Speech by Dr. Manmohan Singh, Former Prime Minister on the occasion of Sixth JKLU Laureate Award and Hari Shankar Singhania Memorial Oration Function at Jaipur on 7th September 2019 - “Strengthening the Roots of Democracy in India”

Speech by Dr. Manmohan Singh, Former Prime Minister on the occasion of Sixth JKLU Laureate Award and Hari Shankar Singhania Memorial Oration Function at Jaipur on 7th September 2019 - “Strengthening the Roots of Democracy in India”

Shri Bharat Hari Singhania, Chancellor, JKL University, Dr. Raghupati Singhania, Pro-Chancellor, Prof. R.L. Raina, Vice-Chancellor, Distinguished Guests, Members of Faculty and Staff of JK Lakshmipat University, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good Afternoon !  I am delighted to receive the JK Lakshmipat University Laureate Award and to have the opportunity to deliver the Hari Shankar Singhania Memorial Oration. I knew the Late Shri Hari Shankar Singhania as a pioneer captain of industry and philanthropist, and the Singhania family as the leaders of the well-known J.K. Organization.  They have contributed to India’s development for over 125 years across industries, including education and healthcare. Only a handful of people can claim 125 years of continuous service to the nation.

It is a stressful time for democracies all over the world, I think it would be appropriate to speak to you about “Strengthening the Roots of Democracy in India.”

The term democracy is derived from the Greek dēmokratiā, coined in the middle of the 5th  century BCE, from dēmos (people) and kratos (rule), translating literally to ‘Rule by the People’.  But any absolute definition of democracy will be irrelevant and misleading.  A historical study of democratic rule will show that the definition and form of democracy have been changing and evolving periodically to suit the changing needs of time and fulfill the collective needs and common goals of the public in terms of governance; security; infrastructure; law and order; employment and livelihood; business and trade; and economic opportunity, progress and prosperity; not necessarily in that order.

While definitions of democracy abound in terms of perspective, context and content, ‘Democracy’ is best described by Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address as, “…government of the people, by the people, for the people…”

Now, let’s talk about our great country,  One of the most ancient of civilisations, rich in resources; known for its art and architecture; a preferred trade hub, renowned for its scientific and mathematical studies; reputed as a centre of learning; a cultural cauldron of ethnic and religious diversity that is exemplary.

But, India that I am referring to is a young nation that gained independence from the British in 1947 and became a Republic in 1950. Democratic India is not only the world’s largest democracy, but also one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. It is perhaps India’s greatest achievement that one-sixth of humanity now cast their votes regularly in free and fair elections.  Considering our huge population and the sheer diversity in terms of geography, ethnicity, race, religion, language, culture and creed, our thriving democracy is a shining beacon of hope and inspiration to a world that is yearning and striving to become democratic.

The roots of democracy in India lie deep and strong. From the day we achieved independence, we believed in and succeeded in achieving full enfranchisement, something that no other nation can lay claim to. Democratic India was born peacefully in 1951 with its first general election, where every citizen–irrespective of gender, caste, creed, religion, occupation, wealth or level of literacy–got to vote.

I believe that the strength of our democracy lies in the Constitution of India.

It has framed and defined underlying tenets of democracy as all-encompassing, and reflective of fundamental values of equality, liberty, fraternity, secularism and justice. In great detail, it articulates directive principles, fundamental rights, duties and responsibilities for the nation, its constituent states, institutions, as well as individuals.

Allow me to elaborate on a few little-known and unique facts of our Constitution. I believe it will help you to better appreciate the tremendous and laudable efforts put in to formulate and frame it.  Also, I hope these facts will help you understand its importance as the foundation of this great democracy of ours.

The Constitution of India is the world's longest for a sovereign nation with 395 articles in 22 parts and 8 schedules, totaling about 145,000 words.

On 26 November, 1949 after an elaborate process  & debate for nearly three years, India adopted the Constitution, copies of which were signed by 284 members of the Constituent Assembly.

It is the supreme law of the country and even  Parliament cannot override the Constitution.

Interestingly, for those of you who aren’t aware, let me tell you that Sir Padampat Singhania,  the “Tau”ji  (uncle) of your Chancellor & Pro-Chancellor of JKLU was a signatory as a member of the Constituent Assembly of India.  What a lasting legacy indeed. Let’s give them a round of richly deserved applause!

I believe that all of us are very fortunate and privileged to be a part of this world’s finest democracy. I consider myself blessed to have served my country for nearly 50 years as part of the nation’s various governing bodies up to the pinnacle position of Prime Minister of India for two full terms.  It is my greatest honour and privilege.

That said, do I consider our democracy perfect? I am afraid not !

Is there scope for improvement?    Definitely !

