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The democratic process in India has brought about a shift in political power from the middle and higher castes and classes of urban society to the backward classes who are now politically the most influential ones in the country, Vice President Hamid Ansari said today.
"They (backward castes) have won reservations for themselves in legislatures and government services as were accorded to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes after independence through Constitutional provisions," said Ansari who is on a three-day official visit to Hungary.
"There are few examples in recent history of such a conspicuous shift of political power, involving such a huge mass of population, taking place in such a short period of time almost without any violence and in a democratic way. This is one more example of the miracles that democracy can create.
"So there is much to celebrate, much to be proud of. At the same time, living societies also introspect from time to time, recall their foundational principles and assess the work still to be done," he said while addressing a seminar on 'Indian Democracy: Achievements and Challenges' at the Corvinus University.
He said, these, in India's case, are inscribed in the Preamble and the text of the Constitution. They were amplified in the concluding statement of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the man who chaired the drafting committee.
He said the Indian Constitution stipulated universal adult franchise and its basic principles were summed up in a brief and pithy form in the Preamble; its sections on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy made it a socio-economic manifesto.
"In other words the superstructure of a democratic polity and a secular state structure, put in place in modern India, is anchored in the existential reality of a plural society," he said.
The Vice President said a word about the nature of Indian society is relevant to contextualise this discussion.
India's population of 1.27 billion comprises of over 4,635 communities 78 per cent of whom are not only linguistic and cultural but social categories. Religious minorities constitute 19.4 per cent of the population, he said.
"Much of this is reflective of our cultural past. Indian culture is syncretic in character and, as a historian put it 'embraces in its orbit beliefs, customs, rites, institutions, arts, religions and philosophies belonging to different strata of societies in varying stages of development'.
"It eternally seeks to find a unity for the heterogeneous elements which make up its totality.' It is a veritable human laboratory where the cross breeding of ideas, beliefs and cultural traditions has been in progress for a few thousand years. The national movement recognised this cultural plurality and sought to base a national identity on it," he said.
Ansari said a critical question about the first-past-the
-post (FPTP) system relates to the representativeness of the elected representative is a single-member district, simple- plurality system in which voters cast a single ballot to choose a single representative to the lower house of Parliament or the state legislative assembly, the candidate with largest number of votes, even if only a plurality, getting elected to represent the constituency.
He said in the 2014 general election, only 117 of the 539 winning candidates in the Lok Sabha secured 50 per cent or more of the votes cast. This in the context of the overall national voting percentage of 66.4 per cent makes evident the actual representativeness of the elected MPs.
"One study shows that it was 31 per cent. On the one hand, the FPTP system has the merit of being uncomplicated since it uses single-member districts and candidate-centred voting and gives to voters a clear choice between candidates and parties. On the other hand, this system produces a discrepancy between voter-share in results. It also results in the exclusion of small or regional parties in the legislature," he said.
He said the challenge of securing substantive equality for citizens, and thereby ensuring fraternity for the unity and integrity of the nation, remains a work in progress and it has been argued that "inequality traps" prevent the marginalised and work in favour of the dominant groups in society and that "unequal opportunities lead to unequal outcomes which in turn lead to unequal access to political power".
"This creates a vicious circle since unequal power structure determines the nature and functioning of the institutions and their policies," he said.
He said this is accentuated by the unequal presence of the weaker sections especially women and minorities. At the same time, the FPTP "has not been able to uphold majoritarianism in a multi-party system since the winning candidate often wins only about 20-30 per cent of votes".
"Among other challenges in the path to more comprehensive democracy is the question of gender balance. Women MPs constitute only 11 per cent of the total in the House of People elected in 2014. Some but not all of the religious minorities are in the same position. Both require to be attended to through strategies of affirmative action," he said.
He said though gender equality has been ensured through legislation in municipalities and village panchayats, the same has not yet been done for Parliament and state assemblies.
Referring to another paradox, he said record shows that while the public participation in the electoral exercise has noticeably improved, "public dissatisfaction from the functioning of elected bodies is breeding cynicism with the democratic process itself. The imperative for a corrective is evident to reinforce public confidence in the ability of the system to deliver, as intended".
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He said thus well before the actual attainment of freedom on August 15, 1947, our people were prepared psychologically and ideologically for self-rule in a democratic format and this was spelt out in the Objectives Resolution of December 1946 stipulating that all power and authority of independent India shall be derived from the people and would guarantee some basic rights to citizens.
The Vice President said it is evident that the quest for improvements will continue with the growth of public awareness of the electoral process. An observer of the Indian scene has noted that "the ethos of democracy expresses itself in the freedom of expression, respect for human rights, good governance, pluralism and mutual understanding" adding that "a participatory democracy today is only possible through the active participation of citizen's initiatives".
He said evidence of this, in the case of India, is to be found in new social movements that mobilise large masses and in the process create space for political action that have a transformative capacity. The impulses and processes generated by these movements add vigour to Indian democracy.
Ansari said "an Indian of my generation also recalls a footnote to the events of September 1956 in this city and the role that an Indian diplomat by the name of Mohammad Ataur Rahman, the then Indian Ambassador to Hungary, was destined to play in them".
"The gratitude of the Hungarian people was publicly acknowledged by President Arpad Goncz on his visit to India in 1991," he said.