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Revisiting Democracy

There are various definitions of democracy I learned over my years as a student. I

never paid much attention to any of them. Conversely they remained rather boring
and ignored texts in my school books. On some occasions, I heard my friends debate
over it and managed to discern some definitive features to the word. At another time,
another day, I became helplessly forgetful. With worlds of beautiful things happening
to my age then, it would have been foolish to attach more time to the understanding
and defining of democracy. I wasted luxuriously in the company of women, music
and dreams.
Fifteen years hence, at this age today, I learn of Barack Obama winning the US
presidential elections. ‘Change has come to America’ one of the headlines flashes on
a browser before me. My office buzzes with the breaking news as does the world, or
so it seems. We start exchanging views, engage in speculations, get back to work. I
think of ‘change’ and remember the word democracy.

Although a universally acceptable definition for the word is still contentious (and
rightly so to be in the democratic spirit), there are a couple of principles inclusive to
all its allied concepts. First that all members of the society have equal access to
opportunities and second that all members enjoy universally accepted freedom and
liberties. Fair enough, one must say because what’s more valid than a free society.
That is to speak of a society where Mangal a sweeper sips his tea in the same hotel as
Raghav a brahmin. Or Kaneez a girl studies in the same ranks as Omar a boy. Or in
the same sense, Barrack Obama, a black becomes the president of America.

The change has certainly come in, I think before I write. My thoughts take me home,
to that serpentine alley in Ganja Chowk, Raigarh. In the room facing the street, my
daughter plays with her friends. Aged between 3-5 most of them belong to the same
neighborhood. A heap of toys gathers at the center with children weaving their lives
around it. At a distance, near the threshold stands Ria, our maidservant’s
granddaughter. She reluctantly makes it to the swarm of children and manages to
touch a plastic locomotive from the heap. A little later when all the kids are made to
sit in a row to share the Puja Prasad, she involuntarily takes an obscure corner.
Born to a lower caste and relatively poorer family, Ria explains a different childhood
to me. Once again I think of democratic rights.

This time the image is that of my student days. Back then in college, we generally
noticed the scheduled tribe and scheduled caste students, making groups among
themselves. It was noticeably rare that one of them shared time or space with us.
Though theoretically we did possess the equality, but it usually felt as if we belonged
to different worlds. I clearly remember the dementia of those times when during the
anti-Mandal commission uproar, faces from the other world bore an expression of
utter fear. Once when my girlfriend asked me about the Mandal commission and the
entailing disturbance, I jokingly said – ‘it’s preventing that lovely black girl from
snatching me from you’.

My girlfriend might just have supported the anti-reservation antics but coming back to
my joke, I find it all the more serious. It remains a fact that for centuries the dominant
class has fringed its binary, being both grossly exploitative in its intent and shrewdly
manipulative in its approach. The past few decades of laissez faire have served well to
widen the divide. Today in India we have fourth highest number of dollar billionaires
in the planet and simultaneously we rank 126th in the Human Development Indicators
which means its better to be a poor person in Bolivia (the poorest nation in South
America). CEO salaries recorded an all time high last year while we have 836 million
people living on less than Rs 20 a day. A new restaurant opens everyday in some city
of the country, while in the last five years we added more newly hungry millions than
the rest of the world. Our economic growth rate is said to attain envious proportions
and yet farmer indebtedness has doubled in the last decade, from 26.2% in 1991 to
46.3% in 2001. Inequalities are bound to rise with unbridled capitalism and lack of a
firm political will.
It’s as a result of this long-term uni-polarity of power that my maidservant’s
granddaughter understands life from a window my daughter perhaps would never
choose to peep through. Or in that case black girls would never ever snatch me from
my girlfriends.

With Obama’s historic victory, the promise for a change has been agreed upon by
many to arrive. My limited resources of intellectual capital prevent me to analyze the
magnitude and nature of this deemed change. Secure within the laziness of a careless
writer, I barely get to understand that he stops the misadventures like restoring
democracy in Iraq and Afganistan and attends to rather urgent calls like re-structuring
the American farm bill, where a reduction in subsidies to the cotton farmers alone
could feed a million children more in Africa. Off late, sledging America on various
grounds has been an order of the day in the developing world. May be the president
takes account of such voices, and explores why in the first place did they arise? In
short, he could re-visit the word democracy, and apply it with honesty.

As far as India is concerned, we have so many Americas within us; need to sort those
out first. We need to ascertain that across the country in our homes, children like Ria
have a stake, we need to gather that eyes of black women see dreams too.

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