Speaking on November 25, 1949 to the Constituent Assembly about his concerns on the challenge of transforming India into a society based on equality, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said,  

“[In our Republic], in politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In Politics we will be recognizing the principle of one-man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one-man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?  If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.

We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”

Prime Minister Jawahar  Lal Nehru warned in 1952 in one of his letters to his Chief Ministers,  “If poverty and low standards continue then democracy for all its fine institutions and ideals, ceases to be a liberating force.”  

The strong commitment of the Republic to political equality has had its collateral impact on questioning the persistence of social and economic inequality. The principle of one-person one-vote has put unprecedented political power into the hands of a hitherto marginalized 90% of India’s population.

They have demanded and secured policies, including for affirmative action, that have reduced disparities and have created opportunities for upward social and economic mobility for traditionally discriminated communities. But poverty and inequalities in income and wealth still persist.   If not tackled effectively they can lead to instability of our polity.

To strengthen our democracy, we  need principled, knowledgeable and visionary leaders  in times to come.  It needs political parties committed to safeguarding values enshrined in our constitution.  For our continued unity, the government has to deliver justice, liberty, equality and an environment that respects contrary opinions.  We have to respect the supremacy of   Parliament and its procedures, the rules of the government and precedents.  Serving the federal structure, institutions like the Supreme Court, the Election Commission, the CAG, the CBI, the Vigilance Commission, the Information Commission and various other special commissions constituted by the government from time to time are expected to function independently within the framework of the constitution.  We must always promote the objective to reduce crime and corruption, consolidate the rule of law, enhance credibility, and create an environment conducive for investment as an engine of growth.

Let us briefly examine the challenges faced by this great democracy of ours. I present them in no particular order of importance or significance.

1) Population

We are the world’s second largest population accounting for one-sixth of the total population. That is a huge challenge for our people in terms of governance, documentation, representation, education, ensuring their rights, protecting their interests, serving their needs, and fulfilling  their aspirations.

2) Poverty

 While we have emerged as an economic powerhouse with record creation of wealth and value that is recognised and respected globally, we still have a huge number of citizens that live below the poverty line.

3) Social Inequality

The caste system or casteism is the bane of our democracy and lowers our credibility in the eyes of the world. Caste-based discrimination, exploitation and oppression have and will continue to give rise to conflicts that will hinder progress.

4) Communalism & Religious Fundamentalism

 The division of people along ethnic and religious lines and the resulting assertion, posturing and chauvinism of such groups and ideologies, have often led to numerous clashes and riots that have resulted in terrible loss of life and property. Every conflict only serves to deepen the divide.

Other significant challenges include widespread corruption due to defective governance, terrorism, naxalism and insurgency;  rising regionalism; gender bias and discrimination; high rates of unemployment;  education and skills development; to name a few.

Of course, there is no denying that efforts to tackle these challenges are continuous and ongoing, but the results are not wholly satisfactory.  

There is a two-way linkage between democracy and economic growth. While some studies show that economic growth/ development is one of the prerequisites for a successful  democracy, there are many cases where one acts as a prerequisite for the other.  However, if we consider that democracy has to  be supported by some preconditions, it is economic growth that creates the conditions for a successful democracy – in the form of lower political instability, higher economic freedom, in the form of a stronger middle class who are more aware of their rights, leading to industrialization, urbanization, widespread education and literacy, and more wealth creation. "The more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chance that it will sustain democracy".

But at the same time some have argued that democracy is inimical to economic development.  They have cited authoritarian regimes, like China which have made phenomenal progress.   It has been argued that although one-party rule certainly has its drawbacks,  but when it is led by an enlightened group of people, it can also have great advantages. By persuading citizens to focus primarily on economic growth, these countries created an atmosphere in which sacrificing personal freedom could be justified. This allowed these regimes to just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move the economy forward. However, over time as incomes grow, it changes the aspirations of society, which ultimately strives for a democratic structure.  In the long run, a functioning democracy has definite advantages over an authoritarian regime. Loss of freedom is in the long term run not a small price to pay.

India since the liberalization of 1991  has shown how a democratic set-up has led to general improvement in the living standards. Since then, millions of people have risen above poverty line. There have been several policy measures undertaken by the successive governments that have led to more inclusive growth in India, particularly assured work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and well designed programmes of universal healthcare and education.

With more purchasing power, demand in the economy goes up, encouraging private investment, more government revenues (taxes) to fund infrastructure needs (good roads, more railways, etc.), and a reduction in social conflict.  Thus it is clear that through these channels, democracy does increase economic growth.

However, presently our economy seems to have  slowed down.  The rate of growth of GDP is declining.  The Investment rate  is stagnant. Farmers are in distress. The banking system  is facing a crisis. Unemployment is going up.   We need a well conceived strategy to make India a five trillion economy.

