Democracy is not a spectator sport.


A few days back India’s middle class found reason to applaud the consequence of their rant. A Group of Ministers announced additional relief of Rs 1500 corer for the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. It was as if the middle class anger had forced opened the purse strings of the sinners to pay for the sins. Truth is the relief, pathetic and delayed, is not being withdrawn from the accounts of the political class but from what was paid by the tax payer. And there is no guarantee that the government will be able to recover this and more from the perpetrators – UCIL or their later day avatars Dow Chemicals. Of course you couldn’t but be outraged that 25 years after the tragedy the victims continue to be denied justice. The guilt-rage of the collective conscience allowed and afforded the political class a shot of absolving themselves of the sins of omission and playing Robin Hood once again.
Clearly the people allowed the system to overwhelm them then. They are allowing the system to overwhelm then constantly. In New Delhi, the Commonwealth Games provides an occasion for the city to be beautified. Pavements on many of the avenues in Lutyens(English architect who planned the city of New Delhi (1869-1944)) Delhi are being paved with Kota stones and granite. Grass, believed to be imported, is being grown in freshly constructed parking lots of Connaught Place. It might just add to the beauty of Connaught Place but there is no doubting that "common wealth" is being squandered. Is this the best use of scarce public resources? Obviously not but who is contesting the decision. Yes, there is the Right to Information Act but it is used more as a weapon of prosecution than as an instrument to monitor misuse of power.
Anger can be a force for good but it is reactive. The Indian three tier democracy is unique in that the top and the bottom wield power better than the middle class. Those on top can bank on resources while those at the bottom use their vote bank effectively as a resource. What the middle class requires to develop is participatory democracy to protect itself from its vulnerabilities.This will require proactive participation and deployment of knowledge. Take the freshly minted draft of the direct tax code. Yes, it seemingly makes matters simple but does it provide relief for the harassed? Is the debate on the suitability of the law looking at this angle? No. Typically and myopically all attention is on shifting of tax slabs and the few pennies to be gained.
Money talks and yet again the debate is being hijacked. The larger issue of equity is lost in the Babel of technicalities and legalese. For instance it is no secret that wealth of billionaires has rocketed. Has wealth tax followed suit in the same trajectory? No. In a nation boasting nearly 52 Forbes billionaires, wealth tax collection is a pittance – Rs 511 corer in 2009-10 and estimated to be Rs 603 corer in 2010-11. Imagine if those amassing wealth were taxed more equitably, wouldn’t it create more resources? Would that not ease the pressure on the less able?
The system reeks of inequity. If you buy a house and want to sell it within three years you pay short term capital gains tax at peak rates but if you buy shares and want to sell after a year there is no tax. Why should asset classes be treated differently for taxation. Think about it – who does this inequitable system favor? More important this helps punters to buy homes and cramp supply so that real estate rates rocket. Wouldn’t it help those looking for housing to have a more liquid market?
How did we get here? Why is the system targeting rather than serving the people. The answer lies in the narrow operational construct of democracy as practiced by the voting class. India’s voters have for long treated democracy as a benign monarchy where they are called upon to coronate a new regime every five years. It is this myopic pretence that the vote will cure all ills, this unfounded confidence about the choice made that has brought the system to a virtual halt.
A few years back the law forced those contesting elections to declare their wealth. Unfortunately some misguided NGOs were so focused on the wealth of contestants that they missed the big question: what is the source of the income for the wealth. Voters and readers regularly rant gleefully about the rising wealth of politicians but can do precious little because there is no requirement for politicians to declare how they acquired the wealth at salaries that are routinely described as a "pittance". It is no great secret that resources earmarked for the poor are finding their way into their pockets.
It is not just on Bhopal. Whether it is honor killings or the Ruchika case what the Indian middle class must recognize though is that it’s collective conscience is being pawned for political salvation. Yes, there is no disputing that the collective conscience is a force for good. But this cannot be episodic but sustained. For instance the pressure on the government must be sustained to ensure that post GoM they push the perpetrators of the gas leakage to fork out the damages and clean up the place. This calls for more than just guilt-rage.. Democracy bestows citizens rights 24X7. It also requires them to participate in the process continuously. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

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