K.N. Panikkar highlights political, cultural, economic dimensions of equality

While the Constitution had given to people an impressive package of democratic rights that have won wide acclaim, the workings of democracy in the country was only a caricature of what it ideally should be, scholar-historian K.N. Panikkar said here on Monday.

The Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council was delivering the inaugural lecture to the Class of 2012 at the Asian College of Journalism.

Dr. Panikkar drew up a canvas of the political, cultural and economic dimensions of equality to argue that several basic guarantees of the Constitution remain inaccessible to vast sections of the population.

While Indian democracy had evolved an institutional structure on the basis of the principles and prescriptions laid down in the Constitution, there existed “a wide gulf between precept and practice,” he said.

Dr. Panikkar acknowledged that this gulf may not be fully bridged ever, and advocated that it be narrowed through continuous public reasoning and dialogue, in the optimism that the struggles within democracy would take it closer to an approximation of the ideal.

Expanding on political equality, he said that despite a continuous tinkering of the Constitution by the ruling elite — so far 95 amendments were in place —the basic guarantees of the Constitution remained unaffected.

Democratic rights have not been evenly accessible to every one and the political right to represent and be represented, that is universally accepted as a defining feature of democracy, is confined to a minuscule section of society, he said.

“Every succeeding Parliament contains increasing number of members from the upper echelons of society, with the current House assuming the character of an exclusive club of millionaires and multi-millionaires.” In fact, the much-admired election itself has become so expensive that no ordinary citizen can afford to fight an election on individual capacity.

“The only democratic right the demos enjoy is the privilege of electing their representatives...” he said.

On the cultural dimension to equality, Dr. Panikkar pointed out that while cultural plurality was the strength of the Indian civilization, the absence of cultural equality had led to the exclusion of many from the mainstream life.

The widening gulf between religious communities, coinciding with the influence of religion from the private to the public sphere, has led to a “religionisation of society and commodification of religion.”

Dr. Panikkar identified as the most dangerous threat to the Indian democracy the vacillating and compromising attitude of the State to the growing intervention of religion in secular politics.

Turning to economic equality, he said neo-liberal conditions that were expected to power the country's quest for modernisation had divided the country “between an inner world of the affluent and the outer world of the poor.”

While liberal ideologues of the capitalist system might romanticise elections, especially the enthusiastic participation of the rural poor and urban slum dwellers, as the most important measure of democracy, a comparable involvement with the actual functioning of democracy has not been forthcoming, even among the middle class, he said.

Dr. Panikkar also sought to explain to the students that his dissection of the workings of democracy was “a critical and not a negative view.” He urged them to be “continuously critical” — a function largely missing from contemporary media that tended to be “escapist.”

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