Friday, April 02, 2010

Living on the reservation

Democracies are not complete when they exclude certain segments of the population from minimal acts of political participation due to exclusionary rules. The United States, for example, prides itself on being a democracy since the eighteenth century but it really has been a democracy for a considerably shorter period of time, a fact that very few people have pointed out. Free and fair elections are a necessary but not sufficient condition of democratic regimes. Who can vote and who can contest in elections is a much more important aspect of minimal democratic systems. For example, men of European origin with private property were the only parts of the population in the US that were able to vote till much after the constitution was written. Similarly, women acquired the right to vote in US elections only in the 1920s. It was only in the 1960s that most African-Americans could vote in US elections. Even at a basic level, the United States has been a democracy only for the last fifty years or so.
Similarly, in India, many electoral districts in India are reserved for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe candidates (from a constitutional schedule that lists these castes and tribes). Citizens who are not members of these groups may not stand for elections in such electoral districts. Affirmative action programs to correct historical persecution or lack of rights in the spheres of education and jobs are not what we are talking about here (the merits of such programs can be debated and have been elsewhere).
When all citizens do not have equal constitutional access to voting, and contesting in elections, democracy fails at a very basic level. The electoral district where my home town in India falls, does not allow, for example, any Brahmins, to contest in elections, simply because of the accident of their birth. It certainly feels, in a perverse sort of way, like one is living on a reservation.
Now, there is legislation being proposed to reserve electoral seats for women through a constitutional amendment in India. This strikes at the very heart of India democracy, by excluding a majority of the population from contesting in many electoral districts. How then can India claim to be a democracy, let alone the largest in the world?

No comments: