised by the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Trust, set up by Lord Mountbatten in 1964, and works with Trinity College, Nehru's alma mater, and the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust to offer the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Trust Cambridge Scholarship to Indian scholars.

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