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Posted at: Apr 16, 2018, 12:49 AM; last updated: Apr 16, 2018, 12:49 AM (IST)

Equality vital to democracy: Manmohan

Excerpts from the April 11 speech of Dr Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister, at the First Dr SB Rangnekar Memorial Oration, Panjab University, on “The Seventieth Anniversary of our Independence - Strengthening the roots of our Democracy”.
Equality vital to democracy: Manmohan
Dr Manmohan Singh delivers a lecture at Panjab University on April 11.

THIS lecture commemorates the memory of Dr SB Rangnekar, who, along with Dr KK Dewett, was the founder of the Department of Economics of the Panjab University after the partition of India in 1947. The department in those days was located at Hoshiarpur along with many other university departments. I joined the Department of Economics as an MA student in 1952. This was the first year of adoption of the new MA syllabus in whose preparation Dr Rangnekar played pioneering role. He was a great teacher who inspired me to go to Cambridge. On return from Cambridge, I joined the Department of Economics as a Senior Lecturer. Soon thereafter, the department  moved to Chandigarh. Dr Rangnekar and his wife treated me and my wife as a member of their family. That was the happiest period of my life and I recall it with gratitude to Dr Rangnekars. 

Seventy years ago, the world gave Indian democracy no chance for success. Our common people have proved the world wrong. Democracy is more than a system of government.  It is an ideology about how human beings ought to treat each other. Democracy is based on a stubborn insistence that every human being should have an equal voice in the formation and operation of arrangements of governance — based only on his or her humanity, irrespective of power and privilege, status and education, gender, caste or religion, language or culture. Equality, freedom and fraternity are the three values that constitute the life breath of democracy. Some vital pillars of democracy need to be constantly secured and strengthened are: equality, freedom, fraternity and our electoral system.

Equality

Equality is the keystone of democracy. And it is one of the greatest challenges faced by India in building our democracy because of the persistence in our society of feudal, hierarchical ideas of inequality based on caste, class and gender.

The strong commitment of the Republic to political equality has had its collateral impact on questioning the persistence of social and economic inequality. The principle of one-person one-vote has put unprecedented political power into the hands of a hitherto marginalised 90 per cent of India. They have demanded and secured policies, including for affirmative action, that have reduced disparities and have created opportunities for upward social and economic mobility for traditionally discriminated communities. 

While economic growth remains a high priority for the country, there is now a growing concern that the concomitant commitment to ensuring that disparities and inequality do not grow is weakening. It is vitally important for us to maintain strong focus on containing the growth of economic inequality, and work actively to reduce it. What is required is stronger social and political reawakening to the principle of equality — social, economic and political — for the sake of equality and as a mark of our commitment to democracy. 

Freedom

The freedom of a country is not the freedom of its government. It is the freedom of people, which in turn, is not the freedom only of its privileged and powerful, but the freedom of every Indian. Freedom is the freedom to question, the freedom to express one's views, howsoever troubling they may be for others. The only constraint to freedom must be the freedom of others — in other words, the freedom of one person or a group should not be used to constrain the freedom of other individuals or groups. We must preserve strategic autonomy in decision-making processes and resist the temptation of rich rewards gained by becoming a tool in the great games of big powers in the pursuit of their imperial ambitions. 

A dangerous and false binary is now surfacing in Indian political discourse, which must be firmly rejected. It is that we have to choose between freedom and development. Growth, wealth and development are fruits of democracy, not substitutes. 

Fraternity

Only a fraternal people can maintain a democracy. And, conversely, only a democratic nation can maintain fraternity. Fraternity is based, as powerfully and eloquently stated in the Preamble of our Constitution, on the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. I need not dwell long on the current deep concern that attempts are being made to divide the Indian people on the basis of religion and caste, language and culture. Atrocities against minorities and Dalits are increasing. As a people, we must strongly reject divisive policies and politics. 

Electoral system

We are all most proud of our democratic electoral system in which ruling parties have been defeated and power has been transferred peacefully. This is a rare success in today's world. Our electoral system has succeeded against great odds. There is, however, today widespread concern that our electoral system is being undermined by money power and muscle power. Electoral reforms to maintain the integrity of elected officials are another vital area for securing and strengthening of our democracy. Like democratic political parties, the media and the judiciary also need to be strong guardians of the public weal. 

Renew commitment to democracy

We need to ask ourselves whether we are losing patience with democracy and turning to more authoritarian alternatives that may well yield superior short-term results but in the long term will end up destroying our country and all the achievements of the last 70 years.  Governance is complex. It is messy. It is slow. Its benefits are long term. It requires great patience. Above all, democracy is a system in which people without privilege have a decisive voice in governance. If this is lost, democracy becomes meaningless.

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