The battle for democracy

Thursday 17 November, 6.00pm until 7.30pm, British Council, 17 Kasturba Ghandi Marg, New Delhi, 110 001, India

The proud claim that India is the world’s largest democracy often rings hollow when the country’s political institutions are put under the spotlight. Anna Hazare’s campaign for a Lokpal Bill with real bite has captured the imagination of millions of Indians, who have grown increasingly impatient with endemic corruption among politicians, and their lack of meaningful accountability. There is a consensus that something must be done, but some worry disillusionment with politicians has led to cynicism about democracy itself. Critics charge that civil society activism like that of Hazare circumvents and undermines democratic institutions and procedures, and warn the Lokpal will give too much power to unelected individuals. But others doubt whether India’s existing political institutions are worth defending, arguing they are irredeemably compromised, not only by corruption, but by vote-bank politics that reduce democracy to a communal head-count.

From this perspective, democratic principle is perhaps less important than effective governance. If particular individuals can clean up government and get things done, does it matter if they are unelected? Indeed, some believe India’s remarkable economic growth in recent years has been achieved despite, rather than because of, the country’s democratic constitution and character. But others insist genuine democracy is essential to ensure this development benefits the country as a whole, lifting the rural masses out of poverty and offering a better life for all, rather than simply enriching unaccountable elites and allowing them to reshape India in accordance with their own interests. So can democracy be the solution to India’s woes, or is it part of the problem? With movements for democracy sweeping the Middle East this year, should India be seen as an inspiration or a cautionary tale? Mired in corruption and vote-bank politics, is democracy in India simply a fig leaf for the ruling elites? Or can a true democratic spirit be revived?

Dr Kiran Bedi
chairperson, India Vision Foundation; first female police officer, Indian Police Force

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Jug Suraiya
former editorial opinion editor and associate editor, Times of India; author and popular columnist, 'Jugular Vein'

Claire Fox
director, Institute of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Helen Birtwistle history and politics teacher, South London school
Tony Gilland associate fellow, Institute of Ideas
Session partners