1. A ‘new’ democracy?
A systemic transformation of democracy is taking place from within to its very opposite
- The ‘democracy’ that a major part of our world swears by comprises free and fair, multi-party, fixed-term elections based on universal adult franchise in its ideal state. A contestant party winning the majority of votes represents the will of the electorate and gets to form the government; others sit in the opposition until the next election. Simple.
- Its simplicity also conceals some of its structural flaws. The ‘majority of votes’ actually boils down to the majority of seats in the legislature which, in 99% of the time, comes riding a minority of votes. Rarely is a government formed backed by a majority of votes won in a free and fair election. Rajiv Gandhi’s formidable, highest-ever majority in Lok Sabha in 1984 was still short of a majority of votes by about 2%. Narendra Modi in 2014 had the backing of 31% of the votes cast and in 2019, of just about 40%. In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidential race in the U.S. with a deficit of over 2.5 million popular votes vis-à-vis his chief competitor, Hillary Clinton. It is the same story everywhere.
What democracy brought
- Besides the fact that this democracy is far from becoming universal even well into the 21st century, its own life history is just a tiny dot on the canvas of time: short of a hundred years. Universal adult franchise itself is yet to hit the 100-year mark in the most advanced nations. Even in the U.S., white women won the franchise a hundred years ago but their black sisters had to wait another few decades. The white women too won it in the teeth of opposition, including from thousands of women raising the slogan: A vote or a husband? The Swiss women got the vote less than a half century ago, nearly a quarter century after Indian women did.
- Democracy did not come alone; its accoutrements included guaranteed individual rights and freedoms, free market economy, equality of all citizens, freedom of life and property, etc. — inviolable constituents of capitalism. Elections created space for change of governments even as they guaranteed security against challenge to the regime; the challenge could arise only outside of it, through ‘revolutions’, which in turn had much contracted the space even for a change of government and none for a change of regime. In the end, most ‘revolutions’ could not escape the dragnet of ‘democracy’, their existential as well as conceptual adversary.
- One of democracy’s primary premises, free market, which ‘revolutions’ had sought to eradicate, is now under threat not from its adversary but from its own internal dynamics. The unprecedented concentration of wealth at the top 1% around the world knocks the bottom out of competition in the market, so integral to its freedom.
The principle and the form
- This high concentration of wealth is in turn getting to impact the system’s political functioning by replicating the process. The hollowing out of this foundational principle of capitalism while retaining its form is also running parallel in the other freedoms, other constituents of ‘democracy’ by hollowing out the substance of even free and fair elections and individual freedoms while retaining the form. The notion of the free choice of the exercise of vote at the ballot box gets completely distorted with innumerable manipulations of that choice on all sides, all within the four walls of the constitutional provisions. These include distortions injected into the electoral process through control and misuse of the institutions responsible for carrying out the process; the creation of an atmosphere of delegitimisation of dissent or protest vis-à-vis the government by counter-posing the demands of unquestioning patriotism or nationalism to it; using the sentiment of patriotism to circumscribe the dispensation of fair justice; the control of the flow of information through the ‘independent’ media; setting up of professionally organised mechanisms for creating and propagating fake news; creating and promoting hatred between communities of people through patronising identity politics and using frenzy in lieu of reason as a mobiliser of votes; and not least, meting out the harshest treatment to the most prominent dissenting voices by lodging them in prison on fake charges, never mind that they would all be let off a decade later by the courts for want of evidence. The message to society would have been delivered.
A global scenario
- True, much of what we see happening before our eyes has been witnessed by history; Adolf Hitler’s example, though extreme, comes closest to what we are watching helplessly. Yet, the example is a bad one, for Hitler needed to destroy the Constitution which had brought him to power; today, remarkably democratic and progressive constitutions around the world give rulers enough space for misuse for achieving those goals and yet making the misuse palatable to voters through media and mobilisation. It is interesting that voters haven’t tired of this misuse anywhere going by the ever-rising voting percentages at election time.
- If this concentration of wealth and political power was the case with one country or society, it could easily be attributed to specific local conditions; but this looks like a more generalised, global scenario: in the U.S., China, Russia, India, Brazil, Hungary, Turkey and elsewhere. It is therefore futile to argue that this has flown from the personality or personal diktats of one or the other charismatic leader. Its global scale defies that inference.
- Clearly then, we are witnessing the transformation of the regime of democracy, a systemic transformation from within, from one that had brought us the promise of liberté, egalité, fraternité political, social and economic, to its very opposite: the highest concentration of economic, political and therefore social powers ever in history. Yet ‘democracy’ remains its trademark. Nor does it have the appearance of a sudden, odd aberration with an expected short life, or a spontaneous occurrence in different regions. Its scale is too massive for that.
- Democracy is a form of government in which the rulers are elected by the people. In a democracy it is the people who give the government this power. They do this through elections in which they vote for particular persons and elect them. Once elected, these persons form the government. In a democracy the government has to explain its actions and defend its decisions to the people.
Democracy is of two types—
- direct and indirect.
- In direct democracy, the people exercise their supreme power directly as is the case in Switzerland. There are four devices of direct democracy, namely, Referendum, Initiative, Recall and Plebiscite.
- In indirect democracy, on the other hand, the representatives elected by the people exercise the supreme power and thus carry on the government and make the laws. This type of democracy, also known as representative democracy, is of two kinds—parliamentary and presidential.
- The Indian Constitution provides for representative parliamentary democracy under which the executive is responsible to the legislature for all its policies and actions. Universal adult franchise, periodic elections, rule of law, independence of judiciary, and absence of discrimination on certain grounds are the manifestations of the democratic character of the Indian polity.
