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Insights into Editorial: Seeing dystopia in India’s democracy


Introduction: United Nation’s International Day of Democracy:

  1. The International Day of Democracy provides an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world.
  2. Democracy is as much a process as a goal, and only with the full participation of and support by the international community, national governing bodies, civil society and individuals, can the ideal of democracy be made into a reality to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.
  3. The values of freedom, respect for human rights and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage are essential elements of democracy.
  4. In turn, democracy provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights.
  5. These values are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and further developed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties underpinning meaningful democracies.
  6. The link between democracy and human rights is captured in article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  7. The rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and subsequent human rights instruments covering group rights (e.g. indigenous peoples, minorities, people with disabilities) are equally essential for democracy as they ensure an equitable distribution of wealth, and equality and equity in respect of access to civil and political rights.


Indian Democracy status: A partial evaluation:

  1. Formally, India is a democracy alright. There are multi-party elections with universal suffrage subject only to an age restriction.
  2. In evaluations of democracy in India it is often observed, to its credit, that it is the world’s largest democracy.
  3. Further plaudits are given for the smooth changeover in government after elections, the existence of an independent press and judiciary, and the guarantee of civil liberties justiciable in courts of law.
  4. While these are valid observations, the assessment is based on a partial evaluation.
  5. To an extent it amounts to admiring a form of government for its own sake without concern for the socioeconomic outcomes that are produced.
  6. It is like admiring the architecture of a building without pausing to enquire whether its inhabitants are happy to be living in it.


Democratic Institutions need to be built by the people:

  1. Two leaders who had recognized this criterion in their engagements with the public were Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.
  2. Nehru was explicit in his speech on August 15, 1947 when he stated that the goal of independence was to create institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.
  3. Ultimately, the institutions that enable persons to lead fulfilling lives are built by the people themselves.
  4. Three examples from the United States:
    1. In the 1960s, that country saw movements for black empowerment, women’s emancipation and sexual liberation.
    2. These movements were remarkably successful in the outcomes they achieved, while receiving no support from the U.S. state.
    3. This is the sense in which it may be said that it is the people who build the institutions that matter.
    4. However, the state has a role in their building. Laws must not constrain liberty when it is self-affirming and must change when it is realised that they do.


Level of Human Development in a democratic country:

  1. The role of the state extends to the endowment of individuals with capabilities in the sense of Amartya Sen.
  2. Sen had thought of capabilities as the endowments that allow individuals to undertake the functioning’s, or do the things, that they value.
  3. We can think of a person’s health and education as among the most important inputs into the capabilities that they end up possessing.
  4. For Instance, think of a person born into poverty or a woman born into wealth but into a world with social sanction against education for women.
  5. Similarly, historically, the caste system in India had excluded a large section from education.
  6. While private initiative should not be de-legitimised, it has had only a limited impact on building capabilities in India as it has focused on those with the ability to pay.
  7. In a move to measure the capabilities of a population, the UN devised the Human Development Index. The main elements of this are health and education.
  8. As with the UN’s Happiness Index, India fares very poorly in the UN’s Human Development Index too.
  9. Pointing to the incongruence between India’s low level of human development and its status as a democracy evokes the response that this is to see the latter in instrumental terms.
  10. The answer to this deflection is that democracy may be a form of government but surely the people have come to adopt this particular form of government with a goal in mind.


Way Forward:

We need to see the democratic enterprise in India as an open-ended journey.

The formal journey began as a joint enterprise: building a self-reliant and self-governing nation, alongside the building of democratic institutions for the new nation.

Alternatively, democracy featured as an impediment, as a road block necessitating consultations, procedures, and consensus-building, all resulting in slowdowns that could ignite pre-existing faultlines and lead to explosions.

The United Nations has declared September 15 ‘International Day of Democracy’.

An entry on its website states that this “provides an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world”.

But to review the state of democracy in India we would need to adopt a suitable criteria.



In a democracy the people must be satisfied with their life is given very little thought these days.

Democracy it is asserted is a form of government, namely government by discussion.

Authoritarianism is not compatible with a life, only democracy, which at least in principle grants individuals a voice in governance.

People adopt democracy so that they can participate in their own governance. They cannot but have foreseen that they must be endowed with capabilities if this is to be possible at all.

Thus, liberty and capability are conjoined as the ultimate aspiration in a democracy.