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Democracy In India: We Bought It, Now Who”s Going To Run It?

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By Uzair Belgami:

The landmass in the South of Asia which of late is being called India, currently is home to a huge number of human beings who have been informed that they reside in a democratic state. Of late, in some parts of this landmass, people have been collecting in large numbers, punching fists in the air, shouting at each other, some lighting fires and eventually even marking themselves with tattoos on their fingernails. I am talking about elections.


In specific, I refer to the recent elections conducted across a few North Indian states which have deservedly received a lot of attention. Though there are still a large numbers of youth in our country who are too “cool” to discuss stuff like ‘politics’ — it is heartening to see the attention which these elections have been subjected to by many students and youth, especially in the relatively lesser politically conscious student community of South India to which I presently belong. However in my opinion, though developing a political understanding is important and it is imperative that us youth partake in discussions on politics – I think it is also important (and unfortunately woefully lacking) that we develop a philosophical understanding of ‘the political’ and engage in discussions, not only on politics, but on the deeper subjects that underlie the political structure. For us to grow as individuals and as a society, perhaps it is not enough that we analyse and make a critique of the manifestos of the AAP or the BJP, but also engage with and make a critique of the very ideas of ‘democracy’ and the system of elections in the country.

It seems the British left us with more than just cricket and telephone lines: they also gave birth to the English-speaking middle class. It is more or less to these English speaking, western educated Indians that we can attribute the introduction of the terms ‘democratic’ and ‘secular’ in the Indian Constitution and imagination.

Plato could not be more wise when he said “If you wish to speak to me, you must define your terms” and hence it is imperative that we try and understand what the term ‘democracy’ mean.

I would like to be more specific and use the term “liberal democracy” when referring to the form of governance in India (as opposed to ‘radical’ democracy mooted by socialists, or ‘direct’ democracy as envisaged by anarchists). Liberal democracy is a “form of democracy that incorporates both limited government and a system of regular and competitive elections.” (1)

Democracy, the hallowed and eternal ideal, which is supposed to be the saviour and epitome of human advancement according to “end of history” theorists — seems like a mighty fine concept. After all, in primary school language: the “people” get to decide what the “people” want. (What better system could there be?)

I would like to pose a few comments on ‘democracy’, in particular Indian democracy, by raising two major questions from the lovely statement above: Is it the people who really decide? And, do the people know what the people want?

In practice, as we know, those political systems we call democracies give their citizens only a very limited role in government. They are entitled to vote at periodic elections, they are occasionally consulted through a referendum when some major constitutional question has to be decided, and are allowed to form groups to lobby their representatives… but that is the extent of their authority. Real power to determine the future of democratic societies lies in the hands of a remarkably small number of people…” (2) This brief appraisal sums up the first big critique of present day democratic government in India very well. Are periodic elections and (at times) the right to protest/lobby the complete manifestation of democracy?

The great political philosopher Rousseau thinks otherwise, and I shall borrow his words to respond to the question: “The people of England (read India) deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of Parliament: for as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing. And thus, by the use they make of their brief moments of liberty, they deserve to lose it.” And hence the question: How, if possible, to rescue democracy from the hands of the few ‘elected’ representatives and hand ‘power’ back to the Indian people?

The second question poses an inter-related critique. As I so often tend to do, I shall make way to a voice wiser than mine and allow Will Durant to articulate the famous critique on democracy made by the Greek philosopher Plato: “But even democracy ruins itself by excess — of democracy. Its basic principle is the right of all to hold office and determine public policy. This is at first a delightful arrangement; it becomes disastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses… Mob rule is a rough sea for the ship of state to ride; every wind of oratory stirs up the waters and deflects the course.” (3)

In my opinion, this is reflected quite aptly in the Indian state. We are all well aware of the ever present money-food-TVs-favours for votes that is a common sight before any election process. Are people of this country – the people of the vast dusty plains of India, not just the few elite and middle class of the metropolitan cities (though this is no way means to say one is better than the other) — capable intellectually, emotionally, morally of knowing who represents their aspirations best and who shall promulgate the wisest courses for the country? Is this question itself one that reeks of ‘aristocracy’ and ‘class-ism’ or one that accepts harsh realities? How to ensure citizens are educated (don’t read ‘schooled’) and capable of being active parts of the government and forming wise opinions in their best interest?

And hence, in the absence of education (again, not necessarily just ‘schooling’), active participation in state affairs and political awareness among the public — does not democracy become just another oligarchy, a sham of what it was meant to be? I believe that it is necessary that we as youth in India need to engage with such questions and hold them as important as the discussions we have on political parties and their strategies (or lack of strategies). We need to re-imagine and even challenge democracy — for us to have more democratic and just society.

Democracy in India, it seems, needs to be run, not just bought.

(1) Andrew Heywood, “Political Ideologies”
(2) David Miller, “Political Philosophy”
(3) Will Durant, “The Story of Philosophy”

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