The monarch (king or queen) has the power to make decisions and run the government. The monarch may have a small group of people to discuss matters with, but the final decision-making power remains with the monarch. Unlike in a democracy, kings and queens do not have to explain their actions or defend the decisions they take.
- India is a democracy. This achievement is the result of a long and eventful struggle of the Indian people. There are other places in the world where people have also struggled to have democracies.
- The main feature of a democracy is that the people have the power to elect their leaders. So in a sense a democracy is rule by the people. The basic idea is that people rule themselves by participating in the making of these rules.
- Democratic governments in our times are usually referred to as representative democracies. In representative democracies people do not participate directly but, instead, choose their representatives through an election process. These representatives meet and make decisions for the entire population. These days a government cannot call itself democratic unless it allows what is known as universal adult franchise. This means that all adults in the country are allowed to vote.
- In their earliest forms governments allowed only men who owned property and were educated, to vote. This meant that women, the poor, the property-less and the uneducated were not allowed to vote. The country was governed by the rules and regulations that these few men made.
- In India, before Independence, only a small minority was allowed to vote and they therefore came together to determine the fate of the majority. Several people including Gandhiji were shocked at the unfairness of this practice and demanded that all adults have the right to vote. This is known as universal adult franchise.
- Writing in the journal Young India in 1931, Gandhiji said, “I cannot possibly bear the idea that a man who has got wealth should have the vote, but that a man who has got character but no wealth or literacy should have no vote, or that a man who works honestly by the sweat of his brow day in and day out should not have the vote for the crime of being a poor man…”.
FEATURES OF DEMOCRACY
- In a democracy the final decision making power must rest with those elected by the people.
- A democracy must be based on a free and fair election where those currently in power have a fair chance of losing.
- In a democracy, each adult citizen must have one vote and each vote must have one value
- A democratic government rules within limits set by constitutional law and citizens’ rights.
Arguments against democracy
- Leaders keep changing in a democracy. This leads to instability.
- Democracy is all about political competition and power play. There is no scope for morality.
- So many people have to be consulted in a democracy that it leads to delays.
- Elected leaders do not know the best interest of the people. It leads to bad decisions.
- Democracy leads to corruption for it is based on electoral competition.
- Ordinary people don’t know what is good for them; they should not decide anything.
Arguments for democracy
- A democratic government is a better government because it is a more accountable form of government.
- Thus democracy improves the quality of decision-making.
- Democracy provides a method to deal with differences and conflicts.
- Democracy enhances the dignity of citizens.
- Democracy is better than other forms of government because it allows us to correct its own mistakes.
Key Elements of Democratic Government
- Through voting in elections people elect leaders to represent them. These representatives take decisions on behalf of the people. In doing so it is assumed that they will keep in mind the voices and interests of the people.
- All governments are elected for fixed periods. In India this period is five years. Once elected, governments can stay in power only for that period. If they want to continue to be in power then they have to be re-elected by the people. This is a moment when people can sense their power in a democracy. In this way the power of the government gets limited by regular elections.
Other ways of participating
- Elections are usually held once in five years. Besides voting there are other ways of participating in the process of government. People participate by taking an interest in the working of the government and by criticising it when required.
In August 2005, when a particular government increased the money people had to pay for electricity, people expressed their disapproval very sharply. They took out rallies and also organised a signature campaign. The government tried to explain and defend its decision but finally listened to the people’s opinion and withdrew the increase. The government had to change its decision because it is responsible to the people.
- There are many ways in which people express their views and make governments understand what actions they should take. These include dharnas, rallies, strikes, signature campaigns etc. Things that are unfair and unjust are also brought forward. Newspapers, magazines and TV also play a role in discussing government issues and responsibilities.
- While it is true that a democracy allows people to participate, it is also true that not all sections of people are actually able to do so. Another way for people to participate is by organising themselves into social movements that seek to challenge the government and its functioning. Members of the minority community, dalits, adivasis, women and others are often able to participate in this manner.
- If a country’s people are alert and interested in how the country is run, the democratic character of the government of that country will be stronger.
2. ‘Bhushan’s conviction is against international law’
- The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on Tuesday said civil rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan’s conviction for criminal contempt of court by the Supreme Court seemed to be inconsistent with the freedom of expression law guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that India was a party to.
- In a statement, the ICJ, an international human rights organisation comprising judges and lawyers, said it joined 1,800 Indian lawyers in calling for the Supreme Court to review the standards of criminal contempt.
- “While the Court only imposed a symbolic fine of one rupee, rather than imprisonment, the ICJ considers that the conviction appears to be inconsistent with international standards on freedom of expression and the role of lawyers”, said the statement, adding that the judgment risked having a “chilling effect on the exercise of protected freedom of expression in India”.
- “While some restrictions of freedom of expression are permitted by international standards, a particularly wide scope must be preserved for debate and discussion about such matters as the role of the judiciary, access to justice, and democracy, by members of the public, including through public commentary on the courts”, it stated.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) is an international human rights non-governmental organization. It is a standing group of 60 eminent jurists—including senior judges, attorneys and academics—who work to develop national and international human rights standards through the law. Commissioners are known for their experience, knowledge and fundamental commitment to human rights. The composition of the Commission aims to reflect the geographical diversity of the world and its many legal systems.
The Commission is supported by an International Secretariat based in Geneva, Switzerland, and staffed by lawyers drawn from a wide range of jurisdictions and legal traditions. The Secretariat and the Commission undertake advocacy and policy work aimed at strengthening the role of lawyers and judges in protecting and promoting human rights and the rule of law.