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.
Structural flaws in Democracy form of government:
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.
Example: 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 short of a hundred years. Universal adult franchise itself is yet to hit the 100-year mark in the most advanced nations.
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.
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.
What are the key drawbacks of democracy?
- A democratic government with a majority, especially a large one, can become as authoritarian as a dictatorial one.
- The problem with a majoritarian democracy is that it is not designed to find solutions for complex problems with many points of view.
- It can deny minorities their rights for their views to be considered while framing laws and resolving contentious issues.
- Those dissatisfied with the governments’ decisions go to courts wherever courts are independent, like in India.
- However, courts are not set up to find policy solutions to complex problems and must interpret the laws as written.
- In India, there is a concern that courts are venturing into matters of governance that they should not.
- However, this is a key indicator for the fact that something is missing in India’s democracy.
- Referendums too at times turn out to be ineffective as a small majority determines how all must go.
Rising Inequalities related to present democratic substance: 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:
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.
Regime of democracy being transforming:
- 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.
- Since independence, India has managed to stay on the democratic path in a way unprecedented among states freed from colonialism during the last century.
- The makers of our Constitution designed the institutions of our democracy with great care and attention to detail.
- They were designed to endure and it was expected that these institutions will strengthen the democracy in India.
At a time when politics almost everywhere is leaning dangerously towards a centralised, authoritarian, national security state with a strong leader committed to the ideology of cultural nationalism, the values and ideas of democracy provided by early leaders becomes important.
The values and democratic principles embraced by them are relevant not yesterday or today but forever.