Sunday, January 30, 2005

When do elections mean democracy?

Elections are a feature of Castro's Cuba, too. So when do elections mean democracy? With the current elections in Iraq, this question is a relevant one.

At least this much is necessary. First, it should be practicable for the incumbents, those in power, to be defeated. Second, the incumbents, defeated, should gracefully accept their defeat, and yield to the new winners.

India's democracy passed a really trying version of this test in 1977. Prior to 1977, the winner of the national elections was always the Congress, the party that had ruled India since Independence in 1947. There had been non-Congress state governments, but the central government had never been put to the test. In 1975, the Allahabad High Court ruled that the then-Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, had misused government apparatus in the previous election campaign and asked her to resign her seat. Faced with civil unrest, Mrs. Gandhi declared a state of emergency, put most of the political opposition in jail, increased government controls over the press, and suspended some civil liberties. However, two years later, she held elections that were free and fair, lost heavily, and stepped down from power.

I remember sitting awake all night, initially with my Hindi textbook in preparation for a test, listening to the radio, listening to the election returns come in. The popular singer Kishore Kumar had annoyed Mrs. Gandhi by refusing to kiss her boots, and so had been off the radio - radio in India was government-owned - for months. As parliament seat after seat fell to the opposition, and it became clear that Indira Gandhi's Congress Party was suffering a rout, Kishore Kumar songs were aired, virtually non-stop, only with interruptions for further results. That was an amazing night. Eventually my body fell asleep, and I couldn't move a finger; but I was awake, listening to the music and the news. That was the night when India proved that its democracy worked.

In the case of Iraq, the incumbent power is the occupying power, the United States. If the newly elected Iraqi assembly does not shy away from offending the US in pursuit of Iraqi interests, and if the US does not use its army to impose its will, then perhaps we can say that the first election has been a success.

1 comment:

Rick T Hunter said...

Hi Arun, do you still have " 1985 paper by Prof. Balu, which is a proposal on an approach to the social sciences "

If so, please mail to tandon dot rishi at gmail dot com