Monday, July 16, 2012

Democracy –Do We Have a Choice?

In a recent post, Democracy- It is all about Yadha Praja Tadha Raja, I had discussed how democracy gives a government that reflects the quality and culture of the voters themselves and why the voters, and not the democracy, are to be blamed if the quality of elected persons is bad. I am rather compelled to say more on this subject as the blame on democracy for all the ills of the nation continues unabated and unchallenged.

No one has ever claimed democracy as a panacea for all the ills of society. In fact, as suggested by Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.  In this profound quote, you can see the USP of democracy.   All the forms of governance, tried at various stages of human history, have fared worse than democracy.  Most of those systems are extinct today, except where some of them have changed themselves to accommodate democratic aspirations of the governed (as in the case of constitutional monarchy of United Kingdom)!

Neither individual rulers nor any group of elites/classes/troops have proved consistently as better rulers in the past than the present elected politicians.  That is why democracy remains the best available system. The TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor will ensure the prominence of democracy for a long time to come!

Fundamental principle, from which democracy gets its sustenance, is that all human beings have equal rights in a society.  Human beings may not be equal in terms of physical or mental abilities. But, as members of a society they all have equal/similar rights to achieve their respective best, within the norms of society.  That being the case, no person or group can assume a right to govern and force their will on the other members.  At the same time, it is necessary to have some authority to ensure adherence to society’s norms by its members and to avoid chaos and self-destruction within the society. Democracy is an attempt to resolve these two contradictory principles of social life.

It is only in democracy that the people have a right to choose, either directly, or indirectly through their representatives, the person or group that governs them (please remember that even indirect election of a Prime Minister, Chief Minister, President etc are perfectly within the representational system of democracy and therefore the argument that people have no direct say in their election is not logical, though one may question the advisability of representational system as against direct democracy).  Also, it is only the democracy that gives a right to the people to reject their rulers and replace them with another set of rulers from time to time. As Pluto said, “Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequal alike.”

Democracy may not give us the best rulers all the time. But, it definitely gives us the right to change them from time to time.  If we do not exercise our rights in the best manner possible, can we blame the system itself? It may happen that in a given election majority of the voters exercise their choice in the most foolish manner and end up electing a tyrant or mass murderer or any such evil, on the basis of some perceived injustice or other emotional reasons.  Yet, unlike the other systems, they don’t have to keep suffering the outcome of their choice forever. The very next election gives them an opportunity to correct their mistake (I do not agree with a possible objection that 5 years is too long a period to wait, considering the need for balance between change and stability).

If we continue to elect same group of rulers, election after election, there can only be two reasons for that; either we don’t deserve better rulers or majority of us consider those rulers as the best available option to them.  If the society itself is devoid of any values then it is not practical to expect the chosen leaders to be any different.  Democracy is not election by consensus, it is election by majority vote. If majority wants a certain ideology or group to govern, then the minority has to accept that.  Of course, needless to say minority will still be protected by the rule of law that ensures all are equal before the law and government, but minority can’t dictate the majority with its choice of governance.

No doubt, democracy is not a natural system of governance in an unequal society.  Staking of territory, survival of the fittest, rule of the powerful, might is right etc are some of the concepts that we carry even now, from our animal existence of the past. Therefore, it is bound to take time for true democracy to take roots in a society, especially if the society is one which has inherited extreme inequality from the past.  But that is no reason to reject a system when we do not have a better system to replace it or speed up the reforms in society. 

We tend to be little impatient when demanding performance from democracy.  We forget that nations are built, not in decades but in centuries. If we expect democracy to undo all the shortcomings accumulated over thousands of years by a nation, in 50 or 60 years, well it is asking for too much! 

Even the social churnings caused by democracy’s taking roots is often looked at from a short-term perspective.  For example, the new found assertiveness of previously oppressed classes like ‘dalits’ and ‘backwards’ has resulted in so many ‘unsophisticated’ and even semi-literate persons getting elected to legislative bodies.  Should we treat that as a negative of democracy? In my opinion, we should not!  This assertion and churning will only improve the equality in the long run and benefit the society at large.

Often democracy gets blamed when the real majority and assumed majority are different. For example, in India one gets to hear that the elections are not reflecting the will of the ‘majority’.  Such an assumption arises from the difference between actual majority and assumed majority.  It is the actual majority that gets to elect the government. However, the views claiming to represent the assumed majority (for example the religious majority, linguistic majority, class majority etc), is not satisfied with the choice of the actual majority.  We can only tell the votaries of such assumed majorities to open their eyes and realise the voice and choice of actual majority, which may not be agreeing with religious or caste or other parochial differentiators!

Another blame that democracy is subjected to is about the strong control exercised by dynasties or families over political parties and elections. Indeed, it is true for a country like India where most of the regional parties and even the largest national party are dependent on dynasties for their leadership.  But what we must realise is that it is not a shortcoming of the democracy but of the feudalistic mentality still prevalent in our society.  If at all, democracy ensures that even these dynasties/families are absolutely subject to the will of people and at their mercy during each election.

Let us accept that democracy is not a perfect system that will give us perfect leaders and perfect governance. Democracy is only a system that will allow us to have a genuine say in deciding our own leaders and rulers.  It was Franklin D Roosevelt who said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”   The performance of those leaders/ government is dependent on our own performance as responsible citizens and an ever vigilant society.  

Anyone can devise a new system that is foolproof against all the social negatives. In the meanwhile, instead of blaming the best available system, let us strive to strengthen it by exercising our duty to vote, in all its seriousness, and also striving to improve our own quality as responsible citizens of the country and members of the society.  As Ralph Nader rightly puts it, “There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.”

While being is free to criticise the outcome of any democratic election, let us not forget that we do not have any choice for the moment but to accept democracy as the best available system. 

1 comment:

  1. Comment from @fkalpana through Twitter:

    Democracy can act like a pressure valve in challenging times, like recession and natural disasters . And a mood-changer.

    Democracy can make rabble-rousers and fundamentalists become moderates/liberals.Look at examples of Muslim brotherhood of Egypt