March 14, 2006

Leading by Example

Rajinder Puri urges India to take the lead in spreading democracy around the world. But only after putting its own house in order.

After 9/11 the quality of American democracy plummeted. ... Many of [the Bush administration]'s actions destroyed American values and even attracted threats of impeachment. The administration deliberately falsified intelligence inputs and lied to the nation for justifying its invasion of Iraq. During the war, it initiated systematic torture of prisoners which violated American law and human rights. The President authorized illegal wiretapping of private conversations of citizens without following due process. ... The President got away with his excesses because mainstream US media failed to fulfill its responsibility.

India's condition is no better. The failure of the system and the need to reform it is a recurring theme in these columns. ... [There is] an alarming breakdown in the rule of law. Liberty therefore has degenerated into license. The rich and the powerful can and do get away with murder. Hopefully, the public will bestir itself before the system disintegrates.

These facts must be kept in mind if a serious effort to spread democracy across the world is undertaken.

The author makes excellent points. However, he is no exception to the general tendency in America and India to play up increasing prosperity and depth of democratic values and to remind readers how lucky they are compared with assorted autocratic regimes before addressing the serious deviations from democracy.

The US President clearly violated the FISA by wiretapping citizen without a prior judicial warrant. India has no laws, whatsoever, to protect its people from violation of privacy by the State. All that any Indian government needs is a confidential executive order signed by a bureaucrat so it can spy on citizen and political rivals with plausible deniability. Invariably, it's one of the first privileges every government exercises upon swearing in.

At first blush, the Indian press might appear cantankerous, and therefore free, but it lacks full freedom of press. Nor does it particularly push the limits of the considerable freedom it enjoys. Its hands are tied by draconian libel laws without the recourse to a First Amendment protection or truth as defense. It operates in an environment journalists are regularly roughed up. The end result is a free press that stays away from anything that may remotely violate the colonial Official Secrets Act or breaching the privilege of any elected house or inviting contempt of court from the prickly judges that don't take kindly to criticism, especially to accusations of quid pro quo in letting the powerful get away with murder.

Many of India's laws are more fit for the religious courts of Shariat-following countries, for countries that elect leaders with 100% polled votes, and in medieval societies than for a vibrant democracy that includes 600 million globally-aware, pulsating youth. Combined with unbelievable corruption in every sphere of the justice system, they are a lethal deterrence for the most fearless journalist. That results in a free press that won't needle the executive, the legislative or the judiciary where it really matters.

The Indian audience, like most patriotic people, does not like to read much about its soldiers running their own Abu Ghraibs in Kashmir or the North East or for that matter in the heart of Mumbai for accused terrorists.

At present, these serious flaws in the democratic norms do not seem to bother the administrations of India or the US. Perhaps they are flirting with a system that gives the citizen just enough freedom to prosper but keeps them from extreme frustration of repressive regimes. As a result, the ruling mob prefers to hold the reigns of power very close in the name of security.

The only difference might be the federal writ doesn't extend much into the states and cities that run their own law enforcement and judicial systems in the US. Whereas in India, those functions have a strict reporting hierarchy to the central government. The silver lining is all it takes in India is the will of the ruling government to reform.

March 03, 2006

Can they transform the world?

President Bush thinks so.

"The United States and India, separated by half the globe, are closer than ever before, and the partnership between our free nations has the power to transform the world," Mr. Bush declared in the cool March air of New Delhi on the grounds of a 16th century fort.

Their ability to lead largely depends on how the world sees their practice of democratic values, i.e. whether they walk the talk.

The US has an image problem in its treatment of the Guantanamo Bay detainees. Sure, of late there is positive action from the highest court. The US is also addicted to siding with autocratic regimes from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan under one pretext or the other. And, the only silver lining to the hard-to-forget Abu Ghraib black-eye was the whistle blew from within and some of the wrongdoers were sentenced.

India, with the non-aligned past and a penchant for the high moral perch, has its share of cozying up to the worst dictators in the southern hemisphere. Neither is it known to bring up democracy with the Sauds, Pakistani generals or the Irani mullahs. Worse still is India's track record of treating its own people in Kashmir and the North East undemocratically. That is changing for better. However, widespread corruption continues to deprive most ordinary Indians of justice and real democracy.