Lessons in governance & politics India should learn from Chile

Chileans want diversity protection laws and the State to be responsible for "fostering and financing development of communities…without imposing a single vision on human person, society and the world"

Photo courtesy: Getty Images
Photo courtesy: Getty Images

Papri Sri Raman

The idea of learning from other nations seems to have been buried since the 1990s along with non-alignment. But perhaps it is time for India’s democratic polity to raise its head and look at what is happening elsewhere, beyond the immediate and toxic domestic headlines; because hope might yet be lurking in distant corners of the world.

One such glimmer of hope this January was the election of the 36-year-old Gabriel Boric as Chile’s president, and the winning coalition’s (called New Social Pact) fight for social justice. Boric has promised an equitable, sustainable and green future for Chileans.

Our relationship with Latin American countries is like a distant telephonic affair. Chile is that country of the Andes range, where most of the world’s glaciers and the driest desert are found. It is a global front-runner in the Covid-19 vaccination roll-out; 90% of its people are inoculated. In 2021 it was the world’s best-performing economy, buoyed by large state spending to ease the impact of the two-year-long pandemic. The value of the Chilean peso is nearly 4 Indian rupees.

Unlike India, it hardly has any agriculture, and its economy depends on copper and lithium mining. Most of this takes place in areas where indigenous tribal people live, and our Niyamgiri-like protests are not unknown. Police crackdown has been the answer to all such protests in India, be it at the Aravallis or Koodankulam, and the government here is busy amending important environmental laws without civil society consultations.

In contrast, in Chile under its new regime, the Chilean Court of Appeals has cancelled bidding in lithium in north Chile on an appeal by indigenous communities to stop the mining. The people’s appeal alleged ‘violation of constitutional guarantees such as equality before the law, the right to live in an environment free of contamination’ and their right to choose their livelihood.

Fresh water, protection of glaciers, mountains, forests and mines are national concerns. An academic specialising in environment, Maisa Rojas, will steer Chile’s green future. She says, the consequence of global warming is also ‘structural inequality which, in the case of Chile, is the basis of the social unrest that started in 2019… We need to look at structural elements of our society, which also means changing our development pathway.’

Many of us know of Salvador Allende, the socialist doctor who became President in 1970, the first liberal democrat to be elected by popular vote in any Latin American nation. Ousted by a military coup after just three years, he committed suicide rather than resign. The next president, General Pinochet’s human rights violations are stuff of legend and literature.

During his 17-year misrule, in 1980 through a plebiscite, Pinochet gave a legal framework to a constitution, mentored by neo-liberal economist Milton Friedman. Amazingly, in another plebiscite in 1988, Pinochet stepped down as 56% of Chileans voted against him, perhaps one of the rare peaceful transitions from dictatorship to elections. Chile has voted Right-of-Centre and Left-of-Centre for 30 years, but the Pinochet constitution stayed put.

A majority of Chileans considered it to be too free-market oriented and blame it for the country’s stark inequalities, especially in their access to education (sounds familiar?), though budgetary allocation for this is almost 6% of their GDP, double that of India.

The first protest in 2006 was by High School students, in an unrest called ‘Penguins’ Revolution’. In 2011, university students began a protest called ‘March of the Penguins’, when young leaders such as Gabriel Boric, Camila Vallejo, Giorgio Jackson and many others emerged on Chile’s political centre-stage.

In October 2019, a metro-fare increase sparked massive protests and riots. This forced the then president Sebastián Piñera to order a referendum that asked Chileans if they wanted a new constitution, and what kind of body they would want to draw it up?

Over 78% of Chileans endorsed writing of a democratic constitution, not by stuffy law-makers but by ‘civil society organisations’, as a member of the Central Committee of the Convergencia Social Party, Antonia Mardones Marshall, explained to an Asian audience recently.

This assembly-forming has been the most exciting political experiment in the recent history of developing nations. A 155-member, totally elected constituent assembly was set up in 2020. It included environmentalists, feminists, members of the LGBTQ+ community and Chileans from the entire social spectrum so that ‘lawyers, political scientists, engineers, and historians work together with social activists, stay-at-home mothers and school bus drivers, among others.

The average age of the constituents is 44’. As Tomás Laibe, a sexual rights activist, told the media, ‘… we won’t have men talking about women’s issues, straight people discussing sexual diversity or white people talking about the needs of indigenous communities. We will do it ourselves because we are better represented today’.

So, Chileans rejected the established political class and social movements and left parties got 60% of the votes; imagine social movements in India getting a voice in what the Law should be, what the Right should be, what the Policy-decision should be and how exactly it should be implemented.

As prof M.S. Sriram of IIM-Bangalore explained in a recent talk on NGOs and their future in India, why governments here hate social movements is because they step into territories that are the State’s responsibility and show up the tardiness of the government.

The inequality in Chile is not as bad as in India. According to the World Inequity Lab, Chile is the most unequal country in Latin America with the top 10% capturing 60% of the average national income. In 2020, the Encuesta Bicentenario (Bicentennial Poll), that measures cultural indicators yearly, showed that 77% Chileans believe there is a ‘big conflict’ between the rich and the poor. They think inequalities exist because the private sector is in control of health, education, housing and pensions.

People want clear guidelines on freedom of expression and want to know if it will be subordinate to economic power. Will the new constitution favour decentralisation and plurality of communication in the digital sphere? On the Boric government’s list is also rectification of ‘harm done to places of worship’, and it says, all attacks on people ‘in the exercise of there right of worship are considered an attack against human rights’.

Chileans want Diversity protection laws and the state to be responsible for ‘fostering and financing development of communities… without imposing a single vision on the human person, society and the world, nor a single understanding of human rights’.

Juan Carlos Lara, executive director of Derechos Digitales, told the Citizen Internet Space last year that social justice had to be the basis of ‘the framework of social discontent from which the process of drafting a new constitution’ emerged, as legal frameworks lag behind dizzying techno-logical advances.

Chileans want care work, which has historically been shouldered by women, to be transferred to the state, and enshrined as a Fundamental Right.

President-elect Boric who takes office in March has unveiled a 24-member Cabinet with half his ministers women; after 75 years of democracy India has 33% parity only on paper.

Fourteen of the ministries will be headed by: Antonia Urrejola (Foreign Affairs), Maya Fernandez (Defense), Jeanette Vega (Social Development), Marcela Rios (Justice), Jeanette Jara (Labour), Maria Yarza (Health), Marcela Hernando (Mining), Javiera Toro (National Assets), Maisa Rojas (Environment), Alexandra Benado (Sports), Antonia Orellana (Women’s Affairs), Julieta Brodsky (Culture), Camila Vallejo (General Secretary), and Izkia Siches (Interior). He chose banker Mario Marcel to be his finance minister.

The portfolios with women at the helm tell their own story. This brings a clearly feminist perspective to a non-communist social-democrat mode of governance with the ambitious promise to deliver social justice. Some lessons for India 2024?

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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