We are so accustomed to the term “democracy” that we rarely stop to think and ask – what exactly do we mean by the term? For a layperson in India, going to the polling booth and exercising their right to vote every once in a while is what signifies democracy.
There are thousands of books in the market explaining the definition and the real meaning of democracy. Most of them agree that irrespective of all its flaws, democracy is worth aspiring for and is the greatest of political values. And why not? Democracy as a political value cares for the individual.
But there lies a simple catch which often plays out in a country like India. Democracy, while catering for individuals, empowers the collective – and in doing so, creates a lesser collective which, in turn, remains less powerful than the stronger one. This binary of majority/minority is something present in each and every society of the world.
However, there are only some who bother to cater to these lesser collectives or the minority. They do this by forming certain mechanisms which in India’s case is the Constitution where minorities and oppressed groups have been ensured equal rights.
Now, after painting this rosy picture, one thing which must be laid out is that this tussle between majority and minority often manifests as a tussle between democracy and the Constitution. India is not an exception. People exercise their democratic rights to choose democratic governments. Nevertheless, both the chooser and the chosen barely bother about the Constitution and the rights ensured by it to the people who form the lesser collective.
Scholar Ayesha Jalal has called this electoral democracy as compared to the substantive democracy which comes with hordes of rights and guarantees to ensure it. First, these states lack the tools and resources to provide substantive democracy to their population. Secondly, the society of these states are mostly undemocratic and feudal in character.
Here, democracy as a political value and democracy as a value in general has been distinguished. Contrary to popular belief, democracy has never been the part of Indian polity as such; at best, it has been soft authoritarianism under Ashoka or Akbar but never a democracy. Our family system and societal and community values at large have also been more authoritarian in nature. So, democratic values have never been part of our lives or upbringing as such, which, in turn, has culled our enthusiasm for political values like freedom of speech/expression or privacy, as well as personal values like the right to choose our life partners or the right to love or eat what we like.
This contempt for democratic values did not go away after independence and the establishment of political democracy. Our education system and schools have ensured that social sciences get the step-motherly treatment as they do and students rote-learn about Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Constitution and the independence movement. Hence, they have never learnt to feel the text.
This detachment from the text, combined with our authoritarian pedagogical style and the authoritarian upbringing at home, makes sure that we don’t experience anything slightly democratic first hand. So, when we come across citizens who don’t even have a vague idea of their own country’s Constitution and yet vouches for it, we shouldn’t be surprised. As Karl Popper said, individual egotism is often substituted by collective egotism and not altruism.
I am hardly surprised when I come across people who openly admire China for its authoritarian values and credit these values for its rise in power and stupendous development in such a short span of time. China’s contempt for minority rights or individual rights in general is seen as an ideal template to be copied for what it has been able to achieve.
After spending a nice four-and-a-half months as an exchange student in one of the provinces of China, I was nothing but impressed by the sheer enormity and velocity by which China has developed and was still developing. It made me think a lot on development, individual rights and democracy.
On a micro level, I was feeling much safer when I walked on the Chinese street than I feel on the Indian street at 10 o’clock at night. Also, from an Indian vantage point, I found Chinese streets to be much more developed, gender friendly and safe. With all due respect to China, I felt really disturbed for India. If the state fails in all its basic duties (in which I think safety of life should be the primary one), then what exactly it is for?
We have democratically elected leaders who openly denounce women walking out of their homes after a certain time in certain clothes and going to certain places. It is highly disturbing because these leaders are doing nothing but resonating what the society at large thinks. They often get away with that for obvious reasons. In such a scenario, this fantasy for political authoritarianism to compliment the extant social authoritarianism doesn’t seem alien.
So, instead of aspiring for a society as democratic as the polity, the average citizen aspires for an authoritarian polity complimenting the authoritarian society. And unfortunately, China is increasingly becoming able to provide this alternative to the world and to its neighbour India. In India, people hate China for its anti-Indian activities while still showing a great respect for its authoritarian values.
People do aspire for personal safety, freedom to love or eat what they like but we don’t have to trade off our political values like freedom of speech/expression and privacy or such individual rights to get those other basic rights. We can aspire for both. Ultimately, this is what democracy is about.