I think the major long-term change would come from education and the rise of the middle class made possible by economic liberalization. Since India liberalized its economy in 1991,  millions of people have risen above the poverty line. Consumption pattern has done better, and the demand for education has grown.  And finally, we come to the crux of my speech, ‘How to strengthen the roots of democracy in India?’

Let me attempt to list some solutions. They are neither exhaustive nor authoritative by any means, but are, in my humble opinion, pertinent and relevant enough to warrant contemplation and explore implementation.

1) Striving for Universal Literacy and Education

It is essential for all citizens to be literate, aware and knowledgeable of their constitutional rights and responsibilities. This will not only aid their social and economic mobility but also help them apply reason and rationalize their life choices. Literacy and education will empower and enable citizens to make personal, professional, social, economic, and political choices in a wise and informed manner.  Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd  President of the United States, said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

2) Rooting out Casteism

Caste-based hierarchies are undemocratic, unscientific and unethical, relentlessly eroding the bedrock of our democracy by deviating from the principles of equality and fraternity. While urbanisation, institutions of liberal democracy, and technology-driven prosperity are diminishing and negating the caste bias, its potential for misuse and abuse cannot be overlooked, especially in rural India and amongst the marginalised and underprivileged sections of society.  We must heed the words of Thurgood Marshall, first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, who said, “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”

3) Indulging in Good and Inclusive Governance

A good government is accountable and answerable to its constituents. It is transparent and justifies and validates its conduct and decisions when upheld to public scrutiny. Its leaders should not be placed above the law. It will strive to include and take along the smallest and most marginalised of constituents on its journey towards progress and prosperity.  It should reflect, in its actions, the thoughts of Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India, expressed thus, “In a democracy, the well-being, individuality and happiness of every citizen is important for the overall prosperity, peace and happiness of the nation.”

4) Empowering Women and the Girl-Child

 Paraphrasing the words of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, the architect of our Constitution, I agree that the progress of a community, society or nation can be measured by the degree of progress which its women have achieved. While we have made great progress through several initiatives to empower women and the girl-child, we are still way behind in the treatment of our women.  The increasing gap in the male to female sex ratio itself is an indicator that a lot more needs to be done.

5) Encouraging a Free and Independent Media

 Freedom of speech and expression is best embodied by the presence of an independent and fair media operating without consideration of fear or favour. That can best be achieved with mutual understanding, respect, and a clear understanding and acknowledgement of roles and boundaries by all parties involved.

6) Nurturing and Accelerating Economic Growth

I have already elaborated the importance of promoting inclusive growth. Studies show that there is a two-way linkage between democracy and economic growth, where one acts as a prerequisite to the other.  The need of the hour is to continue with economic reforms that will build on the liberalization policies implemented and factor in an evolving and dynamic business environment.

The point I wish to emphasize is that private investment depends on credibility of government policies, credible government policies depend on the depth of the middle class, and the rise of the middle class depends on the private investment. We got a cycle. It can be virtuous or vicious. To ride on the virtuous cycle and avoid the vicious cycle, requires a bit of luck, leadership, and a team of people, including industrialists, who are prepared to work together for the common good. In particular, the government, should forbid tax terrorism, respect independent voices, and provide for checks and balances at every level of the government.

The pace of evolving information technology and its application and adoption have given way to new business models and discerning consumers. A plethora of choices signals the emergence of a new generation of citizens who will hopefully make political choices as discerningly and with as much due diligence as they make all their other choices. In a regime governed by the exercise of choice, democracy can only be strengthened.

Other measures that can ensure a robust and sustainable democracy in India include institutional, political and electoral reforms; a strong and proactive judiciary, speedy resolution of huge number of pending legal cases; bolstering of local self-rule; curbing of corruption and black money;  promoting the rule of law.

To summarize, a liberal democracy is one model of good governance that includes freedom, pursuit of equality, power sharing, deliberation, periodic elections, independent institutions, and the rule of law. In India, we are fortunate to have an ancient culture of tolerance and respect for divergent views, and a population that is accustomed to political opposition and peaceful transfer of power for over seven decades now. Political liberalism is a way of life for us.

In conclusion, I exhort the youth of this wonderful country to take upon themselves the mantle of strengthening our democracy and take it to greater heights.  You are after all the future of India and I am confident that you will make educated choices and take informed decisions to actively participate in nation building and thus sustain and fortify the roots of our great and vibrant democracy.

I thank JK Lakshmipat University for the award and the opportunity to speak to you regarding the future of India and how we can deepen democracy in India while improving the economic condition of the people of India.

Thank you for your patience. God bless us all and our nation.

Jai Hind!